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Learning is a Journey: Consequences of a metaphor – Metaphor Hacker
Education Extended writing Framing Metaphor

Learning is a Journey: Consequences of a metaphor

How to read this

  • This will take about 18 minutes to read (at 230 words/min) but the text is structured to make it easy to jump around and find the key points faster. I tend to go into more detail than most people find necessary.
  • Two reasons to read:
    • Explore a different perspective on some aspects of teaching and learning
    • See an illustration of a generative metaphor analysis
  • The two main sections can be read independently
    • Metaphor breakdown (12 mins)
      • Includes a table summarising key comparisons, this can be read instead of the detailed breakdown
    • Overall lessons (5 mins)
      • Includes an aside on two modes of education (2 mins) that can be skipped
  • There are also paragraphs on (they are not necessary to understand the main point):
    • method of metaphor analysis (1 min) and
    • usefulness of metaphor for learning (1 min)
  • This can be read in sequence or in parts – the order matters but you can circle around

Note: This was initially written as part of a discussion about how to best organise learning support but it got out of hand. It should be comprehensible on its own.

Journey metaphor breakdown (12 mins)

Learning is a journey. A common saying. But if we take the metaphor seriously, how can we change the way we think about learning as well as teaching? If learning is a journey, what do we know about journeys that can help us rethink some aspects of learning?

A journey is an activity that takes place over time and space. Something that requires both preparation, guidance and effort. Here I want to focus on the preparation and guidance that we can easily project onto the sort of preparation and guidance we offer learners.

A traveller can get broadly four types of support to make their journey successful.

  1. Map
  2. Itinerary
  3. Briefing
  4. Guide

These types of support can be utilised simultaneously, or in sequence (any order), before setting out or while en route. Are there useful analogues in teaching and learning? Can we learn something new about both?

Note on method

To help us tap the potential of the metaphor, we need to contrast two domains of knowledge. Our source domain is journey and our target domain is learning. We then project them onto one another and see if something interesting pops up. We can proceed in three steps:

  1. Lay out the salient features of the source domain that could be relevant to a comparison.
  2. Find areas in the target domain that seem to map onto the source domain. Be explicit about the mappings and their consequences.
  3. Finally, it is essential to find places where the metaphor breaks down. There are many things about a journey that do not help us when thinking about learning and some may be actively harmful.

It is easy to just put a metaphor out there and let it sit. But to learn from it, it is important to do the hard work.

See Hacking a metaphor in five steps for more about the method and How (not) to explain anything with metaphor for more about the importance of understanding both the source and target domains.


What is relevant about maps

Maps are created to describe the territory or ‘lay of the land’ from a particular perspective and for a particular purpose. They both simplify and systematise. They differ in the level of detail (scale), they make choices about what features of the terrain to capture and which to leave out.

Maps reflect the logic of the territory and the perspective taken, but they do not reflect the sequence in which the territory was uncovered. They may imply a particular direction of travel but do not specify it.

Maps can be consulted independently of a journey but the amount of understanding of the territory will be limited without actually visiting the area in person. They are much less useful to someone who is familiar with the area but may still reveal important relationships that may not be obvious to someone who only knows a place by visiting.

Reading a map is a skill. Some people are better than others at using maps for actual journeys. Some people are very good at plotting journeys on maps but are not very good at choosing the direction of travel when confronted with the reality of the actual terrain. (I am one of those).

But maps have a purpose to explain particular aspects of the terrain within the limitations of their format. Perhaps the most extreme case is the famous London Tube map which is only interested in connections between stations but not time or distance on the surface. Roadmaps may contain areas of water but nothing about navigating through the water. A sailor (and it has happened, twice) who will use the road atlas to navigate British waters will be in real danger.

How it applies to teaching/learning

In teaching and learning, the equivalent of maps are textbooks or manuals. They are also written to expose the logic of the subject matter as it is understood by the author or a community to which the author belongs. They will choose the level of detail and they will keep in mind the purpose of their reader.

A textbook or a manual has limits for independent learning without some engagement with the subject matter. Some books may be more or less detailed and explicit but without some further action, the learning is limited.

