From Systems to Structures Part 1: A New Metaphor for Education

The Education System.

Many people today discuss our education system, how it is failing, and what to do to fix it. But the simple fact that we use the word “system” implies a metaphor that may be contributing to education’s failure and the ineffectiveness of reform strategies.

Metaphors unconsciously guide our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

Crazy classroom

Metaphorical language is so ingrained in our culture that we rarely notice our use of figurative speech. Teachers, for example, just before a break from school might say their classroom is a zoo. An innocent metaphor, with not-so innocent implications. We know the teacher means his or her classroom is chaotic, noisy, and restless, with students acting a little bit like animals. We may laugh and agree the whole school is the same because we have only two days before break, or there’s a full moon, or there’s a weather change, etc.

What we do not realize is the detrimental effect this metaphor, and others like it, has on our implicit beliefs and perceptions about ourselves and our students. A classroom as a zoo means our students are not tiny humans in our temporary care, but animals needing control. It effectively dehumanizes students and places the onus of the classroom environment on their ‘unruly’ and ‘wild’ behavior.

photo of leopard inside the cage
Photo by Tina Nord on Pexels.com

The metaphor of a classroom as a zoo fails to recognize the academic, social, and emotional reality of each individual in the room. The teacher might be exhausted from a semester of work, so is letting things slide instead of correcting behavior he or she might have easily corrected at a different time. Or, perhaps, students and teacher are mutually nervous, excited, or anxious about what a break from school means. Are students worried about spending time at a parent’s house that is different from where they normally live? Is the teacher anxious about facing out-of-town family over a holiday? Are students missing a relative they only get to see when the break comes? Is the teacher counting down the minutes until every minute is spent with his or her own children? Is everyone a little bit nervous or excited about what to do with their time when school is out? Thus, an ‘innocent’ metaphor turns an important teaching moment into a few school days of doing anything you can to “keep the animals in their cages.” Instead of recognizing everyone’s emotional and mental states, students and teachers might act a little crazy and blame the eminent need for a ‘break.’

In the same way, the metaphor of education as a system guides implicit beliefs and behaviors that lead to the failure of education.

To demonstrate my point, I always like going to the dictionary. 

Merriam-Webster.com says a system is:

photo of green data matrix
  • an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole
  • an organized or established procedure

AND

  • an organized society or social situation regarded as stultifying or oppressive 

Merriam-Webster further states,

“System suggests a fully developed or carefully formulated method often emphasizing rational orderliness.” 

I don’t know about the students you teach, but my students are rarely rational and carefully formulated, unless I work hard to get them there. My students are definitely not “fully developed,” nor would I want them to be. I, myself, am not even carefully formulated or fully developed. Fully developed implies that we are done learning. As an educator, I never want my students to reach the end of their development and discovery. In addition, I would be appalled if my classroom was described as stultifying and oppressive

Yet this is exactly how the “Education System” is perceived. There is little room for irrationality, disorganization, individualization, or the under-developed. Many people in our culture do find school an oppressive social situation. Look at how many families opt out of traditional public schooling on one hand, and how many teens drop out of school on the other hand. 

We need a new guiding metaphor. A System is run top-down. A Structure, in contrast, is built bottom-up. Systems are linear, two-dimensional. Structures are dynamic, multi-dimensional.

Why describe the way we teach as a “system?” Why not the Education Structure?

The Education Structure.

stonehenge under nimbostratus clouds
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Back to the dictionary. My trusted friend Merriam-Webster.com describes structure as:

  • the action of building
  • the aggregate of elements of an entity in their relationships to each other

AND

  • from the Latin structus, which means “to build”

An “Education Structure” is an active, dynamic, living thing. The word structure can be a noun or a verb, and carries with it implications of personalization and action from all people involved. The Latin root of the word invokes conscious and unconscious thoughts about community, discovery, and growth. I, myself, want to be involved in something that is based off of relationships to each other

A system is a static and formulated model, delivered from on high for the people on high.

A structure is a dynamic model to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits. 

I imagine our education system today somewhat like a conveyor belt. Children enter the system in kindergarten. The system starts and, like a conveyor belt, does not stop. Children are moved through, year to year, until either graduation or drop-out. Those who can keep up, who can remain at pace on the belt due to circumstances within and around them, do well and arrive at the finish line a “fully developed” member of society ready for college or career. Those who fall behind or who cannot remain on the belt get further and further behind until their progress is similar to Lucy and Ethel trying to stuff chocolates down their uniforms.


While students are not chocolates and teachers are not professional television comedians (although we try to be!), this clip demonstrates the tragedy of the Education-System-Conveyor-Belt. What happens when students fail to keep up? Teachers, under the pressure to achieve, take those students in hand and try to do everything they can to get them caught up, like Lucy hiding chocolates in her hat. Outward signs of test scores and graduation rates might show that students are doing fine, and the conveyor belt keeps going. The system disregards the many, many ‘chocolates’ that simply fall off the assembly line.

Teachers are left feeling they are “Fighting a loosing game.”

What if, instead of constantly moving in one direction, we are moving our students upward and outward in their own personalized directions? The metaphor of education as constructing a structure provides a paradigm shift in the fundamental way we approach teaching and learning.

In the Education Structure, we not only change the way we teach, but change the way we think and believe about teaching. 

Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire said, “Education must begin with the solution of the student-teacher contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” He said for change to last, it must be genuine and it must come from the bottom. 

So, that’s where we’ll start – from the bottom. If we are to make any change in the landscape of education, we must start with pouring a new foundation. Our foundation is the equal importance and investment each person has in building a solid learning structure.

man cutting white cable beside boy in grey hoodie
Photo by Jessica Klaus on Pexels.com

Teachers become guides and facilitators of knowledge instead of sages. Students become builders, intimately involved in their own learning. The structure metaphor also implies that we approach teaching and learning with a progressive and developmental framework, rather than a time-based competition to the end of the assembly line.

To maintain structural integrity, the construction of a building cannot be rushed. Concrete must be properly set before building on top of it. The Education Structure allows students to follow an individualized and developmentally appropriate plan for building knowledge and skills. Similarly, construction does not begin with the penthouse. The Education Structure begins in the basement, with brand new paradigms about how students learn and how teachers teach. 

Thirty years ago, former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education David Kearns called for complete systemic changes to education. His challenge remains before us. What is our response?

“The task before us is the restructuring of our entire public education system. I don’t mean tinkering. I don’t mean piecemeal changes or even well-intentioned reforms. I mean the total restructuring of our schools. . . Districts are organized like a factory of the late 19th century: top-down, command-control management, a system designed to stifle creativity and independent judgement.”

~David Kearns, “An Education Recovery Plan for America” (1988)

Can we restructure our old system to build something new? 

“The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” ~Socrates 

Click here for From Systems to Structures Part 2: Four Models for Learning.

References and Further Reading:

Kearns, D. T. (1988). An Educational Recovery Plan for America. The Phi Delta Kappan, 69(8), 565-570. Kearns_1988

King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41(1), 30-35. SageOnTheStage

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff_Johnson_Metaphors

Lindsay Unified School District. (2017). Beyond Reform: Systemic Shifts Toward Personalized Learning (forward by Robert J. Marzano). Marzano Research: Bloomington, IN.

Pugh, K. (2017). Computers, Cockroaches, and Ecosystems: Understanding  Learning Through Metaphors. Information Age Publishing: Charlotte, NC.

Yero, J. L. (2001). Metaphors in Education. Metaphors


One thought on “From Systems to Structures Part 1: A New Metaphor for Education

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: