Category Archives: Education

No back row, no corridor: Metaphors for online teaching and learning


Publication note

An earlier version of this was published in the Oxford Magazine No 422.  This post expands certain sections based on questions and feedback I received following the first publication of the piece. It is also available on Medium.

The state of digital dislocation

The current state of digital dislocation is forcing us to reevaluate what is the essence of teaching and learning. The “grammar of schooling” [1] has been taken away from us and we are forced to learn a new dialect by immersion with just a few phrasebooks, hastily pulled off the shelf, to guide us. Digital teaching is still teaching but it is teaching with an accent, one where we’re still trying to acquire enough fluency and idiomaticity to feel completely at home. When we add to it the culture shock of being in a new situation without any of the familiar cues, sights, sounds and smells of our native environment, it is not surprising that many people are feeling stressed and long for a swift return to “normal”. But it is also no surprise that many others are examining the current situation and finding the new land to be one of endless opportunity and thinking of establishing a permanent residence or at least buying a holiday home.

At one extreme, we are hearing voices calling online learning “clearly inferior,” lacking the essential personal contact that defines the University experience and asking whether the cost, expressed in fees, is too high. At the other pole, we hear “online teaching is clearly better,” doing away with all the distractions and deadweight of spaces, commutes and providing the focus so essential to learning. The same person can find themselves taking either position depending on the stage of culture shock they are living through at the moment. Both of these perspectives were reflected in an eloquent summary by Ray Williamson from the Oxford Student Union in a recent issue of the Oxford Magazine.[2] Here, I’d like to elaborate on what is at stake and look at ways of conceptualising the different perspectives.

Making sense of digital with affordance metaphors

I suggest that the two divergent views can best be reconciled when we contrast the affordances of the physical and virtual environments in which teaching and learning take place. By affordances I mean those features of the environment that present themselves to us for direct action and interaction and thus make the world around us meaningful and define what it means to live in the space we’re in. Affordance is a concept fundamental to design thinking and interaction and ignoring them is the most frequent cause of failure both in digital and physical products. [3]

The best way I found to bring the contrast between the physical and the virtual into focus are two metaphors that can be summarised as “No back row” and “No corridor”.

“No back row”

“No back row” expresses mostly the potential of the online experience to be positive for learning: the digital space is the great equaliser, no student is left hiding in the dark corner of the room, everybody’s contribution is coming from the front. This leads to higher engagement with the study material, and better learning. It is so powerful that the American online course provider 2U trademarked the slogan as part of their corporate philosophy [4]. Of course, just because it has the potential to be beneficial for learning, it doesn’t mean that we can just put the same course online and get its benefits. We have to design the online courses to take advantage of this. Nor should we be mislead by the visual metaphor of the Zoom call that 2U use on their corporate page. This applies to an entirely forum-based course, as well. The very fact that they have to engage with the content may put additional demands and stresses on students that will require support. This is in addition to the issues that are captured by the ‘no corridor’ metaphor.

“No corridor”

“No corridor” reflects the largely negative aspects of the virtual when contrasted with face to face. It reflects the lack of physical and social space connecting the learning situations. There are no natural landmarks to guide us, no flow of the crowd to follow. Everything has to be scheduled, bookmarked or emailed. There is little serendipity and no feeling of just “being there”. This makes it easy for a student to disappear and find themselves in “no row” at all. The physical space is doing a lot of work that is beyond the conscious notice of educators and programme administrators and allows them to be less specific in their instructions and leave things to ‘work themselves’ out without realising it. Their planning may be meticulous and painstaking but it is always framed by what the space affords them when it is filled with students, signs, and other signals that may feel almost subliminal. This can be easily seen when we compare the instructions students receive before arrival (what to bring, where to come, what to expect) and when they arrive which may be as little as a time table followed by ad-hoc announcements. And this comparison may gives clues to some aspects of mitigating the downsides of ‘no corridor’.

Affordances of the physical vs virtual


Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Luckily, we can mitigate the downsides of the virtual and amplify its benefits, if we pay careful attention to the affordances of the physical. There are successful ways of making up for the lack of the corridor’s hidden contribution to the learning process but we must avoid taking the normal environment in which learning takes place for granted. We rightly focus on personal relationships as essential to learning but as we saw above it is easy to underestimate the power of the spaces in which they are situated.

In the physical space, it is much easier to just follow the flow of the environment and learn, without realising it, by reflecting others’ reactions to it. There are spaces laid out so obviously that our use of them passes completely beneath any level of conscious notice. We do not need to deliberate on how to open doors, sit facing the speaker, not to sit in a seat already occupied. And where there are issues (locked doors, missing markers, drilling outside the window), we have established scripts for coping and frames for interpreting them.

None of these features are present in the virtual environment. Every action (at least initially), requires the effort of directed attention. We need to learn the “interfaces” of Zoom, establish routines of where to ‘find the link to join’, keep track of bookmarks for the learning materials, and manage actual time for virtual events and assignment deadlines. All of this virtual effort is taking place in an actual physical environment where we are the only person engaging in the activity. What’s worse, when we study or teach virtually, we do not appear to the world around us any different from when we idly browse the web or are binge-watching a TV show. We then have to negotiate with that environment and people in it in ways that travelling to ‘school’ or the ‘library’ does for us without any words having to be exchanged other than ‘I’m going to class’.

It’s no wonder many are finding themselves more stressed, tired and downright disoriented. But equally, to no one’s surprise, there are many who are thriving without the extra burden of the physical space which they may have found too overwhelming, full of distractions and uncertainties. We know that not all students cherish the demands of the physical spaces into which attending a university thrusts them; those who only feel comfortable huddled in the back row or for whom passage through the corridor is an exercise fraught with anxiety. Universities have ample built-in support structures and processes (albeit imperfect) for the latter but none for the former.

For a successful online learning experience

Yet, we know that it is possible to build a sense of “being there” in fully virtual environments and it is also possible to establish durable personal support relationships. This was possible even before the rise of Zoom or Teams as the success of Open University can attest but now it is even more within reach. Perhaps the most powerful indications of this are coming from the successes of telemedicine and even online psychotherapy. Many patients are finding that their one-on-one experience with a therapist is enhanced without the stressful overhead of travel, sitting in waiting rooms, walking through crowds, etc. [6]

Telemedicine also shows the way when we think about the heterogeneity of needs and inclinations. It is clearly not always appropriate to conduct therapeutic interventions over Skype but it is sufficient or even superior in more instances than may have been thought before the current situation made them a necessity. Do we think that education is radically different, here?

What does a University have to do to make the most of the benefits of ‘no back row’ and minimise the downsides of ‘no corridor’? What does the individual educator? The solutions are surprisingly simple and non-technical. Above all, we need to realise how much we can leave unsaid because the physical environment says it for us and then make it explicit in the virtual setting. We need to communicate more clearly and more frequently. We need to design the virtual learning spaces to minimize unnecessary cognitive load, structure information better, pay attention to navigation and consistency. We need to constantly fine-tune the balance between information overload and not enough information. We need to build structures that support the students who are struggling with the technological as well as personal aspects of learning.

New roles for the relationship business

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

But ultimately and most importantly, we need to realise that educational institutions are not in the information business, they are in the relationship business (to borrow a metaphor from the media critic Jeff Jarvis [5]). It is easy to deploy an army of learning technologists and media production specialists, and think we’ve done virtual teaching justice. But online teaching requires other support roles and activities than just those leading to the deployment of “tech”.

There need to be roles whose main job it is to make sure students are opening the right virtual doors and sitting facing the right way in the virtual learning spaces. There need to be roles that pay attention to the real physical spaces and social situations on the other side of the Zoom call. When students are on campus, so much of this is done for us by the affordances of the space built up over centuries and so ingrained into our conceptual and perceptual systems that interacting with them feels to be a matter of instinct.

When all we have is emails, forum posts, webcams and the screen, we need to put in additional work to make up for this. Over time, it will come to seem as natural as what we have now but not without the initial effort. For instance, it is not anyone’s job to explicitly make sure students socialise with others in the physical environment. We don’t ask students if they “went out for a drink” with others when they’re on campus, but perhaps, it needs to be somebody’s job in the virtual situation. [7]

Sources of learning

Luckily, we have ample models of successful practice to draw on. The Open University is one such, Oxford’s own Continuing Education department is another. Private online education providers such as GetSmarter / 2U, who provided the first part of the metaphor, are others.

As far back as 2009 before Zoom or video conferencing, I taught a module on language and education in a physical setting followed a year later by a similar module in a fully online course for teachers. I was struck, when reading the final essays, how much more the online students seem to have engaged with the subject.

In the physical space, I had a feeling of engagement during my seminars with the students. But the ‘feedback’ I was getting from them hid the relative shallowness and unevenness of their engagement. I never saw the online students in person, so I had to design the course to get this feedback in other ways and I could easily see where all individual students were and guide them back in the right direction if they seemed to be floundering. It was more work for me and them but the learning gains were there to see.

The lessons of this anecdote are supported by research evidence and by experiences of educators the world over [8]. We do not need to provide inferior experiences to students just because they are not in the same room as us.

Eventually the world of university teaching and learning will return to “normal” but we should be mindful that culture shock happens on returning home, as well.[9] We can take advantage of what we learned during this forced sojourn in digital lands to develop a more robust bi-cultural approach to teaching by blending the best of both worlds.


[1] Tyack, D.B. and Cuban, L., 1995. Tinkering toward utopia: a century of public school reform. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass ; London.

[2] Williams, R. 2020. “Students and remote learning” Oxford Magazine, 421, Trinity.

[3] Norman, D.A., 2013. The design of everyday things. Basic books, New York, N.Y.

[4] No Back Row | 2U [WWW Document], n.d. URL (accessed 6.8.20).

[5] Jarvis, J., 2012. What the media can learn from Facebook. The Guardian, 15 February 2012, sec. Media Network.

[6] These two recent pieces summarise the pros and cons of mental and physical health interventions and point to relevant research.

Joyce, N., 2020. Online therapy having its moment, bringing insights on how to expand mental health services going forward [WWW Document]. The Conversation. URL (accessed 6.8.20).

Novella, S. 2020. It’s Time for Telehealth. NeuroLogica Blog. URL (accessed 6.8.20).

[7] Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., 2018. An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning 22.

[8] The following systematic reviews show that online higher education is at least as effective as offline education when it comes to learning outcomes.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., Jones, K., 2009. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, US Department of Education. US Department of Education.

Nguyen, T., 2015. The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant Difference and Future Horizons 11, 11.

Pei, L., Wu, H., 2019. Does online learning work better than offline learning in undergraduate medical education? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Med Educ Online 24.

[9] Gaw, K.F., 2000. Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 24, 83–104.

How to actually write a sentence: The building blocks of written language


Some time ago, Thomas Basbøll followed up his excellent post on how to write a paragraph with a much more daring endeavour on how to write a sentence. And while the post is a pleasure to read, I think it did not quite overcome the challenge the author stated at the start:

“it is substantially more difficult to explain what one does when one writes a sentence than it is to explain what one does when one composes a paragraph.”

Indeed, it is much more difficult to talk about the mechanics of writing the sentence because we generally want to forget we are composing a sentence, whereas we want to focus on the fact we are composing a paragraph. In this, writing a sentence is much like riding a bicycle. You cannot really do it successfully while attending to every aspect of the process. Basbøll’s metaphor here is very apt:

“it’s easier to give you directions to City Hall than to explain how your legs work. Sentences, we might say, are to paragraphs as taking a step is to going somewhere. It’s only once we pay attention to it that we realize how subtle and how stylish such a simple thing can be.”

The problem with his solution, though, is that it only focused on the role of the sentence in the process of expressing ideas rather than the mechanics of putting a sentence together. This is because a sentence is an artificial construct. We think of it as a natural unit but, in fact, it is only an accident of history that we’ve started dividing chunks of text with full stops and beginning them with capital letters.

The sentence is just one way of articulating a thought. It could be a list. A phrase. Or a whole stream-of-consiousness story. But through conventions, we think of all of these as inferior kinds of writing. Expressing ourselves ‘in complete sentences’ has been agreed to be the hallmark of educated expression. And whether we agree with it or not, sentence is what we’re stuck with.

What is a sentence?

There is much debate in linguistics as to what is the foundational building block of language. It could be a phoneme (sound), syllable (much more natural in speech), word (unit of meaning), utterance or text (one chunk of speech with a message). It could also be a phrase. But by far the best candidate is a clause – a unit with one predicate and one subject – even if it is not always easy to define exactly what predicates and subjects are. But whatever the basic building block of language may be, sentence is definitely not it. It’s not even a unit in conversational speech but despite its visual significance, it is not really the basic building block of written language either.

This is because the boundaries of a sentence are completely arbitrary. They are simply there for the convenience of visual processing. The preceding 2 sentences could just as easily have been one. And many people would insist that they would be better as one and then argue over the proper rules of punctuation.

The real problem, and the one Basbøll is actually writing about, is how to express one’s thoughts through writing in a way that generates mental representations in the mind of the reader that are as close as possible to those of the writer. He illustrates it nicely with a quote from Orwell:

“As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, a great deal of bad writing comes out of stringing words and phrases together that are completely unrelated to any pictures that might form in any human being’s head.”

There is something in this. We might argue that at least what is written represents what is in the writer’s head. But often our written words are just an echo of what was in one’s mind rather than a rendering of a mental image. Who has not had the experience of reading something they have written and not being completely certain what they meant by it?

So, making sure you build the right image in the reader’s mind with your words is excellect advice. But where Orwell, Basbøll’s essay and many others come up short is in explaining how to go about stringing those words together in just the right way so that they can trigger the right image in the reader’s mind. In this post, I’d like to suggest some ways in which we actually may go about learning to write a sentence to achieve this aim.

Dual articulation, riding the bike and Krashen’s monitor

But before we go any further, let’s look a bit more closely at the nature of the difficulty identified by Basbøll. That is: What we really want is to express ideas, not craft sentences. We want to go effortlessly from idea to sentence or better still from idea to paragraph. But we have to pass through many intermediate steps before we get there. Choosing words, calling up their spelling, deciding on their relative placement, whether we should add any endings, and then telling our fingers to type them. It’s even more complex in speech, where we have to arrange our mouths, tongues and teeth into complex configurations and coordinate all of that with the work of the lungs and the epiglottis.

In other words, before we can articulate a thought, we have to articulate a lot of other things. This has been called the ‘dual articulation’ of language. Dual articulation is one of the most underappreciated aspects of language. It is what makes non-native language learning so hard. And writing is certainly not native to any of us.

