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“I’m a mop not a sponge”: Metaphors all the way down

A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

from wikipedia


Yesterday, I was in a meeting with a parent and one of my students, (why do teachers have parent meetings about a teenage student’s education and not have the student there too?)

By Chris Hogg on Flickr The parent observantly noted that although her son could be physically in a room, he could often ‘disconnect’ and be elsewhere in his mind. For him to be more successful, he would need to engage more in what was going on. I told him, with all honesty, that I too had that problem to the point that my parents worried that I might have been on drugs (I wasn’t). It took until my Grade 13 year (Ontario, Canada) to recognize that I needed to be a participant in the classroom in order to ‘stay connected’.

As I was talking my student interrupted and said, “I just had a flash of insight, I’m a mop not a sponge!”

He got it! And today he proved it. He was a fully engaged participant in my Math lesson. I can hear myself in upcoming classes, “Remember to be the mop”.

“Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social relations. A metaphor may thus be the guide for future actions.” George Lakoff & Mark Johnson

“The more we understand metaphor, the more we understand ourselves.” Dan Pink

We try to get ‘all the way down’ to the bottom of things when really what we need is insight into things. [Uhhhg! A perfect case-in-point: I just finished deleting an overdone, unnecessary paragraph describing this.]

We don’t need to ‘fix’ as much as we need to understand… (deeply, not literally).

We must dance to the music, not count the bars, or get to the final note.

Metaphors are the foundation of our thoughts. They assemble ideas, they construct meaning, they build understanding. They create learning.

Metaphors teach


Some Metaphor Resources:

Tick-Tack-Treat (This leadership lesson plan is a favorite from my retreat!) This includes an introduction to the use of Metaphors and Stories in Leadership Education taken from my Masters Paper.

Teaching Metaphors : Great stories that warm the heart, and teach the soul.

My del.icio.us tagged with ‘metaphor’


Credits: Turtles all the way down, story and image are from Wikipedia, but I first read it here: ‘Turtles All the Way Down: Prerequisites to Personal Genius‘. ‘Magic mop’ image by Chris Hogg on Flickr. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson quote, ‘Metaphors We Live By‘, University of Chicago Press, 1980, pg. 156. Quote by Dan Pink:’A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future‘, Penguin Group, 2006, pg. 140. ‘Life & Music’ video written by Alan Watt

Originally posted: April 5th, 2007

Reflection upon re-reading and re-posting:

In schools we tend to be so literal and focused on what is ‘Right’ or ‘True’. Metaphors help define us, they help us create meaning… and they even help us identify who we are, and what is important to us.

Jeg går en Tur – A self portrait by Lasse Gjertsen