However, like maps, textbooks are essential to help us understand the relationship between concepts and as a reference while we’re getting used to the new domain. They will be referred to less as the domain becomes familiar but may still reward a reference as a reminder of a particular perspective on the domain or a less familiar corner of it.

Like maps, textbooks and manuals have no concept of time. They may imply ‘time to read’ through thickness but not time to learn. In fact, like maps, they may mislead us and suggest to us that we understand something better than we actually do.

Also, like with maps, reading a textbook is a skill. Even somebody who is a very proficient reader of narrative fiction or even just magazines, may struggle to make the most out of a textbook or a piece of academic writing intended for learning.

This is even more pronounced with instruction manuals. Two people can read the same manual for setting up a computer, drilling into a wall, or cooking a meal, and come up with very different results. It is important to know what to pay attention to, understand where the manual is taking a shortcut, where it’s assuming prior knowledge, what are the conventions of structuring the information, etc. Exam instructions are one well-known example.

Like maps, textbooks may also take shortcuts and it is dangerous to assume otherwise. Repairing a car after only reading an engineering textbook would not be any wiser than trying to sail around the UK with a road map. This is an extreme scenario, but many more subtle ones exist.

Where the metaphor breaks down

Unlike maps, textbooks or guidance manuals are more linear in a way that may imply a particular direction of travel. They are also not structured in a way that allows easy navigation. Maps do not contain a narrative although it may be provided in an accompanying text.

Reading a map requires a different type of skill than reading a book and different kind of people will be able to benefit from them.

Maps are much less ‘authorial’, while they do have style and genre, the creator is much less prominent. This may be true of some textbooks and manuals but not of others.

There is also a difference in the amount of time, a reader expects to engage with a map when compared to a textbook. Maps are much more iconic in the sense that their layout represent some features of the terrain. In textbooks and manuals (unless they contain illustrations), everything is mediated through language.

Creating a map requires much narrower and more specialised skill set than textbook making. Almost anybody who has taught a subject can write a textbook (and many people who haven’t). But perhaps, even though, this is not a good match, we should think a bit more carefully about the skill sets of creators of textbooks and manuals.

One reason is that the quality of a map is much easier to check than the quality of a textbook.


What is relevant about itineraries

Itinerary is a description of a particular journey through a map. The most important feature of an itinerary is time. It starts from the perspective that the traveller only has a certain amount of time and proposes particular path through the territory as described by a map. It will be explicit about how long it will take from point A to point B.

An itinerary will also often suggest activities to do at different points of the journey. It will note points of interest along the way. It may also fill in more detail in certain parts that the map leaves unmentioned (for instance, where the road may be particularly hard to travel on). It may even suggest equipment necessary or think in terms of means of transport. It may offer shortcuts.

There may be multiple itineraries available for journeying to the same destination or even through the same points. They will usually differ on how much time they take or what the traveller may expect to do at different points. There may also be alternative itineraries based on the travellers’ skill, physical fitness or equipment available.

The itinerary will rely on the existence of the map for traveller to understand broader relationships. It may often contain snippets of the map to illustrate the layout of particular points.

It may be of note that historically, itineraries predate maps by millennia. There are few ancient maps but many itineraries. Also, the skill of making maps is significantly more specialised than of itineraries. And finally, map making has changed much more with technology and developments in science than itinerary creation has.

How it applies to teaching and learning

There is no one natural equivalent to itineraries in the domain of teaching and learning. But perhaps this may lead us to come creative ways of developing some. (The introductory section is one such attempt when compared to the table of contents which would be analogous to the map.)

The closest to an itinerary is the ‘curriculum’, but this is more a guide to the ‘teacher’ than the learner. A curriculum is more like a leaflet from a tour company about what to expect (which may be called an itinerary) but it is not sufficient for someone to undertake the journey alone with a map. A curriculum will usually contain reference to time but it will be ‘institutional time’ related to a particular course of study. A good itinerary will think in terms of ‘journey time’ and will pay attention to the demands of the territory and may even take into account an individual travellers capabilities.

Some books sometimes contain suggestions as to how to read them to achieve different goals. And sometimes people write independent guides to reading a particular book or a series of books to achieve a result. But this is relatively rare and also leaves time and sequence implicit.