We spend a lot of time trying to learn all the rules of articulating words and sentences. But in order to successfully and fluently articulate ideas (which is what language is there for after all), we have to make the complex process of articulation of all the building blocks of language disappear. If we were to attend to all aspects of it, we would be permanently tongue-tied.

This is an experience that any learner of a foreign language has had when trying to use their newly acquired knowledge outside the classroom. Stephen Krashen has proposed the monitor hypothesis where the goal of language acquisition is to reduce the role of the grammatical monitor. In the same way that native speakers not only do not pay attention to how they put words and sentences together, learners must get rid of this additional burden. Speaking a language then is just like riding a bike. If you pay attention to all the tiny movements that are involved in peddaling while keeping balance, you fall off. But equally, if you miss any of them out, you fall off, as well.

So what are we, who want to teach others to write sentences, to do? On the one hand, we have to tell them about the principles of sentence structure that they were not able to suss out from their own reading. But on the other hand, we have to lead them to completely forget about all of them when they most matter and just write.

Writing as editing and editing as reading

Luckily, writing is not as ephemeral and fast flowing as speaking. We can always come back to a sentence we wrote and change it beyond all recognition. So, to teach somebody how to write is really teaching them how to edit. And a big part of teaching somebody how to edit, is to teach them about what to pay attention to when reading.

To be clear, a fluent writer can formulate a sentence without much need for further editing. But editing is a process through which such facility can be acquired. And even the most expert writers will need to come back and edit some of their sentences.

What does an editor pay attention to? They will tell you that they look at two things: 1. does the sentence make sense and 2. does it flow from the previous sentences and into those that follow. They will also look at more formal aspects such as spelling, undue repetition of words, stylistic appropriateness, etc. But 1 and 2 (sometimes also called coherence and cohesion) are the fundamental structural jobs a sentence has to perform.

How to craft a sentence

This finally brings us to the ultimate aim of this post. How to actually put a sentence together. This is, of course, impossible to cover in a single blog post. There are shelves in libraries around the world groaning under the weight of volumes that barely scratch the surface of all the aspects of a well-crafted sentence. Yet, people have managed to become competent or even admired writers despite all that. So, there must be way.

Learning to craft a sentence

It is important that aspiring writers think about the learning process as much as about the actual components of a sentence. And the process is very simple:

  1. When you read something, spend at least some of the time, looking at how it is put together. If this is not what you naturally do, set aside some time to do this as part of your reading.
  2. Form hypotheses about the rules the author used and then try them out yourself. It does not matter whether these hypotheses are correct ‘grammatical’ rules or even whether they look like grammatical rules. It just matters that you can do something with them.
  3. Leave what you wrote sit for a while and then come back to it. Read it again and see if it still makes sense. Then go back and look at how what you wrote differs from what you intended. And also compare this with other writing.
  4. Read things out loud or have them read to you (e.g. by text to speech). This will sometimes allow you to notice things about the text that you may skip over when reading silently.
  5. Do this a lot.

With that in mind, let’s finally have a look at some of the things you have to know about how to write a sentence.

Making a sentence make sense – Coherence

For a sentence to fulfil its ideational function, it has to make sense. This means that the sentence must not only contain the idea you want to express, it must not get in the way of that idea. When you’re editing your sentences to make sure they make sense, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it possible to read the sentence in other ways? Sometimes, when a sentence comes out of your head, you are blinded to its other possible meanings. Read it out loud, or ask your software to read it out loud for you.
  • Have you chosen the right words? This seems obvious but choosing the words that mean what you want to say is not a given.
  • Are the subjects of the clauses linked clearly to their verbs? Or, is it clear what the verbs in your sentence are describing? Conversely, is it clear what is happening to the nouns in your sentence? A simple test is to try to reduce the clauses in your sentence just to underlying verb and noun pair (or subject and predicate). Then keep adding the other words until the sentence is back together. If this sounds like old-fashioned parsing, it’s because it is. But sometimes it is necessary to strip your sentence bare and then slowly add only the necessary components back. Often it is the only way to make a sentence that got away from you make sense again.
  • Have you compressed too much into a single sentence? Can you expect that your readers have the same background and can take a hint?
  • Is it clear what the pronouns refer to? When you’re writing, your subject is very active in your head. So, it is very common to keep using pronouns or other vague words to refer to what you’re talking about. It is safer to use pronouns a bit more sparingly and repeat more often. While there’s a lot of research in this area, there is no one rule for how to do this right. But most of us were warned against repetition by our teachers, so a good rule of thumb is to repeat a bit more often than you feel comfortable.
  • Have you used the keywords in the right context? Sometimes words have multiple meanings and the one you are trying to express may not be the one most readers associate with it. Perhaps the best tool to help you here is a corpus. The iWeb corpus is a great tool for checking how words are used.

Making a sentence hold together – Cohesion

But even if your sentences make sense and use all the appropriate conventions, they still have to hold together and fit in with the rest of the text. This is often the easiest problem to overlook because you have an overall picture of the text in your mind, so it all flows perfectly in your head.

But your reader will have to build a picture of the text from scratch. And, also, they may not always read perfectly linearly, so even a sentence read out of context should make it clear where it relates to what came before.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re editing a sentence:

  • Have I made the right logical connections? If one thing is caused by another, is there a ‘because’ or a similar conjunction to make the link explicit?
  • Have I not put too much distance between closely related things? Long parentheticals can be fun but make it very easy for the reader (as well as the writer) to get lost.
  • Have I focused the reader on the right point? The topic (or known information) of a sentence is usually at the beginning and the focus (or new information) should come at the end.
  • Have I given the reader too much work to parse the sentence? If so, can I make it easier by splitting the sentence into shorter chunks?
  • Can I move some things to a later sentence?
  • Have I expressed a clear link to what came previously?
  • Have I placed the sentences in the right order? Don’t be afraid to move a sentence to the end to make sure the key information comes earlier.

A useful tool to use here is the Hemingway Editor. It will highlight sentences that are too long. Now, in many genres, such as academic writing, long sentences are not always a problem. They’re almost the expectation. But a sentence that goes on too long should be a signal to you, that you may not have expressed your idea clearly. I find that my long sentences are often just piles of ideas that need to be taken apart and given more air.

Making a sentence communicate what you want how you want it: Genre and style

Even if your sentence makes sense, your reader must be willing to try to read it. This means that you must meet as many of their expectations as possible so that they can focus on the meaning. You do this by conforming as closely as possible to the conventions of the genre you work within. If you do break these conventions, make sure you’re doing it for a reason.

If you’re writing an academic essay, stay within the [register] of academic language. This is where the various guides on academic English come in. They break down language into communicative functions like argumentation, persuasion or disagreement. And then they give you lots of appropriate phrases to achieve that function.

This is also where you need to do a lot of targetted reading in the area you want to write in. Don’t just read for content, read with an eye on the way people express themselves. Narrow your area as much as you can.

For example, there’s not just one ‘academic English’. Each little subdiscipline has its own conventions, so it’s worth paying attention to those. One piece of advice given is, before you submit a paper to a journal, read other papers that had already been published there. They will give you a clue as to the expectations. This applies at all levels, not just the sentence.

There are technical tools that can help you. For instance, you can paste your text to the Analyze tool on and check the words you used against a corpus of academic writing.

Writing and editing process tips

Finally, here are some tips about the process of writing and editing your text at the level of a sentence.

  • Don’t edit every sentence independently – only edit when you’ve written several of them to make sure they hang together.
  • Feel free to delete a sentence. Often, once we’ve written something, we feel possessive about it. But often, deleting something can be very helpful. Like pruning a tree.
  • Feel free to split a sentence in two or three. Sometimes, it will give you space to express yourself more clearly. But sometimes, it will just give your reader a visual cue that a new idea is coming. Or at least some space to take a breath.
  • By the same token, don’t be afraid to start or end a sentence with a preposition or a conjunction. It’s much better than twisting yourself around.
  • Don’t be too scared of long sentences. Sometimes, joining two shorter sentences together makes the text flow better.

Reflections and conclusions

The abiding concern of anyone telling somebody else how to write is whether they themselves measure up to what they preach. Or at least, it should be. We know that Orwell used more passives than average while advising against them, Strunk and White used many of the same constructions they advised against, and the Plain English campaign proponents don’t always use simple language.

Equally, I cannot guarantee that every sentence in this guide is a paragon of what a well-crafted sentence should be. I know my limits. I tend to write more than needed and not cut out enough having learned my English syntax at the feet of PG Wodehouse. But demonstrating perfection at the level of the sentence is not the point of this post, and neither should that be the aim of most writers. The aim is to get the point across and then to move on.

But the most important conclusion is that hesitant writers must pay attention to the learning process. It is not possible to explicitly follow all the tiny little rules for putting together a sentence. You must internalise the shapes and bigger chunks, so that you can focus on experessing your ideas. This can only be achieved through deliberate practice. And editing what you wrote is the most crucial part of that practice. Great writers have great editors, or if they’re poor, they’re their own great editors.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

5 books on knowledge and expertise: Reading list for exploring the role of knowledge and deliberate practice in the development of expert performance


Recently, I’ve been exploring the notion of explanation and understanding. I was (partly implicitly) relying on the notion of ‘mental representations’ as built through deliberate practice. My plan was to write next about how I think we can reconceptualize deliberate practice in such a way that it draws on a richer conception of ‘mental representations’. But that is turning out to be a much longer project.

Meanwhile, in a recent conversation about teaching practitioners, somebody mentioned reading Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ as being relevant to the problem and we discussed maybe starting a reading group. This got me thinking about what should such a reading group have on its reading list.

The literature on expertise is vast (just look at the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance). In my proposed reading list, I would focus on identifying different perspectives on how our mental representations of the world are structured, how we develop them (or how we can help others develop them), how we solve problems with them, and how they are embedded in the social environment in which we function.

1. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

Kahneman’s famous book is not really focused on experts but rather on the limitations of our thought – summarised under the heuristics and biases banner. But Kahneman’s notion of ‘System 1’ (fast) and ‘System 2’ (slow) thinking is directly relevant to the question of expertise. Expertise means that one can think about complex issues quickly but also that one can analyze that same issue with deliberate attention to detail. Exactly how this applies to the question of educating experts is a matter of discussion that I think the other books on my list can help elucidate.

2. Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise by Anders Ericsson with Robert Pool (2016)

In this book, Ericsson (helped by journalist Pool) provides an outline of a cognitive mechanism by which fast thinking is acquired without the sacrifice of deliberation in the concept of ‘delibrate practice’. I propose that the key to understanding deliberate practice is not the process of practice but rather on Ericsson’s rethinking of the target that the practice should help us achieve. According to Ercisson, what delibrate practice leads is not knowledge or skill but rather ‘mental representations’. Mental representations are best thought of as chunks of knowledge (frames, scripts, schemas, etc. – which makes this approach overlap with Kahneman and Tversky’s work even though Ericsson does not mention this). This allows experts to perform complex mental operations on very rich subject domains which would be beyond the computational powers of anyone’s pure raw intelligence. The best analogy is being able to play chess or speaking a language – this is impossible by simply knowing the rules – we need a rich complex of mental representations to compete at chess or to speak with any fluency.

3. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002)

Where Kahneman provides the framework and Ericsson the mechanism of acquisition, Fauconnier and Turner offer us a much more detailed description of the actual structure of ‘mental representation’ and how it is used during live processing of information. Building on work in cognitive linguistics and semantics, they develop the notion of ‘conceptual integration’ (or ‘blending’ as it’s more popularly referred to in the field) that explains how multiple ‘mental spaces’ or ‘domains’ can be merged seemingly without any conscious effort into new domains (blends) that we can then build further understanding on.

In this context, I’d also recommend reading the parts of Lakoff’s ‘Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things’ that describe what he then called ‘Idealized Cognitive Models’ and now calls ‘frames’. The book is quite vast and not all of it relevant to this question, which is why I wrote a guide to it.

4. Rethinking Expertise by Harry Collins and Robert Evans (2008)

What’s missing in all the works I’ve looked at so far is any awareness of the social embeddedness of expert performance. There is little discussion of types or levels of expertise and barely any mention of how experts interact with one another. In ‘Rethinking Expertise‘, Collins and Evans propose what they call a ‘periodic table of expertise’ (which happens to overlap quite nicely with my 5 types of understanding). They think not just about the specialist expert knowledge but also about what they call ‘ubiquitous expertise’ – all the underlying skills and knowledge required to even get started (such as languages, basic social skills, metacognition, etc.). Most importantly, they also pay attention to ‘meta-expertise’, i.e. how non-experts evaluate experts and experts judge other experts.

Their notion of expertise relies on the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ (later developed by Collins in a separate book) which is reminiscent of Ericsson’s ‘mental representations’ and echoes Kahneman, as well.

5. Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action by Donald A. Schön (1983)

While Schön’s book has had a profound impact in terms of citation and ways of thinking, I suggest that it has been largely under-appreciated for its depth of epistemological insight. Despite being more than 2 decades older than any of the other books on this list, it is very much still relevant. It considers the very nature of ‘practical knowledge’ as opposed to ‘academic knowledge’. Schön, more than any of the others thinks about the practical needs of a person needing to achieve practical tasks with their knowledge in a complex situation. He highlights the tensions between the technical preparation of experts that focuses on knowledge about a subject and the practical needs of a practitioner who needs to act in such a way that simply recalling information would not be sufficient. His concept of ‘reflection-in-action’ could be seen as a precursor or better still a companion to the notion of ‘deliberate practice’.

Schön followed this up with Educating The Reflective Practitioner which focuses on the practical question of structuring a training course. Another reason to include Schön on this list is that he focuses more directly on ‘professional’ expertise.

Bringing it all together

What these books have in common is an underlying conception of knowledge and its processing. But what they lack is almost any awareness of each other. This makes them add up to more than just the sum of their parts.

Kahneman mentions Ericsson in a footnote and Ericsson and Collins appear jointly in the Cambridge Handbook I mentioned at the start. But they largely travel in separate spheres. Bizarrely, none of them refers to Schön. And all of them are completely unaware of Fauconnier and Turner, who in turn ignore the work done outside their field of cognition (even though we can trace the lineage of their work on cognitive domains directly to Schön’s earlier work on metaphor).

All these approaches are clearly converging on the same thing but they don’t do it using the same terminology, methods or even a shared conceptual framework. Which is why reading just any one of them would probably not be enough to get at the full scope of the issues involved.

I’m not certain that this selection is the most representative of the field. It is certainly not exhaustive and it is definitely shaped by my idiosyncratic intellectual journey and personal interests. But my hope is that it does triangulate the problem domain in a way that a more narrowly focused selection would not.

