Home > Shifting schooling > Drawing pictures to shift thinking

Drawing pictures to shift thinking

February 24th, 2009

When I’m trying to understand something in a new way, or trying to communicate my ideas to other people, I often start by drawing a picture. In my experience, visual metaphors are great for generating discussion, and they can enable us to take our thinking in interesting and unexpected new directions. Below is a metaphor I’ve created to represent ideas about “shifting thinking” in education from the 20th century to the 21st century.
ship metaphor

The boat represents the education system, which is sailing from left to right – that is, from the 19th and 20th century, into the 21st century and beyond.
What moves the boat along? Well, this boat is special because it has several methods for propulsion. (However, as we shall see, this doesn’t necessarily help the boat to move more efficiently! In fact, it can have the opposite effect). These are:
The wind –what we might call the influences of “the 21st century world”. For example, all the shifts in society, economy, new technologies, and so on, that inevitably influence the direction our education system is sailing.
The propeller – Educational policy, which can also propel us towards change – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes with the wind, and perhaps at times, in the wrong directions (or even backwards!).
The oars – These are the influences of the people “on board” the system. This could include teachers and school leaders, as well as students, parents, and society at large – in other words anyone who has an opinion and a voice about how education “should” be. As you can imagine, we might have people rowing in different directions, or “putting the oar in” to steer the boat to port or to starboard, or to create drag to resist the efforts of the winds and the motor…

There are two other significant things in the picture: the anchors, and the buoys.

The anchors are meant to represent certain ideas about the education system that we’ve inherited from the past – again in this metaphor they show up as something that is maybe creating “drag” on our boat, keeping it from moving in spite of the wind and the motors which are trying to push us forward. One example of such an idea is that education is most efficient as a “one size fits all” system, much like a factory or production line.

Out in front of the boat we’ve got our buoys, representing aspirations for the future of education. These represent the goals and ideals that are often articulated about what kind of education we think matters, and what kinds of young people we want our education system to help shape. For example: “developing lifelong learners”, “developing active citizens”, “developing learners equipped to deal with the challenges of the 21st century”, and so on. So we’re tossing a line to these buoys to help pull our ship in a bit closer.

The question this visual metaphor is designed to provoke is: how is the ship going to move towards these aspirations? Do we need to cut our anchor lines in order to get there? If we do, what would happen? Would the wind, the motor, and the oarsmen and oarswomen start to carry us in the right direction, or will we end up travelling in confused circles?

Maybe the answer is that we people on the ship – all the oarsmen and women, and the policymakers – need to get up on deck with our telescopes, barometers, and other navigational equipment. We need to study the winds carefully, and plot our course intentionally. We need to pull up our anchors and see whether they are holding us back, whether it’s time to cut some of them loose. Then maybe can start to agree what direction this boat should be moving in, and actually start to head it towards our goals…..

What do you think?

Shifting schooling , , ,

  1. user
    | #1

    very interesting

  2. | #2

    Thanks for these comments Sarah! I wonder if it’s possible for us to plug in some kind of tool within shiftingthinking – like a sketchpad – that people could use to draw their thoughts and responses as comments? (Admin – can you check it out??)
    You’ve really summed up nicely why I enjoy working with visual metaphors. And even if no-one else ever commented on them, I find they help me to externalise certain ideas in a way that I can reflect on and critique myself! For example, the whole idea of “shifting”, “moving” or “forward progress” that is inherent in the ship metaphor. And the very culturally-laden choice of a European-looking sailing ship (albeit hybridised with a Viking longboat!). Do these indicate particular cultural perspectives and assumptions about education and change that we ought to talk about?
    Jen raises an interesting point – do we need to pull up all the anchors or are there some worth retaining? Lately I’ve been reading around in the ecojustice literature, and thinking more and more about the tendency of educational theorists to talk in terms of change, progress, even transformation and emancipation from the past. The ecojustice literature suggests that these ways of thinking (and the kinds of language we use) might be at odds with other ways of thinking, for example, about what intergenerational and different cultural knowledges can teach us about learning, education, development, community, and so forth. In 2008 NZCER held a conference called “Making progress, measuring progress” in which Jane Gilbert, Garrick Cooper, Margaret Carr and others presented some interesting arguments to challenge our ideas about “progress” and the assumptions that underlie those ideas.

  3. Sarah B
    | #3

    The comments above show why using visual metaphors work as a powerful tool for constructive thinking, so that individuals can create relevant meaning from the ideas conveyed in the images presented.
    The difference between image and text is determined by use. Instead of just presenting an idea within a written text, to be absorbed by the reader, visual metaphors are a platform for dynamic discussions. This is because images have to be responded to, to have meaning, as they are mediating agents between us and reality.
    Both David and Jen have interpreted the signs conveyed in Rachel’s image using their own perspective, adding another layer of meaning and value to the image, in contributing to the discussion the image has activated.
    I think using visual metaphors is a great way to engage people in an active discussion on “shifting thinking” in education into the 21st century, and hopefully will encourage people to also consider using their own visual metaphors to convey their own responses and thoughts on this issue.

  4. Rachel
    | #4

    We’ve definitely used the idea of collaborative visual metaphor with teacher groups – I can think of one school in particular where we asked staff in small groups to draw metaphors about their school’s vision for learning. The stuff that emerged from the groups was great! We did take some pics but would need to get permission from the school to share these on shiftingthinking.org. Perhaps in the near future…??

  5. Jen Moore
    | #5

    Have you asked those “on board” to create their own visual metaphors for 21st Century learning? If so, could you please upload some of their pictures? It might be worth checking out Visual Methodologies by Gillian Rose. Also, are there any anchors (principles from the past) which are worth retaining or should all anchors be pulled up?
    Jen SH Moore

  6. | #6

    What about the ships wheel being the hub for those who possess greater vision or influence and as a result have a greater part to play in the direction of the ship? Most open source or community projects are still managed, even if it is to steer in the best direction to take full advantage of the influences you mention.

  1. | #1
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