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Metaphors in learning

Anna Sfard – Two Metaphors

Acquisition metaphor vs participation metaphor
All our concepts and beliefs have their roots in a limited number of fundamental ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries and carried from one domain to another by the language that we use.

Essential live with both – each has something to offer the other can’t provide.

My thoughts
•    How Sfard defines the acquisition and participation metaphors

Acquisition metaphor (AM)

•    ‘the act of gaining knowledge – Collins English dictionary – human learning is seen as an acquisition of something.
•    Since Piaget and Vygotski – growth of knowledge in process of learning has been analyzed in terms of concept development.
•    Concepts – basic understanding of knowledge that can be accumulated gradually refined and combined to form even richer cognitive structures.
•    Can talk about learner as a person who constructs meaning.
•    Knowledge acquisition and concept development – human mind – container to be filled with certain materials – learner becomes owner of these materials.
•    Gaining ownership over some kind of self – sustained entity.
•    There are many types of entities that may be acquired in the process of learning – key words generated by acquisition metaphor , knowledge and concept.
•    Making entities your own – reception and acquisition
•    The idea of learning as gaining possession over some commodity has persisted in a wide spectrum of frameworks.
•    Differing methods concept development
o    Passive reception of knowledge
o    Actively constructed by the learner
o    Development of concepts – acquisition metaphor

Participation Metaphor

•    The terms that imply the existence of some permanent entities have been replaced by the noun ‘knowing’, which indicates ‘action’ – the talk about ‘states’ has been replaced by attention to activities.
•    Permanence of having gives way to constant flux of ‘doing’.
•    While the concept of acquisition implies that there is a clear end point to the process of learning the new terminology leaves no room for halting signals.
•    To put it differently – learning a subject is how conceived of as a process of becoming a member of a certain community.
•    Ability to communicate in language of that community, and act according to its particular norms.

•    How she distinguishes between them

o    PM – learning as part of a greater whole
o    PM – bonds between individual and others
o    AM – individual mind
o    AM – inward movement of the object known as knowledge

•    The significance of Table 1 and the difference between questions of what learning is versus how learning happens.

It depends upon the type of learning, the table shows that to learn form the PM point of view there needs to be some external contact – with participation, and discussion, with the AM view there is the idea that learning something individually and just taking knowledge in allows for acquisition of that learning.

Note that Sfard sees social theories of learning drawing on both acquisitive as well as participatory models of learning

•    When you’ve read through the extract, use the AM and PM metaphors to reflect on the way you use (or have used in the past) technologies for learning in a formal context in comparison with an informal one. Select two contrasting examples from these learning experiences and simply note down what you learned and how you learned it.

•    Formal learning – mandatory e-learning – I have used an online learning environment to access an elearning course, I am participating in this to achieve cpd and so have followed the course to gain the certificate.
•    Informal – learning a new authoring tool, e.g. storyline – I am learning to use storyline, I have been to the learning technologies exhibition and see it demonstrated and then have looked at  book on the tool and now I am having a go and so learning to use the tool by doing.

•    Now look at the words you used in your responses. Notice whether you’ve talked about:
o    knowing more – didn’t mention knowing more just learning more
o    gaining something – I talked about gaining a certificate
o    being able to do something – yes I talked about learning to use storyline by doing
o    participating in new activities or a new group – talked about participating in the elearning
o    having new ideas or new possibilities for yourself – feeling differently about something. – didn’t talk about this as yet, perhaps this will come once I am more proficient at the tool.

Doubtless you used several of these phrasings, so your learning might have been quite varied or rich in significance.

•    Do all these instances refer to learning in terms of either acquisition or participation or a combination of both?
I think they were a mixture of both as even working on my own I am acquiring knowledge and participating.

•    Did you find instances that do not seem to fit exactly with either acquisition or participation?
No I think they fit in with either.

•    Is your learning process more oriented to you as an individual or to you within a social context?
At present more as an individual, with the examples I used, though this course will change that as I am participating in the learning on line and individually.

Bridging the individual and the social: ENGESTROM

Bridging the individual and the social

Personal experience of learning and reflection on a wide range of different examples of learning may well undermine categorical distinctions between individual and social, acquisition and participation.

Not only are the boundaries between these distinctions difficult to define, they may be fluid and problematic, particularly in technology-enhanced learning.

Sfard (1998) argues that the acquisition and participation metaphors should not be seen as competing or enforcing a choice.