Writing as translation and translation as commitment: Why is (academic) writing so hard?


This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text-book. Its object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure.
(opening sentence of the preface to Tractatus Logico Philosophicus by Lugwig Wittgenstein, 1918)


I’ve recently been commenting quite a lot on the excellent academic writing blog (which I mostly read for the epistemology) Inframethodology by Thomas Basbøll. Thomas and I disagree on a lot of details but we have a very similar approach to formulating questions about knowledge and its expression.

The recent discussion was around the problem of ‘writing as expressing what you know’. While I find it very useful to distinguish between writing to describe what you know and writing to explore and discover new ideas (something I first reflected on after reading Inframethodology), I commented:

I still find that no matter how well I think I know my subject, I discover new things by trying to write it down (at least with anything worth writing).

Thomas responded in a separate blogpost, first picking up on my parenthetical:

Can it really be true that the straightforward representation of a known fact is not “worth writing”? Is the value of writing always to be discovered (by way of discovering something new in the moment of writing)? I think Dominik is thinking of kinds of writing that are indeed very valuable because they present ideas that move our own thinking forward and, ideally, contribute positively to the thinking of our peers. But I also think there is value is writing that doesn’t do this, writing that is, for lack of a better word, boring.

With this, I agree wholeheartedly. 110% coach! Yes, this was a throwaway line I wasn’t comfortable with even as I was writing it. The majority of my writing is mundane: emails, instruction manuals, project proposals, etc. They may or may not be “worthy” but they certainly have a worth. And people who do nothing but that sort of writing certainly do not do anything I would find ‘beneath me’ or not worthy. I might have been better served by the term ‘quotidian’ or even ‘instrumental’ writing.

I agree even more with Thomas’s elaboration (my emphasis):

In fact, I think it’s the primary of value of academic writing and one of the reasons that so many people (and even academics themselves) almost equate “academic” (adj.) with “boring”.The business of scholarship is not to bring new ideas into the world, indeed, the function of distinctively academic work (in contrast to, say, scientific or philosophical or literary work) is not to innovate or discover but to critique, to expose ideas to criticism. In order for this happen efficiently and regularly, academics must spend some of their time representing ideas that are not especially exciting to them along with their grounds for entertaining them. They must present their beliefs to their peers along with their justification for thinking they’re true. And they must do this honestly, which is to say, they must not invent new beliefs or new reasons for holding them in the moment of writing. They must write down, not what they’re thinking right now, but what they’ve been thinking all along.

I find this an incredibly valuable perspective and when I think of my own writing, I think this is precisely where I’ve often been going wrong. This is partly because academic writing is more of a hobby than a job, so I don’t have the time to do more than write to discover. But it is partly because of my temperament. I don’t enjoy the boring duties of writing things I know down and then formatting them for the submission to a journal. I prefer to work with editors which is why the bulk of my published writing is in journalism or book chapters.

But there is still another aspect that needs to be explored. And that is, why do most people find it so difficult to write down what they know even while taking into account all of the above.

Writing as translation

I propose that a good way to think about the difficulty of writing to describe our thoughts is to use the metaphor of translation. We can then think of the content of our thoughts in our head as a series of propositions expressed in some kind of ‘mentalese’. And when we come to write them down, we are essentially translating them into ‘writtenese’ or in this case, one of its dialects ‘academic writtenese’.

This is made more complicated by the existence of a third language – let’s call it ‘spokenese’. We are all natively bilingual in ‘mentalese’ and ‘spokenese’ even if not everybody is very good at translating between these two languages. In fact, children find it very difficult until quite late ages (10 and up) to coherently express what they think and even many adults never achieve great facility with this. Just like many natively bilingual speakers are not very good at translating between their two languages.

But nobody is a native speaker of ‘writtenese’. Everybody had to learn it in school with all its weird conventions and specific processing requirements. It is not too outlandish to say (and I owe this to the linguist Jim Miller) that writing is like a foreign language. (Note: see some important qualifications below).

When we are translating from mentalese to academic writtenese, we are facing many of the same problems translators of very different languages faces. The one I want to focus on is ‘making commitments’.

Translation as commitment: Making the implicit explicit

Perhaps the most difficult problem for a translator (I speak as someone who has translated hundreds of thousands of words) is the issue of being forced by the way the target language operates to commit to meanings in the translation where the structure of the source language left more options for interpretation.

Let’s take a simple paragraph consisting of three sentences (Note: this is a paraphrase of an example given by Czech-Finnish translator at a conference I attended some years ago):

The prime minister committed to pursue a dialogue with the opposition. This was after the opposition leader complained about not being involved. She confirmed that he would have a seat at the table in the upcoming negotiations.

The first commitments I have to make at some point is to the gender of the participants in the actions I write about. In English, I can leave the gender ambiguous until the third sentence. In Finnish, which does not have gendered third-person-singular pronouns, I don’t have to express the gender at all.

In Czech (and many other languages), on the other hand, I have to know the gender of the prime minister from the very first word. Like actor and actress in English, all nouns describing professions have built-in genders (this is not optional as in English because all Czech nouns have assigned some grammatical gender). I also need to express gender as part of the past tense morphology of all verbs. So even if I could skirt the gender of the ‘leader’ (there are some gender-ambiguous nouns in Czech), I would have to immediately commit to it with the verb ‘complained’. Which is why knowledge of their subject is essential to simultaneous translators.

But this is a relatively simple problem that can be solved by reference to known facts about the world. A much more significant issue is the differential completion of certain schemas associated with types of expressions. Let’s take the phrase ‘committed to pursue’. The closest translation to the word ‘commit’ is ‘zavázat se’ which unfortunately has the root ‘bind’. It is therefore ever so slightly more ‘binding’ than ‘commit’. I can also look into something like ‘promise’ which of course is precisely what the prime minister did not do.

Then, there is the word ‘pursue’. One way to translate it is ‘usilovat o’ which has connotations of ‘struggle to’. So ‘usilovat o dialog’ is in the neighborhood of ‘pursue a dialog’ but lacks the sense of forward motion making it seem slightly less like the dialog is going to happen. So here each language is making subtly different commitments.

When you’re translating academic writing, there are hundreds of similar examples, where you have to fill in blanks and make some claims seem stronger and others weaker. And even if you know the subject intimately (which I did in most cases), you often have to insert your judgement and interpretation. And the more you do that, the less certain you feel that you got the meaning of the original exactly right. This is even when while reading the original, I had no sense of something being left unexpressed. The only way to get this right is to ask the author. But even that may not always work because they may not remember their exact mental disposition at the time of writing.

Writing as filling in holes in our mind

I believe that this is exactly the experience we have when we write about something that only exists in our head or something we’ve only previously talked about. Even when I’ve given talks at conferences and had many conversations with colleagues, writing my ideas down remains a difficult task.

When writing, the structure of ‘writtenese’ (as well as the demands of its particular medium) forces me to make certain commitments I never had to make in ‘mentalese’ (or even ‘spokenese’). I have to fill out schemas with detail that never seemed necessary. I have to make more commitments to the linearity of arguments, that could previously run parallel in my head. So when I write it is not clear what should come first and what last.

When I just write down what’s in my head (or as close to it as it is possible), it is unlikely to make any sense to anybody. Often including myself after some time. I need to translate it in such a way that all the necessary background is filled out. I also need to use the instruments of cohesion to restore coherence to the written text that I felt in my mind without any formal mental structure.

But during this process, I often become less certain. The act of writing things down triggers other associations and all of a sudden I literally see things from a different perspective. And this is often not a comfortable experience. Many writers find this a source of great stress.

This is, of course, true even of writing instructions and directions. Often, when describing a process, we find there are gaps in it. And when writing down directions, we come to realise that we may not know all aspects of the familiar sufficiently well to mediate the experience to someone else.

Teaching writing as translation

Translation is a skill that requires a lot of training and practice. In many ways, a translator needs to know more about both languages than a native speaker of either. And then they need to know about different ways of finding equivalent expressions between the two languages in such a way that the content expressed in the source language produces similar mental effects when reading in the target language. This is not easy. In fact, it is frequently impossible to achieve perfectly.

When I translate I often refer to a dictionary (such as that lists as many possible alternatives of words even if I know exactly what the original ‘means’. This is because I want to see multiple options of expressing something which may not be immediately triggered by my understanding of the whole.

But for this to work, I need to have done a lot of deliberate reading in both languages to know how they tend to express similar things. At the early stages, I may approach this more simply as learning to speak a language. I may learn that ‘commit to pursue’ is best translated as ‘zavázat se usilovat o’. But I have to back that up by a lot of reading in both languages, studying other translators’ work and making hypotheses about both languages and the differences between them. Eventually, this becomes second nature and to translate fluently, we need to ‘forget’ the rules and ‘just do it’.

So how could we apply this to teaching (academic) writing? We need to start by ensuring that students have enough facility in both the source and the target languages. We usually assume greater fluency in the source language (most translators work primarily in the direction of native to non-native). So in this case, we need to focus on the structures and ways of ‘academic writtenese’.

We can very much approach this as teaching a foreign language. Our first aim should be to help students acquire fluency in the language of academic writing. We need to give them some target structures to learn. This should ideally be based on an actual analysis of that writing rather than focusing on random salient features. But ultimately, the key element here is practice.

Then we also need to focus on helping the students develop better awareness of their native mentalese and how to best map its structures onto the structures of writtenese. We can do this by helping them write outlines, create mind maps, come up with relevant key words, and of course, read a lot of other people’s writing, think about it, and then write summaries in similar ways.

None of these are particularly revolutionary ideas and they are being used by writing teachers all over the world. What I’m hoping to do here is to provide a metaphor to help focus the efforts on particular aspects of what makes the translation from thought to writing difficult.

Writing as playing a musical instrument

One final analogy that can help us here is the idea of writing as playing a musical instrument. This analogy is in many ways even more apt. When we play a musical instrument, we are initially translating relatively vague musical ideas into actual notes (melodies and harmonies) by way of the structures given to us by the musical instrument.

We may start by learning some chords to accompany a song we hear but later we will progress into more details of musical theory which will allow us to express more elaborate ideas. But, in fact, this also allows us to have more those more elaborate ideas in the first place.

Initially, our ability to express musical ideas via an instrument (such as piano or guitar) will be limited by our skill. We may not even realize what exactly the idea in our head was until we’ve played it. And often, what we can play limits the ideas we have. Jazz teachers often say something like ‘sing your solos first and then play’ (others call it ‘audiation’). But this is not trivial and requires extensive training. Which is why one common advice for jazz musicians is to transcribe (or at least copy) famous songs and solos. But as you’re transcribing and copying, you’re supposed to notice patterns in how musical ideas are expressed. You can then recombine them to express what is in your ‘musical mind’.

But it seems that the musical ideas and their form of expression are never completely separate. They are not a pure translation but rather a co-creation. And this is true of any good translation and probably also ultimately true about any act of writing. We are using a different medium to express an existing idea but in the process, we are filling gaps in the ideas, creating new connections until we ultimately cannot be completely certain which came first.

As we get better at translation, music or writing, there are some levels about which the last part does not hold true. There are some ideas we can truly and faithfully translate from our head to paper, musical instrument or from one language to another. This is why practice is so important. But at the highest levels of difficulty, writing, translation and music making will always be acts of co-creation between the medium and the message.

Teaching writing as music

So finally, could we teach writing in the same way as we teach music? We certainly could. Just like teaching a foreign language, teaching music is mostly dependent on a lot of practice.

But perhaps there are some techniques that music teachers use that could be useful for both language teachers, translators and writing coaches.

One is the emphasis on patterns. The idea of practicing scales, licks, or chords relentlessly (up to hours a day) holds a lot of appeal. Perhaps we start teaching self-expression with writing too soon. Maybe we should give students some practice patterns to repeat in different combinations. Then we could tell them to just copy and then dissect parts of good texts. The idea of ‘mindless’ copying will probably stick in many teachers’ craws. But just analysing reading will never be enough. Students need the experience of writing some good writing. If only to develop some muscle memory. And while it should never be completely mindless, it should also perhaps not be completely meaningful from the very start. Of course, we could invent numerous variations on this approach to transform the texts in various fun ways while still making sure, students are writing extended chunks and developing fluency. The point is that we would not be focusing on self-expression but developing a language for self-expression.

Music teachers and students use what has been described by Anders Ericsson as ‘deliberate practice’. Ericsson gives the example of Benjamin Franklin who used similar techniques to improve his writing:

He first set out to see how closely he could reproduce the sentences in an article once he had forgotten their exact wording. So he chose several of the articles whose writing he admired and wrote down short descriptions of the content of each sentence—just enough to remind him what the sentence was about. After several days he tried to reproduce the articles from the hints he had written down. His goal was not so much to produce a word-for-word replica of the articles as to create his own articles that were as detailed and well written as the original. Having written his reproductions, he went back to the original articles, compared them with his own efforts, and corrected his versions where necessary. This taught him to express ideas clearly and cogently.

Obviously, this was not all there was to it, but it is very much reminiscent of what music students do. It seems to me that most beginner writers are often asked to do too much at the very start and they never get a chance to improve because they essentially give up too soon.

Writing is NOT foreign language, translation or music: The Unmetaphor

Writing is writing! It has its specific properties that we need to attend to if we want to see all of its complexities. We must use metaphors to help us do this but always by remembering that metaphors hide as much as they reveal. One useful way of understanding something is to create a sort of unmetaphor: a listing of similar things that are different from it in various respects. This is something that, while not uncommon, is done much less than it should be when using analogies.

Written language is not a foreign language

Some of the fundamental mental orientations of a language are shared between the written and spoken forms. This includes tense, aspect, modality, definiteness, case morphology, word categories, meanings of most function words, the shape of words, etc. These present some of the most significant difficulties to learners of foreign languages making it very difficult to acquire a second language by exposure alone after a certain age for most adults.

Writing, on the other hand, can be acquired predominantly by exposure alone for many (if not most) adults. There are many people who acquire native-like competence in the written code in the same way they acquired their spoken language competence (even if there are just as many who never do). And we must also be mindful (as Douglas Biber’s research revealed) that there is a bigger difference between some written genres then there is between writing and speech overall. So we should perhaps attend to that.

Writing is not translation

That writing is not actually translation is contained in the fact that written language is not actually a foreign language. There are many genres and registers in any language with their specific codes. And we could call going from one code to another translation much more easily than going from what I called ‘mentalese’ and ‘writtenese’. (Again, the work of Douglas Biber should be the first port of call for anyone interested in this aspect of writing.)