What we need is to provide more explicit itineraries for learners that acknowledge time as a point of departure. Specifying things like: this is what you should do if you have 6 hours over six weeks. We can then offer alternative itineraries through the domain of knowledge and skill we are interested in depending on the time, interest, skill and prior knowledge of the learner.

Where the metaphor breaks down

Itineraries (like curricula) can be much more explicit about journey time because it is given by the territory and means of transport. They are much easier to construct and a traveller can be certain that they will complete the journey in the specified amount of time and will have completed the ‘journey’ at the end if they follow the steps. The journey is both the means and the end.

This is the downfall of many curricula and collections of learning outcomes. They conflate the journey through the learning process to the learning itself. But learning requires more than simply walking along a particular path. Perhaps a learning itinerary should be more like instructions to a treasure hunt, where certain points along the path require more effort and simply following the steps does not guarantee success.

Finally, itineraries are much more bounded by the territory. There’s a limit to the level of detail in which a traveller can explore a territory but a domain of knowledge and skill is much more open ended.

It is an open question whether the same relationship exists between learning itineraries and textbook as does between maps and itineraries. Itineraries are much easier to make than maps, but it seems to me that it is the other way around with textbooks.


What is relevant about a briefing

A pre-trip briefing is an in-person presentation to a group of travellers about what to expect on the journey. It will refer to the map and/or an itinerary.

Participants in the briefing can ask questions, they can consult with each other before setting out, they can form groups who will travel together.

But ultimately they will be left to undertake the journey on their own without further assistance along the way.

How it applies to teaching and learning

The closest parallel to a pre-trip briefing is a training session or a course. It usually happens in small (or large groups) at some remove from the actual activity it is meant to prepare for. It sets out the key concepts, guides attendees through any learning materials. However, the attendance in the session itself is only a precursor to learning.

The metaphor can be very helpful because often we confuse attendance in a training session with learning itself. This would be equivalent to equating a pre-trip briefing with the journey itself. The lesson for creating teaching sessions should then be that they should include a focus on how the learning journey should proceed rather than just a description of the territory.

Often a course will be designed to provide training sessions along the learning journey with work expected to be done in between. Somewhat like a series of briefings before every stage of a race. But much of the work is often left implicit and the only feedback the trainer gets is whether participants have understood the briefing, not whether they achieved the destination along a route.

Where the metaphor breaks down

Unlike a pre-trip briefing, a course or a class may involve (but often doesn’t) a certain amount of practice that results to learning. This would be similar to the pre-trip briefing facilitator walking with its participants for a part of the journey.


What is relevant about a guide

A journey is a very different experience when the traveller is following an actual human guide (rather than a written one). The guide may highlight points of interest, warn of upcoming difficulties, make choices about alternative routes, etc. The traveller can show up with little or no preparation and simply follow.

There are limits to where and how much following a guide is possible. Just because they have a guide, a traveller cannot simply follow into a terrain for which they are not prepared. Almost anybody can follow a guide through a city or a long countryside path. But climbing a mountain or rafting down a river requires preparation.

The guide may help in other ways. They may carry some of the travellers baggage, or they may cook food. They will also negotiate with other people encountered along the way.

But most importantly, a guide also provides emotional support for the traveller. This can be implicit through a feeling of security. Or it can be explicit when the guide provides encouragement or reassurance.

How it applies to teaching and learning

There are two possible equivalents to a guided tour in learning and teaching: 1. consultancy and 2. coaching.

A consultant will give advice as to what to do next and may even do some of the work themselves. They will point out possible alternative courses of action and they will help make the decision about which one to make. Sometimes a consultant may do some of the required work themselves to help the work move at a required pace. A consultant can help a group as easily as an individual.

A coach will focus less on the journey itself and more on the change in the traveller along the journey. They will do many of the same things a consultant will do but they will stress the need for their charge to develop skills necessary to travel on their own next time. Unlike a consultant, a coach will mostly work with an individual or when working with a group will spend time with each individual.

