Metaphors: Like a Kick to the Head

on September 24, 2008

In a previous life I taught beginner martial arts classes for adults, and also-on days when my karma was in particularly bad shape-for preschoolers. Which basically constitutes the two most uncoordinated demographics of people whom a martial arts instructor could ever be asked to train. And instead of keeping you in suspense for the entire length of this post I’ll tell you this. 1.) You never want to be the first person a 38 year-old tries to kick in the head, because you will inevitably end up with 170 pounds of force that lands directly in your solar plexus. And 2.) The most important lessons I have ever received about teaching and learning didn’t come to me in a textbook or a classroom. I learned them barefoot, sweating, and while desperately attempting to dodge very poorly aimed kicks.

My own martial arts instructor was the first person who introduced me to the three ways to communicate lessons to my students.

Verbally– Tell them what you want them to do.

Visually– Show them what you want them to do, by doing it yourself.

Tactilely– Physically put their hand/foot in the correct position so they know what it is supposed to feel like.

My own lesson in this was that the better I communicated objectives to my students, the less likely I was to get physically injured. Needless to say, these quickly became my hard-and-fast rules for teaching anybody anything.

At Root, we often talk about the importance of metaphors in learning. While I liked the idea of metaphors as learning tools, at first I didn’t quite see how they fit into my three golden rules of teaching.

And then-much like a wayward kick-it hit me. A lot of the information that our clients want us to deliver to their employees is intangible. It involves concepts and strategies and ideas… and while I’ve done my fair share of teaching people tactilely what to do with their fists (thumb goes on the outside if you don’t want it broken!), there’s no way to physically make a learner understand what an idea or concept should feel like. This was my aha! moment.

We often verbally tell people the ideas we want to share, and occasionally we even visually explain them, but metaphors provide missing piece of the intangible concepts we want people to understand. Metaphors tell learners “this is what it should feel like.”

I’ve fully embraced the importance of metaphors in learning. Now, every time I need to share a concept or idea with people I ask myself these three questions:

How can I show them?

How can I tell them?

How can I make them feel this?

And when I do it right, it very rarely ends with me taking a foot to the head anymore.



Training and Skill Building
Developing Leaders and Managers
Managing Change