But most importantly, what I called ‘mentalese’ does not actually have the form of a language. Individuals differ in how they represent thoughts that end up being represented by very similar sentences. Some people rely on images, others on words. For some, the mental images more schematic and for others, they have more filled in details. For instance, Lakoff asked how different people imagine the ‘hand’ in ‘Keep somebody’s at arm’s length’. And the responses he got were that for some the hand is oriented with the palm out, others with the palm in.  For some, it includes a sleeve, for others it does not. Etc.

Writing is not music

I’ve already written about the 8 ways in which language is not like music. And they all apply to writing, as well. The key difference for us here is that music cannot express propositions. This means that musical expression can be a lot freer than expressing ideas through writing.

We could argue that writing is more like music than spoken language because it requires some kind of an instrument. Pen, paper, computer, etc. But we usually learn these independently of the skill of expressing ourselves through writing. My ability to play the piano is much more closely tied to my ability to express my musical meanings. However, people write just as expressive prose by the hunt and peck method as when they touch type. One can even dictate a ‘written text’ – that’s how independent it is of the method of production.

Of course, improving one’s facility with the tools of production can improve the writing output just by removing barriers. This is why students are well-advised to learn to touch type or to use a speech-to-text method if they struggle for other reasons (e.g. visual impairment or dyslexia). But when it comes down to it, this is just writing down words and as we established, writing in most senses is more than that.

Conclusions and limitations

Ultimately, writing and translation are not the same. Just as writing and music are not the same. But there are enough similarities to make it worthwhile learning from each other.

Many writers have developed great skills by the ‘tried and tested’ approach of ‘just doing it’. But we also know that even many people who do write a lot never become very ‘good’ at it. They struggle with the mechanics, ability to express cogently what’s in their minds, or just hate everything about it.

For some beginner writers, the worst thing we could do is give them a lot of mindless exercises. These people will want to do it first and would hate to be held back. Just like many students of languages or music like dive off the deep end. But equally, for many others, telling them to ‘just do it’ is the perfect recipe for developing an inferiority complex or downright phobias of writing.

But all of these writers will need lots of practice – regardless of whether we provide lots of ladders and scaffolding or just put a trampoline next to the edifice of their skill. In this, writing is exactly like music, language and translation. You can only get better at it by doing it. A lot!

I started with a quote from Wittgenstein. But he also famously said in summarising his book:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

I think we saw here that this is not necessarily how the act of writing presents itself to most people.

He then continued:

The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather—not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought). The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.

This is was the so-called “early Wittgenstein” before the language games and family resemblances. He spent the rest of his career unpicking this boundary of sense and non-sense. Coming to terms with the fact that what is thought and what is its expression are not straightforward matters.

So all the metaphors notwithstanding, we should be mindful of the constant tensions involved in the writing process and be compassionate with those who struggle to navigate them.

5 kinds of understanding and metaphors: Missing pieces in pedagogical taxonomies



This post outlines 5 levels or types of understanding to help us better to think about the role of metaphor in explanation:

  1. Associative understanding: Place a concept in context without any understanding.
  2. Dictionary understanding: Repeat definitions, give examples, and make basic connections.
  3. Inferential understanding: Make useful inferences based on knowledge about – but without ability to use the understanding in practice. Requires more than just one concept.
  4. Instrumental understanding: Use the understanding as part of work in a field of expertise. Impossible to acquire for an isolated concept.
  5. Creative understanding: Transform understanding of one domain by importing elements from another. Requires instrumental understanding – goes beyond hints and hunches.


In a previous post, I proposed three uses of metaphor leading to different levels of understanding.

  1. Metaphor as invitation
  2. Metaphor as an tool
  3. Metaphor as catalyst

Only 2 and 3 led to any meaningful understanding and that could only be achieved by acquiring some ‘native’ structure of the target domain. But I was rather loose with how I used the word ‘understanding’. I was using notions like ‘meaningful understanding’ or ‘useful understanding’ but never went into any detail. That is the purpose of this post.

In what follows, I provide a sketch for one way of classifying different kinds of understanding. They are not meant to be descriptions or even discovery of some sort of ‘natural kinds’. Instead, I find them to be a useful way of looking at understanding from the perspective of metaphoric cognition.

Associative understanding

Associative understanding is the ability to place something in a context or category without necessarily knowing almost anything about it. So, we may know that an emu is a flightless bird without knowing anything else about it. We could also think of this kind of understanding as a vague notion.

This is the kind of understanding the vast majority of education leaves us with after a few years. Watching a documentary, a TV quiz show, or reading a popular news article fosters this kind of understanding.

Many people can get very far with displaying this kind of understanding – such as con artists impersonating doctors – by successfully imitating experts. The famous Sokal hoax was based on the same principle: making plausible sounding noises can get you published in a prestigious publication. But it is even possible to pass a poorly constructed multiple choice knowledge test with just this understanding by being able to eliminate the wrong options rather than by knowing the correct ones.

The associations can be of various kinds. They can be in the form of basic-category labels (such as – this is an animal). They could place the thing into a discipline – such as ‘something they do in chemistry’. And they could simply be in the form of ‘this is the thing that my friend always talks about’. Or they could also just be parts of the cultural vocabulary without a proper object of understanding.

For example, in the 1960s’ Czechoslovakia there was a famous pop song called ‘Pták Rosomák’ (The Bird Wolverine). The band simply liked the sound of the Czech word for ‘wolverine’ and its rhyme with the word for ‘bird’. Wolverines are not native to Europe or well known outside of this song. I did not find out what the word meant until I learned it in English (I also knew what the word wolverine meant long before I looked it up in a Czech dictionary). When I presented this at a conference on cognition in Prague, most Czech academics in the audience were surprised by the meaning. Yet, if you asked them – do you understand the word ‘rosomák’, they would have said ‘of course, I do’. But it was just an associative understanding.

My claim is that the vast majority of what passes for understanding and knowledge in ‘polite society’ is of the associative kind. People feel comfortable when concepts like evolution or philosophy are mentioned but have only the vaguest idea of where they belong.

My favourite example of this is Monty Python’s ‘Philosopher’s song‘. All the audience needs to know to appreciate the jokes is that there is a philosopher stereotype and that certain names are of philosophers. In fact, by their own admission (citation needed but I did hear it in an interview), the authors of these sketches also did not know much more than the names. Even the little nod to knowledge in ‘John Stuart Mill of his own free will’ is just a glimmer of something deeper.

Associative understanding is pretty much only useful for social signalling. It can also play a role in making a new field appear more familiar in later stages. I have had that experience several times when vague memories from school made me feel more confident I was on the right track when I set about studying a subject in depth even if I had very little more than a vague feeling about something. But on its own, this kind of understanding has little practical value.

In formal instruction, we generally start with the next step but over time, without practice, this is the kind of understanding, we’re left with. But in literature on pedagogy, it is mostly unaddressed. It is the kind of understanding below the bottom rung of Bloom’s taxonomy. But many teachers encounter it when at the end of classes students come and ask questions that barely show a hint of an understanding that makes it seem like they may not have even been in the same room.

Lexical understanding

At this level, we can repeat a definition as we might find it in a dictionary and give a few examples. We can look at a picture and say, this is an emu. It lives in Australia and it is a kind of ostrich. For something like an emu, it may well be enough for most of us.

This is the kind of understanding we may be able to take away from a quick explanation of something. It is the sort of understanding most tests check for. It is also often used as a proxy for intelligence or ‘being smart’. Lexical understanding is what is required of successful quiz show panellists. UK shows such as ‘Mastermind’, ‘Brain of Britain’ or ‘University Challenge’ are great examples of these.

Conversely, lack of lexical (and sometimes even associative) understanding is also often given as an example of educational decline or lack of intelligence.

This would be roughly equivalent to the ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Comprehension’ levels on the Bloom’s taxonomy. It is the minimum target for instruction but it is very unstable. Unless it has been recently used, it often reverts to associative kind of understanding.

This kind of understanding is generally not very useful outside the educational context. This is the kind of understanding that is the result of ‘teaching to the test’. It can be leveraged into something more but only with practice and application.

In terms, of frames or mental representations, we could say that the only mental representations developed as part of this understanding are propositional or rich imagery. Meaning, we have sentences or images in our head that we can draw on but we would find it very hard to combine them into larger wholes.

This level and the transition from this level to the next are where what we call pedagogy plays the most important role.

Inferential understanding

This kind of understanding lets us make useful inferences about the concept in context. It requires some knowledge of a whole domain or several domains. You can never understand a solitary concept at this level. But it does not necessarily require deep ability or skill. I know nothing about emus, so I cannot think of an example that would not be misleadingly trivial.

But I have a personal example from when I was recently catching up on the latest developments in machine learning. I was reading about different types of neural nets. And when I was reading about CNNs (Convolutional Neural Networks) which are usually used for images, I had an idea for using the similar approach to process language by representing text in a way similar to the way images are represented. And it turned out there are already papers and models out there that do just that.

Inferential understanding is the kind of understanding that good students develop about favorite subjects that they pursue later. The kind of understanding that collaborators develop about each others’ discipline in interdisciplinary projects. The kind of understanding good generalist managers develop about the domains in which they supervise subject experts. Or really good journalists develop about areas on which they report. This is also the kind of understanding experts have about related fields or that teachers have about some of the more advanced areas of their field.

The sociologist of science Harry Collins described in one of his books (I think it was ‘Rethinking Expertise’) how he could pass some knowledge tests in gravitational wave physics better than professional physicists from adjacent specialisations. This was after many years of observing these physicists but without any real ability to the actual calculations or research required.

It may not always be easy to tell the boundary between this and lexical or even associative understanding. This is the kind of understanding potentially displayed by an audience member at a lecture who asks a question that is then described as ‘a good question’ by the presenter. But often this is just a fluke. A random hit based on superficial resemblance of words in a definition.

This is the kind of understanding that sort of ‘does not count’ in the terms of Bloom’s hierarchy. We feel it is insufficient because it is not something people consciously aim at in instruction. But it is in many ways the best we can hope for. It is the first kind of any useful knowledge.

It requires more developed mental representations. Representations where the definitions and rich images are replaced by schemas and scenarios. These are a sort of useful compressions that can be blended (or integrated) with others. What it means that when reasoning with these concepts, we can use them as whole units (mental chunks) rather than laboriously compute them from first principles.

It may also derive from some basic level of instrumental understanding. The humour in XKCD cartoons can be understood with a combination of inferential and instrumental understanding. I immediately understood this comic famous among programmers without being a programmer myself but having some skills with databases and knowledge of common problems with security.

But for the most part, we cannot use this understanding for actual work. This is where the humanities and sciences often diverge. It is possible to pretend (even to oneself) that this understanding lets us do real useful work in history or sociology. Whereas with mathematics, engineering, medicine, or biology, the barrier between this and instrumental understanding is much more clearly defined by specialised tools such as mathematics and chemistry. But if we look at the many former physicists or biologists who have tried their hand at philosophy, sociology or even literary criticism, we see that even here, this kind of understanding is not enough.

You really need more to have a chance of doing something useful.

Instrumental understanding

This is the kind of understanding experts and practitioners have. It requires being able to use the concepts or tools in practice. I don’t have any instrumental understanding of convolutional neural networks. I couldn’t build one and possibly couldn’t even reconstruct the exact way in which it works.

This level of understanding or ability or skills requires more than just reading or learning about. It requires practice and building of mental representations which only comes from long-term engagement with a subject. For example, I don’t have that kind of understanding of neural nets, but I do have it of metaphor.

I can create metaphors, identify them in text, speak to the controversies around them, compare and contrast the various theories of metaphor. I can teach somebody how metaphors work. I can write a successful paper or give a conference presentation in the field. If somebody wants to know about metaphor they can come to me. Other people with good instrumental understanding of metaphor may disagree with some of what I have to say, but they won’t do it (I hope) as they would with somebody who has just an associative, lexical or even inferential level of understanding – e.g. knowing that metaphor has something to do with poetry. You have to put in the work.

This work may require actual repetitive practice (such as working out math problems or analysing texts). It absolutely requires extensive engagement with other experts in the field. Taking classes, going to conferences, reading latest research, writing papers, blogs, etc. That’s why loner autodidacts almost never reach this level of understanding.

Here the distinction between understanding and ability or skill becomes blurred. Mental representations develop at the highest levels of schematicity. This means that an expert can look at a very complex situation and treat it as one unit that can be blended with other complex units in a way that only the relevant parts are engaged.

For instance, I can read a complex argument about metaphor and immediately compare it with three other complex arguments about metaphor – not because I have a large mental capacity for abstract concepts but because I have developed a number of highly schematic mental representations about the shapes of arguments people make about metaphor. This way, I can project these schemas onto the argument as one big chunk.

Perhaps an even better analogy is learning a foreign language. I may know all the rules and words but I cannot speak the language with any level of fluency until I have developed larger chunks I can just slightly modify. It is simply impossible for even the most highly mentally endowed human to dredge up individual words, apply rules to them and combine them into a sentence quickly enough to speak with any level of coherence. It’s even worse for understanding. Just reading a text with a dictionary is such a slow affair that we forget what a sentence was about before we get to the end.

In other words, we can then define instrumental understanding as developing a basic fluency in the language of the discipline. And this takes time, targetted practice, and active ‘communicative’ engagement across a whole field.

In the ‘hard sciences,’ it requires a good facility with formalisms or even equipment and in the ‘softer’ disciplines it relies on extensive reading, talking, and writing.

Here we are at a much wider aperture of our knowledge funnel. It is therefore impossible to exactly compare 2 people’s levels of instrumental understanding. Everybody will have a slightly different set of mental representations. Also, many people will only be able to ‘perform’ at this level some of the time or only for small chunks of their discipline.

At this level, pedagogy is much less relevant. This is where it makes a lot less sense to talk about teaching and learning if only because it is impossible to acquire this level of understanding purely in the classroom. Training, coaching or even apprenticeship are much better models.

Creative understanding

Creative understanding is instrumental understanding with a transformative element. This requires knowledge of several domains and their creative intermingling. It is the sort of understanding innovators in their field have. This can lead us to a complete rejection of the thing we understand as an independent concept.

For example, I have long argued that metaphor is only one place in language where domain projection occurs and that we should not think of it as something special but rather as a shortcut for thinking about broader phenomena of framing or cognitive models. I found this a useful way of extending the concept. So, I can make a serious statement such as ‘metaphor and metonymy are the same thing’ that can be productive in the study of metaphor. But it only makes sense because I can actually distinguish between metaphors, similies, synechdoches or metonymies, and I can also reproduce arguments that maintain that the difference between metaphor and metonymy is crucial for understanding figurative language.