But as with guides, we must not forget about the emotional benefit having a coach or a consultant can offer. Learning something new leaves us vulnerable. We are exposed to a new and confusing experience which is uncomfortable and can even be harmful to mental health in some high stakes situations. Particularly to some people who are more susceptible. Having somebody to ‘put the hand on the tiller’ or simply offer encouragement, can be just as important as the advice they impart.

Where the metaphor breaks down

Whereas a guided tour can take place anywhere, both coaching and consultancy are traditionally suited only to certain subject areas or domains of expertise. But perhaps we could expand their reach.

With most guided tours, any change in the participant will be accidental. The journey will be completed simply by following the guide. The guided tour attendees may even learn less than somebody who just wanders around without any guidance at all.

However, with consultancy or coaching, the aim is change and increase in capabilities and independence. The destination is quite distinct from the journey. Even if the journey is necessary, ‘journey is more important than the destination’ applies less.

This has implications for the difference between the amount of skill and training required in the two different settings. Anybody who knows an area can be a guide. A city tour guide will require some training in local knowledge but not in walking and having people follow them. Consultants are much more like this but coaches require so much more skill than that. Which is perhaps why there are so many fewer of them outside specialised areas.

Comparison chart

Type of support Journey Teaching and learning
Map / Textbook or manual
  • Map
    • Represents the logic of the territory
    • Does not reflect the logic of discovery
    • Allows multiple ways of interaction
    • Can differ at level of detail (zoom level)
    • Is limited in how much of the terrain can be understood just by consulting it
    Map user
    • Needs to learn conventions of map making
    • Needs to be aware of maps purpose and limitation
    Map creator
    • High level of skill and training
    • Deep knowledge of area assisted by technology
  • Textbook
    • Outlines the logic of the subject
    • Does not reflect logic of discovery
    • Will differ in level of detail based on level
    • May suggest direction and sequence of learning
    • May contain some learning activities
    • Is limited in how much can be learned from it without other activities
  • Textbook user
    • Benefits from skills on how to learn from a textbook
    • Can be confused into thinking textbook is complete
  • Textbook creator
    • Does not receive specialised training
    • Requires knowledge of area and some understanding of learners’ need

Itinerary / Syllabus or learning objectives

  • Itinerary
    • One path out of many
    • Driven by time need to travel
    • Alternatives may be possible
    • May rely on map
    • Provides rich information in select places
    • Often focused on independent travel
  • Itinerary user
    • Follows each step
    • Requires less skill than map
  • Itinerary creator
    • Anybody with knowledge of area
    • Less skill than a map maker
  • Syllabus
    • Assumes the presence of a teacher
    • Rarely intended for independent learning
    • Not detailed or rich in information
    • Rarely provides alternatives
    • Driven by time provided by institution
    • Will refer to a textbook
  • Syllabus user
    • Teacher more than a learner
    • Will not refer to it very often
  • Syllabus creator
    • No special skill required

Briefing / Training session

  • Happens before journey
  • Individual or small groups
  • Journey is very distinct from briefing
  • Is accompanied by reference to maps and itineraries
  • Little experience of training required for briefing giver
  • Happens as part of learning
  • Sometimes as the only opportunity for learning
  • Always in groups (small to large)

Guide / Consultant or coach

  • Takes the traveller through the entire journey
  • Points out important parts of the journey
  • Helps make decisions about direction of travel or changes
  • Sometimes performs some tasks instead of the traveller
  • Provides sense of security or emotional support
  • Consultant
    • Works with consultee through every step
    • Does some of the work for the consultee
    • Helps make decisions about changes in action
  • Coach
    • Points out deficiency in performance
    • Adjusts improvement plan based on progress

Overall lessons (5 mins)

There are some overall lessons we can learn from this metaphor break down:

  1. We do not have enough detailed itineraries in education.
  2. We often confuse what is the preparation for learning, with the learning itself.

Lack of itineraries

Finding an analogue for a rich, detailed itinerary, was the most difficult of all the four mappings. We have lots of maps and briefings, but very few itineraries that do more than inform the traveller about stops on the way. Those are the curricula and syllabi. But they are really much more an itinerary for the teacher, not the learner.

How can itineraries help

I think there may be a great benefit to creating more itineraries for the learners that will help them navigate the journey itself. We are good at producing guidance that maps the territory. But much less good at suggesting ways through the territory that the map often leaves implicit.