It is hard to say whether this type of understanding is even a part of the funnel hierarchy. Perhaps it is just an ingredient (catalyst) to instrumental understanding. But I do want to stress that it only works as a catalyst to instrumental understanding. As I showed in my post on types of metaphors, creativity needs to start from somewhere.

We may often confuse almost accidental insights by people with inferential or even just lexical understanding for creativity. But this is like recognising a melody in the sounds a child makes by randomly banging on the piano keyboard.

We often valorise the outsider perspective in a field. And it certainly can act as a catalyst for creativity but only if it has proper instrumental understanding to lean on.

Conclusions and limitations

I cannot stress enough that this classification is just a useful heuristic. I am not claiming that this kind of classification of understanding is exhaustive or even that it represents some sort of a natural category. But I found it useful when thinking about explanations and pedagogy.

Approaches to classifying understanding

It is quite common to distinguish between shallow and deep understanding. This is intuitively obvious but not very helpful because it assumes the existence of some sort of objective scale of a depth of understanding.

We can also distinguish understanding from knowledge for example by differentiating between explicit and tacit knowledge. Understanding and explicit knowledge intuitively overlap even if we don’t have a firm definition of either. If we understand something, we can mentally manipulate it and, most importantly, pass it along.

But the boundaries between tacit and explicit knowledge are not firm. All explicit knowledge depends on some tacit knowledge – or in other words, all understanding depends on knowledge. We could even say that deep learning is the process of transforming understanding into knowledge. In the sense, that we need to build up schematic mental representations to be able to manipulate ever more complex combinations of concepts.

Another way to try to get at understanding is to investigate how to achieve it. Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives is one famous example. There are many tweaks and elaborations – some as extreme as Jack Koumi’s 33 pedagogic roles. But they are ultimately not very satisfying because they already assume we know what the understanding is.

Understandings as a process revisited: The wave and the funnel

Even though these different types of understanding are ‘broadly hierarchical’, I want the emphasis to be on ‘broadly’. It would make no sense to think of these as a straightforward linear hierarchy measurable on a scale of discrete and comparable units. They are more like overlapping waves. Layers of water covering the beach in successive bursts as the tide is coming in.

But that metaphor does not make it easy to visualise the differences and mutual interdependence. It only evokes how hard and unreliable it is to do so. But for the purposes of this comparison, I’d like to offer something more like a funnel (which I also brought up in the context of the metaphor explanation hierarchy) or inverted cone.

The substance that fills the funnel might be a mixture of effort and coverage of material. This makes it easy to visualise the fact that it takes much more effort, time and background knowledge to get from level 3 to level 4 than it does to get from level 1 to level 2. Also, at the higher levels, the concepts themselves transform and interconnect. So it is not possible to understand them in isolation.

This truly takes into account the processual nature of understanding. The funnel also needs to be constantly topped up to maintain certain levels. But it can also underscore the fact that we can never perfectly compare 2 people’s levels of understanding. Because at the higher levels, the funnel is so broad, not everybody will have filled it in the same way with exactly the same substance.

I got this idea from ACTFL language competency levels and I think it is one of the most underappreciated metaphors in education.

Another really useful thing ACTFL does is that it defines low, mid and high sublevels for each competency levels. And a part of the definition of the ‘high’ sublevel is that the person can function at the ‘low’ sublevel of the next level about half the time. (E.g. a Novice-Low can function as Intermediate-Low about 50% of the time). During the test (most often an interview), the examiner establishes a floor and a ceiling rather than pinpointing an exact point on a scale.

This very much applies to the levels in my metaphor. There are no clear boundaries between these levels of understandings. In as much as they are levels in the first place.

Explanation is an event, understanding is a process: How (not) to explain anything with metaphor



  • There are at least 3 uses of metaphor in the educational process: 1. Invitation to enter; 2. An instrument to grasp knowledge with; 3. Catalyst to transform understanding. Many educators assume that 1 is enough but it rarely leads to any useful understanding.
  • Explanation is a salient part of the educational process to such an extent that it is often allowed to stand for all of it even though it is only one step.
  • Explanation often helps the person doing the explaining more than the person being explained at.
  • Metaphors and explanations have been misused by educators from Socrates to Rousseau.
  • A metaphor can only be successful if the student already has some knowledge of the target domain. Knowledge of the source domain is often less important.
  • Metaphor only makes sense if it is a part of a process. A process of learning. It doesn’t do much good on its own.

How metaphors work in helping us understand things

Teachers love explaining things. Students love understanding things. On the rare occasions that the two coincide, the feeling of joy shines like a beacon for the power of explanation. Teachers tell stories of seeing the “lightbulbs come on” in their students’ eyes. Students remember fondly the ecstatic moments of sudden illumination as their teacher’s words suddenly lit up the darkness within them. Thus the myth of teaching as explaining and learning as understanding those explanations was born.

Most of the more powerful explanations rely on metaphor in the broadest possible sense. In fact, all explanation is to some extent metaphorical in that it provides a projection from one domain of understanding onto another. Metaphor brings out the familiar – or ex plains it – in the unfamiliar. Or so the story goes.

We can think of metaphoric projection as putting two thin sheets of paper over each other and looking at them against a bright light. What can be on these sheets? Sketches, images, words or even just smudges of color. The projection then obscures certain things and shows others in new contexts. Sometimes, with more complex slides we may see completely new shapes and color hues. The process of making sense of the metaphor then involves slight adjustments in how those two sheets align against one another. This can be described as the metaphor giving a new structure to the target domain.

Another way to think about metaphoric projection is as two sets of items which are mapped onto each other. We can put the sets side by side and draw lines between items we think match. Or we can take them out and place them side by side in a new set. We often see them displayed in this way.

Note: This way of thinking about metaphor started with Lakoff and Johnson’s ‘Metaphors we live by’ from 1980. This led to the formulation of the Conceptual Metaphor Theory. It was later developed into a more general theory of frames or mental models by Turner and Fauconnier (2002) known as the theory of conceptual integration or blending. But it can also be found in Donald A Schön’s ‘Displacement of Concepts’ from 1963 which indirectly inspired Lakoff and Johnson.

But despite all this, it is easy to overlook that in order to form a projection from one mental space into another, we have to have some structure in both. In fact, metaphor often assumes equal knowledge of both domains, and in the process of making a projection from one another, a new previously unimagined structure emerges that is a blend of both domains. Because of the complexity, it is hard to give brief examples, but Turner’s and Fauconnier’s ‘The Way We Think’ is full of very illuminating case studies.

But it is also not at all uncommon for metaphor to borrow from a domain we know much less about to elucidate a domain we know a lot about. For example, if I hear, ‘don’t go into that office, the boss is on a warpath’, I understand a lot more about the boss’s behaviour than I do about any warpaths. Here, only the general feeling of ferocity is transferred with none of the possible association of weaponry or military supply lines.

Metaphor is also always partial. It would make no sense to project every aspect of both domains onto one another. But the ability to understand which bits it makes sense to project and which must be left out also requires at least some understanding of both domains. To understand what we mean when we call a piece of software a ‘virus’ we must know enough about computers to know that the infection cannot be transmitted through simple touch.

Metaphor at its most powerful helps us understand both domains better. It also often results in the creation of new understanding of both domains as we strive to find the limits of possible cross-domain mappings. Often, this happens with honest historical explanations of the present. By comparing the Iraq war to Vietnam, we may only choose to transfer the feeling of emotion and loss associated with the former. But we may also choose to explore both in their own right to find the best way in which they project on to one another. And this gives us new understanding of both.

Three uses of metaphor in explanation

There are many ways to classify the uses of metaphors, I’ve outlined some in an early paper. But for the purposes of metaphor in explanation, I’d like to offer three broad types: 1. Metaphor as invitation; 2. Metaphor as instrument; 3. Metaphor as catalyst. I fear that the first type may be most common while only the second two play any real role in building understanding. These three types could also be viewed as forming a sort of process but this is not inherent in the definition.

As we will see, sometimes the same metaphor can serve all three roles, providing a certain thread through the process of learning. But most often, we need new metaphors for each type or stage.

1. Metaphor as invitation

Novice students often come to a new subject with no knowledge and a healthy dose of fear of the unknown. To help them feel more comfortable, teachers like to reach for metaphors relying on the familiar. This gives the learner a chance to grasp onto something while they build up sufficient mental representations of the new domain.

But this use of metaphor usually does not help understanding. It just provides emotional support along the arduous journey towards that understanding. It can also backfire. Teachers often spin up these kinds of metaphors in such a way that they assume an understanding of the unfamiliar. And it is only once students have bootstrapped themselves into some understanding of the subject that the metaphor starts to make any sense to them.

For instance (to use a famous example), we can teach students that the electrical current is like a flow of water. This certainly takes some fear out of the invisible world of electrons. But unless students have at least some prior understanding of electricity, they may ask questions like ‘how do you get the water into the wires?’

This type of metaphor can only be used for a fleeting moment and it must be followed by hard work of accumulating understanding of the new domain on its own terms. Perhaps with the use of more metaphors, this time of the instrumental kind.

2. Metaphor as an instrument

The instrumental use of metaphor for explanation is where real understanding starts to happen. But not all teachers are as good at it. In this case, the metaphor provides a way for the student to grasp the new subject. A lens to see it through, or a mental instrument to manipulate it with. Such metaphors are essential to the learning process. However, they do not rely on the moment of instant insight, which they can sometimes trigger, but rather on continuing exploration of the projection between the two domains. Their usefulness is less in the feeling of illumination than in their availability to be used over and over again.

For instance, electrical engineers may be able to make better judgments about certain properties of electrical circuits when they think of electrons as a flow of water. But in other instances, they may be better off when they think about electrons as lots of tiny balls rubbing against one another, generating heat. This metaphor can come up over and over to help them mentally manipulate the two domains.

Here, as with all metaphors, it is essential that we know when to let go. Or even better, when to switch to a different or even a contradictory metaphor. These instrumental metaphors can be local or global but it is rare that one will be enough.

3. Metaphor as catalyst

In the third use, the metaphor plays the role of a catalyst. Like a powder dissolved into a liquid, it makes a new substance in which both domains are transformed into one unified understanding. This is when the student transforms into a scholar. Making independent judgments, challenging the teacher’s own understanding, and ultimately becoming her own teacher. To work as a catalyst, the metaphor may be very rich and detailed or just a quick sketch resulting in a slight shift of perspective. But it always requires solid knowledge of the target domain.

Let’s continue with our electrical current example. Here, the student comes not only to understand that sometimes electricity behaves like a liquid and sometimes like a collection of particles, they also come to see the complexity of liquids and particles. They start making predictions both ways and ask questions like ‘What if we thought of the flow of water as a collection of particles?’, etc.

Here the metaphor becomes a process without an end. It spurs new mixtures and remixtures as one finds out more about the two (and often more) domains. Unlike with instrumental and invitational metaphors, it is no longer important that the metaphor be apt. It is just important that it is useful for new understandings or the possibilities of these new understandings. Donald Schön called one subtype of these ‘generative metaphor’.

But as with the other types, it is important that these metaphors come with some sort self-destruct mechanism.

What often happens is that these metaphors are taken up by those who presume that they map fully onto the target domain and that no other understanding of the target domain is necessary. I described how this is a problem with Schroedinger’s cat, or Lorenz’s hurricane-triggering butterflies.

What’s even worse, teachers often use these metaphors far too soon. This either confuses students or, worse, it gives them an illusion of understanding that they do not possess.

How NOT to use metaphor to explain something – two case studies

Case study 1: Metaphor gap in data science

My first case study of a bad use of explanation with metaphor is the podcast Data Skeptic. In fact, listening to the most recent episodes prompted me to write this in the first place.

I must preface this by saying that I like the podcast and recommend it to others who want to understand modern data science. It covers important subjects and there is much to learn from it. Its one unfortunate feature, however, are certain episodes when the host, data scientist Kyle Polich, uses his wife, project manager and English major, Linh Da Tran as co-host and tries to explain concepts from abstract computational theory to her. Or rather at her.

This almost invariably fails. Not because Linh Da does not possess the raw intelligence or aptitude to understand these concepts but because Kyle confuses metaphor with explanation and explanation with understanding.

In two recent episodes, he attempted to explain attention in neural networks and Neural Turing Machines. It was an unmitigated disaster. As the metaphors kept piling up, Linh Da finally cried out “I don’t know what you want me to understand”. That’s exactly the problem with a metaphor that only relies on the understanding of the source domain. It serves as a good invitation to the subject but as a very bad instrument for developing an understanding.

There are several problems with this set up that make it a bad place for too many metaphors. First, Linh Da is clearly just humoring Kyle. She’s vaguely interested in machine learning as a phenomenon but has no real interest in putting much work in to learning about how it works. This forces Kyle into more and more metaphors involving their pet bird Yoshi. These are useful socially and emotionally because they allow Linh Da to contribute to the discussion. But her contributions at every turn show that she cannot use any of the analogies to make useful inferences about the subject. She almost never brings up previous subjects. At the end of the episode on Neural Turing Machines, she asked who owns the Turing Machine. In all the torrent of analogies, Kyle neglected to stress that the Turing Machine is itself a metaphor. This is despite a prior episode where another guest explained why Turing Machines are important very clearly.

The conceit of the episodes is that data science can be explained even to English majors. That is certainly correct. But those majors must be willing to put in some work between episodes or have some prior knowledge. And as the subjects get more technical or abstract, the explanations have to get longer and include some practice time. And the amount of this practice needs to increase as if the practice was filling a funnel and not a test tube. Namely, to get from level B to C requires more work than getting from level A to B. Otherwise, the metaphors have nothing to hold on to. They constantly invite the student in but then offer no tools for going further. At best, they will confuse the learner and at worst, they will give them an illusion of understanding. About as useful as a seat belt made from masking tape.

While it is pleasant learning about these concepts through listening in on a married couple having a light-hearted conversation, at a certain stage, this pedagogic device just gets in the way of learning by the audience. Initially, the listener can just do their own metaphor mapping and ask the right questions in their head. But as the abstractness level increases, the host doing the explaining cannot go into sufficient depth because the co-host can’t keep up. And the increasingly convoluted and unnecessary metaphors just create a mental fog that descends over all.

I was particularly disappointed in the episode on Attention in neural networks which is something I wanted to learn more about. I found the initial metaphor of attention as a sort of memory span very useful but then it got stuck because Linh Da could not use it to go any further. This was because she was not given a chance to integrate the previous episodes where similar things were discussed. It was still useful to me because then I could go read about attention with a renewed perspective. But an opportunity for a deeper exploration of the metaphor was wasted.

This would have been fine if the episode was aimed at general public with no other understanding rather than an interested audience with some prior background. But even then, the general public would have needed more and different information to make any sense of it.

At one point Kyle, raised the possibility that maybe he wasn’t an effective teacher because Linh Da could not understand something he had explained. But in fact, he was not being a teacher at all. In this setting, he’s just a provider of images. Like a documentary from the Serengeti where the audience remembers there are lions, but could not place it on a map.

I can imagine that Kyle would be a very effective teacher with students who are interested in the subject and if he had a chance to take them through it step by step. And his use of metaphors would be a valuable contribution to that. But in the podcast, he’s only playing at being a teacher with Linh Da and she’s only pretending being a student. His only goals are getting her to answer questions within his metaphor that seem like she achieved comprehension. This means she never gets a chance to try out the structures of the source domain on the target domain. And because of this she never gets to develop any understanding that could later be used as a foundation for further metaphors. Without this, adding more to the mix feels like an avalanche of analogies.

Case study 2: The explanation illusion at Wired magazine

But Data Skeptic is not the worst example of this type of pseudo-teaching by explanation. Only the most recent in my mind. A possibly much worse example is the Wired magazine series in which one expert supposedly explains a technical concept at 5 levels of difficulty: 5-7-year old, young teen, college student, graduate student, and another expert. These explanations often involve some level of metaphor, but they are mostly pointless. The conceit is that anybody can understand these concepts at “some level”. But the explanations do not equal understanding as is amply demonstrated in the videos. The people being explained to do not usually develop any new understanding. And it is doubtful whether the people watching do either.

Some of these are because the topic just is not appropriate to be explained to a certain audience. A 5 or 13-year old do not need to understand (nor do they have the background to) things like CRISPR or the Conectome. At best, they may learn which discipline they belong to, but that’s just teaching them a new name. No understanding of the phenomena is necessary.

But even when the understanding is well within reach and might have its use, the ‘expert’ fumbles. Thus the great and inventive musician Jacob Collier failed to explain the concept of ‘harmony’ to any of his charges. First, he tried to convince a five year old that harmony is a way of expressing a feeling with music (as opposed to melody). This is not only too abstract, it is also wrong. Both harmony and melody express feelings. But harmony is different notes played on top of one another rather than in sequence as in a melody (the feelings come from the pitch distance between the tones). This is well within the scope of understanding of a 5-year old when accompanied by some examples. No elaborate metaphors are necessary. But Jacob Collier goes into a very abstract explanation concluding with the most pointless question in any teacher’s arsenal: ‘does this make sense?’ to which he gets a an ‘uhuh’ from the child who clearly has no clue.

But explaining anything to 5-year-olds is hard. So does he do better with a teen? No. He still sticks with the metaphor of harmony as adding emotion to a melody. But then he mixes in the idea of harmony being a journey. To illustrate this, he goes from demonstrating a simple major / minor cord distinction to a jazz chord substitution. Which is wonderful and impresses the student but does not illustrate the concept of harmony to her.

No explanation happens at the higher levels either because all of the others (culminating in jazz giant Herbie Hancock) know the key concepts. So Collier just chats with them about harmonization and reharmonization. Which also reveals that that’s what he had in his mind with the 5-year old and the teen – he was just explaining a much more advanced concept under the label of the simple one.

One of the commenters on the video made an astute observation:

“it’s interesting how in the earlier levels it has to do more with theory and as you get higher up the level it goes back to nature and life experience and emotions. It’s almost as if, as the complexity increases, there’s also a level of fundamental basic understanding of nature and how it goes hand in hand at the most complex level” (emusik97531 [DL fixed small typos])

Essentially, as the level of the underlying understanding grows, the simple metaphor of journey, place and feeling have the most impact. At the lower levels, they just hang in there, not doing much of anything. They may feel like an invitation, but they don’t have any way to be used as a tool for understanding.

At the higher levels, Collier also shows that maybe he could be a great teacher to somebody closer to his level of skill and understanding. But it also reveals the pointlessness of an isolated act of explanation with (or without) metaphor if it is not supported by the hard work of making the connections necessary for the metaphor to become a proper instrument or a catalyst.

This is not a particular critique of Jacob Collier who is a great teacher to students at Berklee but rather of the whole set up of the series by Wired. Nobody could succeed in this setting. The concept is either going to be hard at the low levels or too basic at the higher ones.

The inglorious history of metaphorical explanation in education

Collier and Polich, as well as countless others, are in illustrious company of people who overestimate what explanation can do in the process of learning.

Socrates in a famous scene from ‘Meno’ walks a slave boy through a series of questions “proving” that he already knew the answer to how to ‘double’ the area of the square. B F Skinner (1965) [PDF] called the Socratic method modeled on this example “one of the great frauds in the history of education”. Setting aside the metaphysics of innate transcendental knowledge Socrates was after, the boy clearly did not learn anything through the interaction. He would not even be able to recreate the proof at a later point. He never got a chance to develop an understanding. This is very much reminiscent of the long-suffering Linh Da who simply answers questions without getting the point of them at any stage and clearly not being able to reconstruct the argument later.

Another giant of philosophy, Rousseau, constructed a thought experimental student in Emile (because, by his own admission, he found teaching actual students too ill-suited to his temperament). Rousseau took the imaginary Emile on a similarly Socratic journey to create the perfect ‘natural man’. Rousseau’s Emile always immediately gets the point of his metaphors and learns the right lesson as if by magic. He rarely does anything in the way of practice – although he perhaps has more time to assimilate new knowledge than Socrates’ victim.

There is much of Rousseau and Socrates in all teachers. Explanations and metaphors are heady stuff while boring practice such as that Skinner was hoping to replace by his teaching machines is the embodiment of tedium for all involved. But without some sort of practice-like engagement with the subject, no understanding is possible. Educators often leave this for the spaces ‘in-between’ teaching events – invisible to them other than as returned homework assignments. Students who succeed have somehow figured out how to do that unmentioned task of conceptual practice. This then looks like effortless insight to the students who struggle.

How to actually use metaphors for explanation

So, is there a way to avoid the pitfalls we encountered above? As we saw, the first step should be asking oneself whether this is a time for more explanations and if metaphors are the best way of arriving at a useful understanding.

We must also remember that there is no such thing as a perfect explanation or perfect metaphor. Not everybody finds the conceptual work of cognitively decoupling one domain so that it can be projected on another easy to do or even useful. But at some point a metaphor is the only way to go about explaining something.

So when it comes time to construct the metaphor, we must make sure of two things.

First, we have to find the right source domain for the metaphor that can be projected onto the target domain so that the student can achieve useful understanding of some aspect of the target. This happens pretty much through a process of trial and error. Which means, we’re unlikely to happen on the right metaphor on the first try.

Second, we have to make sure we have a good grasp on the possible projections between the two domains. I broadly described the process in my guide to metaphor hacking. We have to decide on what the purpose of the metaphor is and whether successful mappings can be made between the two domains. But we have to keep exploring both domains to see if there are any mappings that would result in a misunderstanding. These then have to be explicitly cut off from the metaphor.

For example, a virus is a good metaphor for a piece of software that ‘infects’ your computer. But we must also specify that this can only happen by executing the software, not by simple exposure of 2 PCs in the same room.

The teacher must know when to abandon a metaphor as much as when to bring one up. Some metaphors are local and others are global. The global metaphors are particularly dangerous because they can lock out possible alternative sources of understanding.

Switching between metaphors is essential. But it also contains a danger. The biggest mistake teachers (including this one) make when students say don’t understand, is to fill the air with more different explanations. Yes, these may be necessary. But first give the student some space and time to integrate this into their current level of understanding.

The teacher also has to make sure that the student already has sufficient mental representations from both domains to be able to make the projections between them catch onto something. A computer virus metaphor is useless if the student knows nothing about viruses but it also does not help, if the student knows nothing about computers.

Particularly when metaphors are used as catalysts, it is important to investigate the source domain as much as the target domain. For instance, if we use the metaphor ‘education is business’, we may want to look at various aspects of the way businesses work to see if there are unexpected dangers in using this metaphor globally. Then, if we decide that schools should run along the same model as New York restaurants, we should ask what is the equivalent of a restaurant going out of business, or a customer having a bad meal. And what happens if we start thinking of education as a dining experience? Etc.

Finally, it is essential-+ that we pay attention to what happens before and after the metaphor. Each student will bring a slightly different understanding of both the source and the target domains. Can we rely on them coming up with the same mappings on their own? And, if we think of the metaphor as an instrument for dealing with a particular concept, we must make sure we teach the students how it works and give them enough time to practice with it before we leave them to their own devices.

There is no perfect procedure for building a metaphor that explains a new concept. And the metaphor is always only a small part of the process of understanding. We must pay attention to the hard work necessary before a metaphor can be used. And we must think about the work required afterward for the metaphor to continue its usefulness.

Good metaphors are often remembered by students and teacher alike for a long time with emotional salience. But even the best metaphor becomes simply a fond memory of a past moment of enlightenment without any understanding if it is not being continually exercised and stretched. It is far too common for people to just remember the source domain with only the vaguest glimpses of the target domain distorted by time.

Ultimately, any metaphor-based explanation can be but a singular event in the continual process of understanding. Metaphors, when used well, can be great instruments for further exploration. But when used poorly, they are but ornaments on an empty box of the vacant mind.

Post script:

Lest there be any doubt. I have not only seen others make the mistakes I mention here. I have made them all myself. Again and again and again. Deepest apologies to my students.

What does it mean when words ‘really’ mean something: Dismiss the Miss


A few days ago, I tweeted a link to an article in TES:

Today, I got the following response back:

@lizzielh is absolutely right. As the title of an as yet unpublished blog post of mine goes: “Words don’t mean things, people mean things”. I even wrote a whole book chapter on that with the same title as this post.

Indeed, if it had been me writing on the topic, I would have chosen a more judicious title. Such as “The legacy of discrimination behind the humble Miss” or “Past and present inequalities encoded in the simple Miss”.

In fact, the only reason I tweeted that article in the first place was because it was making a much more subtle and powerful point than simple etymology (as you would expect from one based on the work of the eminent scholar of language and gender Jennifer Coates). Going all the way back to Language and the Woman’s Place and even before, people have been trying to peg the blame on simple words. All along the response has been, but these are just words, we don’t mean anything bad by them. Or, these are just words, the real harm is done in the real world.

Many women I meet continue to like the Miss/Mrs distinction despite the long availability of the now destigmatized Ms. It was not too long ago that I set up a sign up form with only Prof Dr Mr Ms and got lots of complaints from women who wanted to keep their Miss or Mrs. So restigmatizing Miss is actively harmful to the self-image of many women whose identity is tied with that label. Feminists tend to make light of the ‘unfeminist’ cry of “I like it when men open the door to me”, or “Carrying my bag for me just shows respect”. Or going back even further, “I don’t need a vote, I exercise my influence through my husband.” But change is literally hard, it takes time and effort, so an attempt at making the world better will always making temporarily worse (at least for some people).

The fact is that Miss is bound up in a network of meanings, interactions and power relations. And even if it takes some mental pain, it’s worth picking at all it covers up.

But not every minute of every day. Sometimes, we need to say something to get from conversational point A to conversational point B and even a laden word may be better than no word. As one of the respondents in the article says:

My response is always that my name isn’t Miss; it’s Mrs Coslett. But if I’m in a school where students don’t know me and they call me Miss, I’m fine with that. They’re showing respect by giving me a title, rather than ‘hey’ or ‘oi, you’ or whatever.

Most of the time contentious words are used, challenging them is not feasible. But she’s wrong in her conclusion:

That’s just the way the English language works.

That’s absolutely not true. Just like words don’t mean anything on their own, language does not just work. It’s used to do things (to riff on Austin’s famous book) by people. It is not always used purposefully but its use is always bound in the many ways and means of people. The way we speak now is a result of centuries of little power plays, imitations of prestige, prescriptions of obedience. When you look closer, they’re all easy to see.

Things have let up considerably since the 1970s. Many fewer people are concerned about how language encodes gender inequality and it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that many of the historical unfairnesses hidden in word histories are still with us. Just like you can’t get away with saying “I didn’t mean anything by the ‘n’ word”, you can’t just shrug off the critique of the complex tapestry of gender bias in ‘Miss’.

Miss does not “really mean” anything. It’s just a sequence of letters or sounds. And most people using it do not “really mean” anything by it. Or it does not “really mean” anything to them. But context is everything.

It is a truism to say that racism will be done away with when people don’t dislike each other because of the color of their skin. But the opposite is the case. The sign that racism has disappeared is when I can say “I really don’t like black people” simply because I don’t like the color of their skin in the same way I may prefer redheads to blondes. Preference for skin colour is then just a harmless quirk. But we’re centuries away from that because any such preference is tied to a system of discrimination going back a long way. (BTW: just to avoid misunderstanding, I personally find black skin beautiful.)

The same thing applies to “Miss”, we can’t just turn our back on its pernicious potential. Most of the time it’s hidden from sight but it’s recoverable at a moment’s notice. Because we live in a world where male is still the default position. We have to work to change that. Change our minds, hearts, cognitions and languages. They don’t just work on their own. We make them work. So let’s make them work for us. The ‘us’ we want to be, rather than the ‘us’ we used to be in the bad old days.

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5 things everybody should know about language: Outline of linguistics’ contribution to the liberal arts curriculum



This was written in some haste and needs further refinement. Maybe one day that will come. For now, it will be left as it stands.


This post outlines what I think are the key learnings from the output of the research of the field of linguistics that should be reflected in the general curriculum (in as much as any should be). This is in reaction to the recent posts by Mark Liberman suggesting the role and form of grammar analysis in general education. I argue that he is almost entirely wrong in his assumptions as well as in his emphasis. I will outline my arguments against his position at the end of the post. At the beginning I will outline key easily digestible lessons of modern linguistics that should be incorporated into language education at all levels.

I should note that despite my vociferous disagreement, Mark Liberman is one of my heros. His ‘Breakfast Experiments(tm)’ have brought me much joy and his and his fellow contributors to the Language Log make me better informed about developments in linguistics outside my own specialty that I would otherwise not know about. Thanks Mark for all your great work.

I have addressed some of these issues in previous posts here, here and here.

What should linguistics teach us

In my post on what proponents of simple language should know about linguistics, I made a list of findings that I propose are far more important than specific grammatical and lexicographic knowledge. Here I take a slightly more high-level approach – but in part, this is a repetition of that post.