Can we find answers that are analogous to questions such as these:

  • How long are we expecting a learning journey will take?
  • What are the points of interest along the way?
  • What can the traveller do to take short cuts or scenic routes?
  • Where are the steep hills, the challenging climbs, and treacherous descents?
  • What should we not forget to do at particular spots?


But perhaps the most important information an itinerary can give us is how long every step should take. We understand that the exact time will vary for everyone but having some idea of what is necessary is helpful.

But when we assign homework, readings or suggest some other activity, we almost never suggest how long it should take. The one exception is training in sports and sometimes music. But this could be a feature of all instruction.

The problem is that because time is so often left unspecified, we don’t actually know how long things take. We know how long lessons take because of scheduling and we suggest things like ‘you should study 3 hours for every hour in class’.

But we never say things like ‘to understand this concept, you should think about this for 10 minutes every day in this particular way and repeat it five times’. Yet, it is possible that this is what sets apart successful learners. They simply figured out a way to do this.

Aside: Two modes of teaching

Interestingly, this has been identified as a difference between “Western” and “Eastern” education (or rather their stereotypes). I’m going to call them the Map mode and the Itinerary mode.

In reality, both modes are present in both the Eastern and Western traditions (or rather the many more traditions spread across a vast continuum). But the stereotypes can help us see the contrasts, advantages and pitfalls of both modes.

An instructor in the “Map mode” will be describing the map and what the destination looks like. It is as if the description were enough to magically transport the traveller to the destination. This is the image of the lecturer at a lectern.

The failure mode of this approach is a student who sees what they want to learn but have no idea of how to get there. An obverse of this is a teacher trying to explain the same thing in yet another way, being frustrated with the students not learning.

In the extreme, the assumption built into this approach is that everyone is the same. Simply put everyone in the same room (or a MOOC), tell them things, and they will know them. And that’s how you do education at scale.

In the “Itinerary mode”, the focus will be on the path, the journey that everybody has to travel through. Here we don’t have an instructor, we have a guide who points us in a certain direction and tells us to pay attention to how we step. Here the image is of the yogi telling us to focus on our breath as we try to get a better understanding of how things fit together. Or in the extreme, the Zen master who will try to give us push in the right direction with a koan.

The failure mode here is the student begging the master to say something specific. Describe what the destination will look like.

In the extreme, the teacher in this mode assumes that everybody is maximally different. Everyone needs to travel their individual path and the path will change as they go along it. This does not necessarily scale very well. Nor does it take advantage of the many similarities between different individuals who can’t learn the lessons of the many who trod the journey before them.

Preparation and the journey

The map is not the territory” goes a famous saying. Yet, in education we often behave as if maps were all the were needed. Journeys are an afterthought. Thus we lecture, we give explanations, we write books about every conceivable topic.

These things are necessary, but they are obviously not sufficient. And of course, we understand that learning takes time. We append seminars or labs to our lectures, tutorials to our readings, homework to go with our explanations. But these are always somehow secondary to the “main thing”.

And then we go and complain about lectures (even though, not books, for some reason) and try to replace them with more ‘interactive’ activities. But those are still in the preparation mode, not the travel mode. We think of education as a series of explanations interrupted by periods of inactivity.

But the journey metaphor can perhaps help us to flip it around. We can think of learning as a processes punctuated by a series of explanations. But the explanations are just a part of the preparation for the next step in the process.

The ‘flipped classroom’ idea hints at this but ultimately, it still thinks of learning as very event based. It tries to say ‘read the pre-trip briefing yourself and then come to class and we will walk together’. And not infrequently a better metaphor for the in-class activity is carrying some people who did not bring the right gear on the trip.

Note on the benefits of metaphor

Was the journey metaphor necessary for any of this. Not really. We could have come up with all these ideas about learning without it. And many people have. I myself have been thinking myself along these lines for a while without the journey metaphor. But the journey metaphor gave us a structure and a different way of talking about learning.

Learning is learning and journeys are journeys. They are more different than they are similar. But for a moment, thinking of them as essentially one thing, was a useful exercise.