Simply, I propose that any school-level curriculum of language education should 1. expose students (starting at primary level) to the following 5 principles through reflection on relevant examples, and 2. these principles should be reflected in the practical instruction students receive toward the acquisition of skills and general facility in the standards of that language.

Summary of key principles

  1. Language is a dialect with an army and a navy
  2. Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English
  3. We are all multilingual in many different ways
  4. A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language
  5. Language is more than words and rules

Principle 1: Language is a dialect with an army and a navy

This famous dictum (see Wikipedia on origins ) encapsulates the fact that language does not have clear boundaries and that there is no formula for distinguishing where one language ends and another begins. Often, this disctinction depends on the political interests of different groups. In different political contexts, the different Englishes around the world today, could easily qualify for separate language status and many of them have achieved this.

But exploring the examples that help us make sense of this pithy phrase also teaches us the importance of language in the negotiation of our identity and its embeddedness in the wider social sphere. There are piles and piles of evidence to support this claim and learning about the evidence has the potential of making us all better human beings less prone to disenfranchise others based on the way they speak (in as much any form of schooling is capable of such a thing). Certainly more worthy than knowing how to tell the passive voice.

Principle 2: Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English

Not only are there no clear boundaries between languages, there are no clear principles of what constitutes an individual language. A language is identified by its context of use as much as by the forms it uses. So if kayak and a propos can be a part of English so can ain’t and he don’t. It is only a combination of subconscious convention and conscious politics that decides which is which.

Anybody exploring the truth of this statement (and, yes, I’m perfectly willing to say the word truth in this context) will learn about the many features of English and all human languages such as:

  • stratification of language through registers
  • regional and social variation in language
  • processes of change in language over time
  • what we call good grammar are more or less fixed conventions of expression in certain contexts
  • the ubiquity of multiple codes and constant switching between codes (in fact, I think this is so important that it gets a top billing in this list as number 3)

Again, althoguh I’m highly skeptical of claims to causality from education to social change, I can’t see why instruction in this reality of our lives could not contribute to an international conversation about language politics. Perhaps, an awareness of this ‘mantra’ could reduce the frequency of statements such as:

  • I know I don’t speak very good English
  • Word/expression X is bad English
  • Non-native speaker X speaks better English than native speaker Y

And just maybe, teachers of English will stop abusing their students with ‘this is bad grammar’ and instead guide them towards understanding that in different contexts, different uses are appropriate. Even at the most elementary levels, children can have fun learning to speak like a newscaster or a local farm hand, without the violent intrusion into their identity that comes from the misguided and evil labeling of the first as proper and the second as ‘not good English’. Or how about giving the general public enough information to have judged the abominable behavior of the the journalist pseudo elites during the ‘Ebonics controversy’ as the disgraceful display of shameful ignorance it was.

Only and only when they have learned all that, should we mention something about the direct object.

Principle 3: We are all multilingual in many different ways

One of the things linguistics has gathered huge amounts of evidence about is the fact that we are all constantly dealing with multiple quite distinct codes. This is generally not expressed in quite as stark terms as I do here, but I take my cue from bilingualism studies where it has been suggested (either by Chaika or Romaine – I can’t track down the reference to save my life) that we should treat all our study of language as if bilingualism was the default state rather than some exception. This would make good sense even if we went by the educated guess that just over half of the world’s population speaks regularly two or more languages. But I want to go further.

First, we know from principle 1 that there is no definition of language that allows us draw clear boundaries between individual languages. Second, we know from principle 2 that each language consists of many different ‘sub-languages’ or ‘codes’. Because language is so vast and complex, it follows that knowing a language is not an either/or proposition. People are constantly straddling boundaries between different ways of speaking and understanding. Speaking in different ways for different purposes, to different people in different codes. And we know that people switch between the codes constantly for different reasons, even in the same sentence or just one word (very common in languages with rich morphologies like Czech – less common in English but possible with ‘un-fucking-convinving’). Some examples that should illustrate this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re screwed” and “And then Jeff said unto Karen”

We also know from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth derriving from the ignorance of principle 2, that acquiring these different codes is not easy. The linguist Jim Miller has suggested to me that children entering school are in a way required to learn a foreign language. In Czech schools, they are instructed in a new lexicon and new morphology (e.g. say ‘malý’ instead of ‘malej’). in English schools they are taught a strange syntax with among other things a focus on nominal structures (cf. ‘he went and’ vs. ‘his going was’) as well as an alien lexicon (cf. ‘leave’ vs. ‘depart’). This is compounded with a spelling system whose principles are often explained on the basis of a phonology they don’t understand (e.g. much of England pronuncing ‘bus’ and ‘booss’ but using teaching materials that rhyme ‘bus’ with ‘us’).

It is not therefore a huge leap to say that for all intents and purposes, we are all multilingual even if we only officially speak one language with its own army and a navy. Or at least, we enagage all the social, cognitive and linguistic processes that are involved in speaking multiple languages. (There is some counter evidence from brain imaging but in my view it is still too early to interpret this either way.)

But no matter whether we accept the strong or the weak version of my proposition, learning about the different pros and cons would make students’ lives much easier at all levels. Instead of feeling like failures over their grammar, they could be encouraged to practice switching between codes. They could also take comfort in the knowledge that there are many different ways of knowing a language and no one person can know it all.

If any time is left over, let’s have a look at constituent structures.

Principle 4: A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language

The defference shown to ‘official’ reference materials is at the heart of a myth that the presense of a word in a dictionary in some way validates the word as being a ‘real’ word in the language. But the absolute truth about language that everyone should know and repeat as a mantra every time they ask ‘is X a word’ is that dictionaries are just another text. In fact, they are their own genre of a type that Michael Hoey calls text colonies. This makes them cousins of the venerable shopping list. Dictionaries have their own conventions, their own syntax and their own lexicon. They have ‘heads’ and ‘definitions’ that are both presented in particular ways.

What they most emphatically do not do is confirm or disconfirm the existence of a word or its meaning. It’s not just that they are always behind current usage, it’s that they only reflect a fraction of the knowledge involved in knowing and using words (or as the philosopher John Austin would say ‘doing things with words’). Dictionaries fullfil two roles at once. They are useful tools for gathering information to enable us to deal with the consequences of principle 3 (i.e. to function in a complex multi-codal linguistic environment both as passive and active participants). And they help us express many beliefs about our world such as:

  • The world is composed of entities with meanings
  • Our knowledge is composed of discrete items
  • Some things are proper and others are improper

Perhaps this can become more transparent when we look at entries for words like ‘the’ or ‘cat’. No dictionary definition can help us with ‘the’ unless we can already use it. In this case, the dictionary serves no useful role other than as a catalog of our reality. Performatively assuring us of its own relevance by its irrelevance. How about the entry for ‘cat’. Here, the dictionary can play a very useful role in a bilingual situation. A German will see ‘cat = Katze’ and all will be clear in an instant. A picture can be helpful to those who have no language yet (little children). But the definition of ‘cat’ as “a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws” is of no use to anybody who doesn’t already know what ‘cat’ means. Or at the very least, if you don’t know ‘cat’, your chances of understanding any definition in the dictionary are very low. A dictionary can be helpful in reminding us that ‘cat’ is also used to refer to ‘man’ among jazz musicians (as in “he’s a cool cat”) but again, all that requires existing knowledge of cat. A dictionary definition that would say ‘a cat is that thing you know as a cat but jazz musicians sometimes use cat to refer to men’ would be just as useful.

In this way, a dictionary is like an audience in the theatre, who are simultaneously watching a performance, and performing themselves the roles of theatre audiences (dress, behavior, speech).

It is also worthwhile to think about what is required of the dictionary author. While the basic part of the lexicographer’s craft is the collection of usage examples (on index cards in the past and in corpora today) and their interpretation, all this requires a prior facility with the language and much introspection about the dictionary makers own linguistic intuitions. So lexicographers make mistakes. Furthermore, in the last hundred years or so, they also almost never start from scratch. Most dictionaries are based on some older dictionaries and the order of definitions is often as much a reflection of a tradition (e.g. in the case of the word ‘literally’ or the word ‘brandish’) as analysis of actual usage.

Why should this be taught as part of the language education curriculum? Simple! Educated people should know how the basic tools surrounding their daily lives work. But even more importantly, they should never use the presence of a word in a dictionary, and as importantly the definition of a word in a dictionary, as the definitive argument for their preferred meaning of a word. (Outside some contexts such as playing SCRABBLE or confirming an uncertainty over archaic or specialist words).

An educated person should be able to go and confirm any guidance found in a dictionary by searching a corpus and evaluate the evidence. It’s not nearly as hard as as identifying parts of speech in a sentence and about a million times more useful for the individual and beneficial for society.

Principle 5: Language is more than words and rules

Steven Pinker immortalised the traditional structuralist vision of what language consists of in the title of his book “Words and rules”. This vision is almost certainly wrong. It is based on an old articulation of language as being the product of a relatively small number of rules applied to a really large number of words (Chomsky expressed this quite starkly but the roots of this model go much deeper).

That is not to say that words and rules are not useful heuristic shortcuts to talking about language. I use this metaphor myself every day. And I certainly am not proposing that language should not be taught with reference to this metaphor.

However, this is a very impoverished view of language and rather than spend time on learning the ‘relatively few’ rules for no good reason other than to please Mark Liberman, why not learn some facts we know about the vastness and complexity of language. That way instead of having a completely misguided view of language as something finite that can be captured in a few simple precepts (often expressed in one of those moronic ‘Top X grammatical errors lists’), one could actually have a basic understanding of all the ways language expresses our minds and impresses itself on our life. Perhaps, we could even get to a generation of psycholinguists and NLP specialists who try to deal with language as it actually is rather than in its bastardised form that can be captured by rules and words.

Ok, so I’m hoisting my theoretical flag here, flying the colors of the ‘usage-based’, ‘construction grammar’, ‘cognitive semantics’ crowd. But the actual curricular proposal is theory free (other than in the ‘ought’ portion of it) and based on well-known and oft-described facts – many of them by the Language Log itself.

To illustrate the argument, let’s open the dictionary and have a look at the entry ‘get’. It will go on for several pages even if we decide to hide all its phrasal friends under separate entries. Wiktionary lists 26 definitions as a verb and 4 as a noun which is fairly conservative. But each of these definitions also comes with usage examples and usage exceptions. For instance, in ‘get behind him’, it is intransitive but in ‘get Jim to come’, it is transitive. This is combined with general rules that apply across all uses such ‘got’ as the past tense and ‘gets’ as the third person singular. Things can be even more complex as with the word ‘bad’ which has the irregular superlative ‘worst’ when it is used in a negative sense as in ‘teaching grammar in schools is the worst idea’ and ‘baddest’ in the positive sense as in ‘Mark Liberman is the baddest linguist on the internet’. ‘Baddest’ is also only appropriate in certain contexts (so my example is at the same time an illustration of code mixing). When we look at any single word in the dictionary, the amount of conscious and unconscious knowledge required to use the word in our daily speech is staggering. This is made even trickier by the fact that not everyone in any one speech community has exactly the same grasp of the word leading to a lot of negotiation and conversation repair.

It is also the sort of stuff that makes understanding of novel expressions like ‘she sneezed the napking off the table’ possible. If we must, let’s do some sentence diagramming now.

Some other things to know

I could go on, some of my other candidate principles that didn’t make this list either because they could be subsumed by one of the items, or they are too theory laden, or because I wanter a list of 5, or because this blog post is over 3,000 words already, are:

  • All lexical knowledge is encyclopedic knowledge
  • Rules of the road like conversation repair, turn taking or text cohesion are just as much part of language as things like passives, etc.
  • Metaphors (and other types of figurative language) are normal, ubiquitous and necessary for language
  • Pretty much every prejudice about gender and language is wrong (like who is more conservative, etc.)
  • No language is more beatiful or amazing than any other, saying this is most likely part of a nationalistic discourse
  • Children are not very good language learners when you put them in the same learning context as adults (e.g. two hours of instruction a week as opposed to living in a culture with no other obligation but to learn)
  • Learning a language is hard and it takes time
  • The etymology of a word does not reflect some deeper meaning of the word
  • Outside some very specific contexts (e.g. language death), languages don’t decline, they change
  • Etc.

Why we should not teach grammar in schools

So, that was my outline of what linguistic expertise should be part of the language education curriculum – and as importantly should inform teachers across all subjects. Now, let’s have a look, as promised, at why Mark Liberman is wrong to call for the teaching of grammar in schools in the first place.

To his credit, he does not trot out any of the usual utilitarian arguments for the teaching of grammar:

  • It will make learning of foreign languages easier
  • It will make today’s graduates better able to express themselves
  • It will contribute to higher quality of discourse
  • It will stop the decline of English
  • It will improve critical thinking of all students

These are all bogus, not supported by evidence and with some evidence against them (see this report for a summary of a part of them).

My argument is with his interpretation of his claim that

a basic understanding of how language works should be part of what every educated person knows

I have a fundamental problem with the very notion of ‘educated person’ because of its pernicious political baggage. But in this post I’ve used it to accept the basic premise that if we’re going to teaching lots of stuff to children in schools, we might as well teach them the good stuff. Perhaps, not always the most immediately useful stuff but definitely the stuff that reflects the best in what we have to offer to ourselves as the humanity we want to be.

But if that is the case, then I don’t think his offer of

a modern version of the old-fashioned idea that grammar (and logic and rhetoric :-)) should be for everyone

is that sort of stuff. Let’s look at what that kind of education did for the likes of Orwell, and Stunk and White who have had the benefit of all the grammar education a school master’s cane can beat into a man and yet committed such outrageous, embarrassing and damaging transgressions against linguistic knowledge (not infrequently decried on the Language Log).

The point is that ‘grammar’ (and ‘logic’ and ‘rhetoric’) do not represent even a fraction of the principles involved in how language works. The only reason why we would privilege their teaching over the teaching of the things I propose (which cover a much larger area of how language works) is because they have been taught in the past. But why? Basing it on something as arbitrary as the hodgepodge that is the treebank terminology proposed by Mark Liberman only exposes the weakness of the argument – sure, it’s well known and universally understood by professional linguists but it hides as much about language as it reveals. And as Mark acknowledges, the aim is not to educate future linguists. There are alternatives such as Dickson’s excellent Basic Linguistic Theory that take into account much more subtly the variation across languages. But even then, we avoid all the really interesting things about language. I’m not against some very basic metalinguistic terminology to assist students in dealing with language but parsing sentences for no other reason than to do it seems pointless.

The problem with basing a curriculum on old-fashioned values is that we are catering to the nostalgia of old men (and sorry Mark, despite my profound appreciation for your work, you are an old man). (By the way, I use ‘men’ to evoke a particular image rather than to make any assertions about the gender of the person in question.) But it’s not just nostalgia. It’s also their disorientation in a changing world and discomfort with encountering people who are not like them – and, oh horror, can’t tell the passive voice from the past tense. Yes, it would be more convenient for me, if everyone I spoke to had the same appreciation for what an adverb is (particularly when I was teaching foreign languages). But is that really the best we have to offer when we want to show what should be known? How much of this is just the maintenance of the status of academics who want to see their discipline reflected in the cauldron of power and respectability that is the school curriculum? If the chemists get to waste everyone’s time with polymers, why not us with trees and sentence diagrams? In a follow up post, Dick Hudson claims that at present “we struggle to cope with the effects of [the disaster of no grammar teaching]”. But I don’t see any disaster going on at the moment. Why is teaching no grammar more disasterous than the teaching of grammar based on Latin and Greek with little connection to the nature of English? Whose rules are we after?

The curriculum is already full to bursting with too much stuff that someone threw up as a shibboleth for being educated and thus eligible for certain privileges. But perhaps our curriculum has now become the kind of stable that needs the janitorial attention of a modern Heracles.

Post script: Minimalist metalinguistic curriculum

I once analysed the Czech primary curriculum and found over 240 metalinguistic terms. I know, riddiculous. The curriculum was based on the work of eminent Czech structuralists (whose theorizing influenced much of the rest of the world). It didn’t make the Czechs any more educated, eloquent, or better at learning foreign languages – although it did make it easier for me to study linguistics. But as I said above, there is certainly some place for metalanguage in general education. Much of it comes from stylistics but when it comes to grammar, I’d stick to about 15. This is not a definitive list:

  1. Noun
  2. Verb
  3. Adjective
  4. Adverb
  5. Preposition
  6. Pronoun
  7. Prefix
  8. Suffix
  9. Clause
  10. Past form of verb
  11. Future form of verbs
  12. Present form of verbs
  13. Subject
  14. Object
  15. Passive

Languages with rich morphology might need a few others to cover things like case but overall in my career as a language educator, I’ve never felt the need for any more, and nor have I felt in the presence of uneducated people of people who couldn’t tell me what the infinitive was. In fact, I’d rather take some items away (like adverb, prefix, suffix, or clause) than add new ones.

Sentence diagramming is often proposed as a way of instilling some metalinguistic awareness. I don’t see any harm in that (and a lot of potential benefit). But only with the enormous proviso that students use it to learn the relationship between parts of their language in use and NOT as a gateway to a cancerous taxonomy pretending to the absolute existence of things that could easily be just artifacts of our metacognition.

Things are different when it comes to the linguistic education of language teachers. On the one hand, I’m all for language teachers having a comprehensive education in how language works. On the other hand, I have perpetrated a lot of such teacher training over the years and have watch others struggle with it, as well. And the effects are dispiriting. I’ve seen teachers who can diagram a sentence with the best of them and are still quite clueless when it comes to understanding how speech acts work. Very often language teachers find any such lessons painful and something to get through. This means that the key thing they remember about the subject is that linguistics is hard or boring or both.

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Three books of the year 2013 and some books of the century 1900-2013


I have been asked (as every year) to nominate three books of the year for Lidové Noviny (a Czech paper I contribute to occasionally). This is always a tough choice for me and some years I don’t even bother responding. This is because I don’t tend to read books ‘of the moment’ and range widely in my reading across time periods. But I think I have some good ones this time. Additionally, Lidové Noviny are celebrating 120 years of being a major Czech newspaper so they also asked me for a book of the century (since 1900 till now). It makes no sense to even try to pick ‘the one’, so I picked three categories that are of interest to me (language, society and fiction) and chose three books in each.

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Three books of 2013

Thanks to the New Books Network, I tend to be more clued in on the most recent publications, so 2 of my recommendations are based on interviews heard there.

A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820 by John K. Thornton is without question a must read for anyone interested in, well, history. Even though he is not the first, Thornton shows most persuasively how the non-Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic (Africa and the Americas) were full-fledged political partners of the Europeans who are traditionally seen simply as conquerors with their dun powder, horses and steel weapons. Bowerman shows how these were just a small part of the mix, having almost no impact in Africa and playing a relatively small role in the Americas. In both cases, Europeans succeeded through alliances with local political elites and for centuries simply had no access to vast swathes of both continents.

Raising Germans in the Age of Empire: Youth and Colonial Culture, 1871-1914 by Jeff Bowersox. This book perhaps covers an exceedingly specific topic (compared to the vast sweep of my first pick) but it struck a chord with me. It shows the complex interplay between education, propaganda and their place in the lives of youth and adults alike.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. Standage’s eye opening book on the telegraph (The Victorian Internet) now has a companion dealing with social communication networks going back to the Romans. Essential corrective to all the gushing paradigm shifters. He doesn’t say there’s nothing new about the Internet but he does say that there’s nothing new abou humans. Much lighter reading but still highly recommended.

Books of the Century

This really caught my fancy. I was asked for books that affected me, but I thought more about those that had an impact going beyond the review cycle of a typical book.


Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure published in 1916. The Course (or Le Cours) Published posthumously by Saussure’s students from lecture notes is the cornerstone of modern linguistics. I think many of the assumptions have been undermined in the past 30-40 years and we are ripe for a paradigm change. But if you talk to a modern linguist, you will still hear much of what Saussure was saying to his students in the early 1900s in Geneva. (Time to rethink the Geneva Convention in language?)

Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky published in 1957. Unlike The Course, which is still worth reading by anyone who wants to learn about language, Syntactic Structures is now mostly irrelevant and pretty much incomprehensible to non-experts. However, it launched the Natural Language Processing revolution and its seeds are still growing (although not in the Chomskean camp). Its impact may not survive the stochastic turn in NLP but the computational view of language is still with us for good and for ill.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published in 1980 while not completely original, kickstarted a metaphor revival of sorts. While, personally, I think Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is by far the most important book of the second half of the 20th century, Metaphors We Live By is a good start (please, read the 2003 edition and pay special attention to the Afterword).


The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir published in 1949 marked a turning point in discourse about women. Although the individual insights had been available prior to Beauvoir’s work, her synthesis was more than just a rehashing of gender issues.

Language and Woman’s Place by Robin Tolmach Lakoff published in 1973 stands at the foundation of how we speak today about women and how we think about gender being reflected in language. I would now quible with some of the linguistics but not with the main points. Despite the progress, it can still open eyes of readers today.

The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss published in 1962 was one of the turning points in thinking about modernity, complexity and backwardness. Strauss’s quip that philosophers like Sartre were more of a subject of study for him than valuable interlocutors is still with me when I sit in on a philosophy seminar. I read this book without any preparation and it had a profound impact on me that is still with me today.


None of the below are my personal favourites but all have had an impact on the zeit geist that transcended just the moment.

1984 by George Orwell published in 1949. Frankly I can’t stand this book. All of its insight is skin deep and its dystopian vision (while not in all aspects without merit) lacks the depth it’s often attributed. There are many sci-fi and fantasy writers who have given the issue of societal control and freedom much more subtle consideration. However, it’s certainly had a more profound impact on general discourse than possibly any piece of fiction of the 20th century.

The Joke by Milan Kundera published in 1967 is the only book by Kundera with literary merit (I otherwise find his writing quite flat). Unlike Orwell, Kundera has the capacity to show the personal and social dimensions of totalitarian states. In The Joke he shows both the randomness of dissent and the heterogeniety of totalitarian environments.

The Castle by Franz Kafka published in 1912 (or just the collected works of Kafka) have provided a metaphor for alienation for the literati of the next hundred years. I read The Castle first so it for me more than others illustrates the sense of helplessness and alienation that a human being can experience when faced with the black box of anonymous bureaucracy. Again, I rate this for impact, rather than putting it on a ‘good read’ scale.

My personal favorites would be authors rather than individual works: Kurt Vonnegut, Robertson Davies, James Clavell would make the list for me. I also read reams of genre fiction and fan fiction that can easily stand up next to any of “the greats”. I have no shame and no guilty pleasures. I’ve read most of Terry Pratchett and regularly reread childhood favorites by the likes of Arthur Ransome or Karl May. I’ve quoted from Lee Child and Tom Clancy in academic papers and I’ve published an extensive review of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction novel.

Finally, for me, the pinnacle of recent literary achievement is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve used this as an example of how TV shows have taken over from the Novel, as the narrative format addressing weighty issues of the day, and Buffy is one of the first examples. Veronica Mars is right up there, as well, and there are countless others I’d recommend ‘reading’.

Do we need a gaming literacy: Literacy metaphor hack


I am a gaming semi-literate!

I was listening to the discussion of the latest BioShock game on the latest TWiT podcast when I realized that I am in fact game illiterate. I am hearing these stories and descriptions of experiences but I know I can’t access them directly without a major investment in knowledge and skill acquisition. So, this is what people with no or limited literacy must feel like in highly literacy-dependent environments. I really want to access the stories in the way they are told by the game. But I know I can’t. I will stumble, be discouraged, not have a very good time before I can have a good time. I will be a struggling gamer, in the same way that there are struggling readers.

Note: When I say game, I mean mostly a non-casual computer game such as BioShock or War of Worldcraft or SimCity.

What would a game literacy entail?

What would I need to learn in order to access gaming? Literacy is composed of a multiplicity of knowledge areas and skills. I already have some of these but not enough. Roughly, I will need to get at the following:

  • Underlying cognitive skills (For reading: transforming the sight of letters into sounds or corresponding mental representations. For gaming: transforming desired effects on screen into actions on a controller)
  • Complex perceptual and productive fluency (Ability to employ the cognitive skills automatically in response to changing stimuli in multiple contexts).
  • Context-based or task-based strategies (Ability to direct the underlying skills towards solving particular problems in particular contexts. For reading: Skim text, or look things up in the index, or skip acknowledgements, discover the type of text, or adopt reading speed appropriate to type of text, etc. For gaming Discover the type of game, or gather appropriate achievements, or find hidden bonuses, etc.)
  • Metacognitive skills and strategies (Learn the terminology and concepts necessary for further learning and to achieve the appropopriate aims using stratgies.)
  • Socialization skills and strategies (Learn to use the skills and knowledge to make connections with other people and exploit those connections to acquire further skill, knowledge as well as social capital derriving from those)

Is literacy a suitable metaphor for gaming? Matches and mismatches!

With any metaphor it is worth to explore the mapping to see if there are sufficient similarities. In this case, I’ll look at the following areas for matches and mismatches:

  • Skill
  • Mode
  • Status
  • Socialization
  • Content
  • Purpose


Both reading/writing (I will continue to use reading for both unless I need to stress the difference) and gaming require skill that can become automatic and that takes time to acquire. People can be both “better” and “worse” at gaming and reading.

But reading is a more universal skill (although not as universal as most people think) whereas gaming skills are more genre based.

The skill at gaming can be more easily measured by game achievement. Quality of reading measures are a bit more tenuous because speed, fluency and accuracy are all contextual measures. However, even game achievement is a bit more relative, such as in recommendations to play at normal or easy to experience the game.

In this gaming is more like reading than for instance, listening to music or watching a skill which do not require any overt acquisition of skill. See Dara O’Briain’s funny bit on the differences between gaming and reading. Of course, when he says “you cannot be bad at watching a film”, we could quibble that much preparation is required for watching some films, but such training does not involve the development of underlying cognitive skills (assuming the same cultural and linguistic environment). Things are a bit more complex for some special kind of listening to music. Nevertheless people do talk about “media literacy”.


Reading is mostly a uni-modal experience. It is possible to read out loud or to read while listening but ultimately reading is its own mode. Reading has an equivalent in writing that though not a mirror image skill, requires relatively the same skill.

Gaming is a profoundly multimodal experience combining vision, sound, movement (and often reading, as well). There are even efforts to involve smell. Gaming does not have a clear expressive counterpart. The obvious expressive equivalent to writing would be game design but that clearly requires a different level of skill. However, gaming allows complex levels of self-expression within the process of game play which does not have an equivalent in reading but is not completely dissimilar to creative writing (like fanfiction).


Reading is a neutral to high status activity. The act itself is neutral but status can derrive from content. Writing (expressive rather than utilitarian) is a high status activity.

Gaming is a low status to neutral activity. No loss of status derives from inability to game to not gaming in a way that is true of reading. Some games have less questionable status and many games are played by people who derive high status from outside of gaming. There are emerging status sanction systems around gaming but none have penetrated outside gaming, yet.


Reading and writing are significant drivers of wider socialization. They are necessary to perform basic social functions and often represent gateways into important social contexts.

Gaming is only required to socialize in gaming groups. However, this socialization may become more highly desirable over time.


Writing is used to encode a wide variety of content – from shopping lists to neuclear plant manuals to fiction.

Games on the other hand, encode a much more narrower range of content. Primarily narrative and primarily finctional. Although more non-narrative and non-fictional games may exist. There are also expository games but so far, none that would afford easy storage of non-game information without using writing.


Reading and writing are very general purpose activities.

Gaming on the other hand has a limited range of purposes: enjoyment, learning, socialization with friends, achieving status in a wider community. You won’t see a bus stop with a game instead of a timetable (although some of these require puzzle solving skills to decipher).

Why may game literacy be important?

As we saw, there are many differences between gaming and reading and writing. Nevertheless, they are similar enough that the metaphor of ‘game literacy’ makes sense provided we see its limitations.

Why is it important? There will be a growing generational and populational divide of gamers and non-gamers. At the moment this is not very important in terms of opportunities and status but it could easily change within a generation.

Not being able to play a game may exclude people from social groups in the same way that not-playing golf or not engaging in some other locally sanctioned pursuit does (e.g. World of Warcraft).

But most importantly, as new generations of game creators explore the expressive boundaries of games (new narratives, new ways of story telling), not being able to play games may result in significant social exclusion. In the same way that a quick summary of what’s in a novel is inferior to reading the novel, films based on games will be pale imitations of playing the games.

I can easily imagine a future where the major narratives of the day will be expressed in games. In the same way that TV serials have supplanted novels as the primary medium of sharing crucial societal narratives, games can take over in the future. The inner life novel took about 150 years to mature and reigned supreme for about as long while drama and film functioned as its accompaniment. The TV serial is now solidifying its position and is about where the novel was in the 1850s. Gaming may take another couple of decades to get to a stage where it is ready as a format to take over. And maybe nothing like that will happen. But if I had a child, I’d certainly encourage them to play computer games as part of ensuring a more secure future.