Her argument is based on the huge diversity of learning (particularly when looked at across cultures) and the wisdom of keeping different perspectives in play. No perspective has all the answers and there are both pragmatic and theoretical dangers in using only one conception.

Activity systems

Underlying these debates is a philosophical issue about how to bridge between individual experience and social structures; how individuals with limited experience and mental resources are able to learn about the world outside themselves and beyond their direct experience.

Vygotsky’s (1978) cultural historical approach emphasises the way in which learning involves tools – symbolic as well as physical – that express the history and culture of a society. Individuals interact with the environment using such tools, so that their action and their thinking are both enlarged and also bounded by the qualities and potential of the tool.

Yrjö Engeström, a Finnish researcher at the University of Helsinki, has built on these foundations and has developed an approach to learning that focuses not on the individual doing the learning or on community practices, but on the activity system.

In cultural-historical activity theory … the unit of analysis is a historically evolving, collective artefact-mediated activity system … Most learning consists of learning actions embedded in activities whose object and motive is not learning as such.

(Tuomi-Gröhn and Engeström, 2003, pp.28–9)

The importance of Engeström’s activity theory is that he shifts the analysis of learning from the individual to the activity system.

An activity system involves all those elements, as shown in Figure 1 (below).

Engeström and others have used this framework (set out in Figure 1) for the analysis of learning, describing the elements and their relationships as follows:

We take Leont’ev’s (1978) idea of collective activity system as unit of analysis seriously.

This means that learning is distributed in an object-oriented activity system, mediated by instruments, rules and division of labour (Figure 1). The learning of the activity system and the learning of an individual are intertwined, and the individual’s learning is understandable only if we understand the learning of the activity system. This does not mean that the subject position and agency are handed over to a mysterious collective entity. Different individuals and groups involved in an activity system take and leave the subject position as they produce specific goal-oriented actions. Thus, the detailed configuration of the activity system changes in each action.

(Tuomi-Gröhn and Engeström, 2003, p.30)
Diagram showing the activity theory triangle

Figure 1 shows the activity theory triangle in which the subject uses tools (or instruments) in relation to achievement of an objective that has an outcome. Relationships between these three elements and the wider triangle of rules (i.e. governing frameworks for behaviour), community and the division of labour within the activity system influence the learning taking place. The triangle thus offers a descriptive framework within which to map out learning-related actions using tools, and their relationships within specific communities and social structures.

This activity theory could be applied to a student at The Open University for example – the student taking the subject position in Figure 1. The tools used by a student are all the module materials and resources available to them, plus their existing knowledge of the area they are studying. The object is the ideas, practices and competences that are the focus for the student’s learning, with the intended outcome of passing the module.

The rules of engagement require the student to submit work for assessment by stated deadlines, drawing on their study of the module and representing their own work fairly. The community consists of, among others, OU students, tutors, university staff and, perhaps, workplace mentors and assessors. The division of labour has a key and familiar distinction, in that tutors mark students’ work, whereas module teams create material and have authority in relation to assessment. This, in brief, is an outline of how the activity theory framework can be used to describe the activity of being an OU student.


Leontiev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13; also available online at http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login?url=http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176193 (last accessed 10 December 2010).

Tuomi-Gröhn, T. and Engeström, Y. (2003) ‘Conceptualizing transfer: from standard notions to developmental perspectives’ in Tuomi-Gröhn, T. and Engeström, Y. (eds) Between School and Work: New Perspectives on Transfer and Boundary-crossing, Oxford, Elsevier Science Ltd., pp.19–38

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Metaphor, acquisition, participation and vicarious e-learmning

There is no need for me to plug gaps – there aren’t any.

There have been choices to make throughout H800 wks 1-5. For the TMA01 we are to comment, 500 words each, on THREE activities (with a couple of exclusions which are required four the FOURTH part of the TMA).

Content to cover the ground and ill for the best part of three weeks I wasn’t going to do my old thing of ‘do everything’ choose later …

However, I thought this reading night be part of the ‘compulsory’ component on ‘metaphor’ in learning.

In fact, I find it a separate line of thinking entirely, far more pragmatic, and not even complementary to the idea of metaphor, though vital the thoughts we are developing on ‘Acquisition’ and ‘participation’ for the simple reason that this discussion wraps them up in one activity called ‘Vicarious Learning’.

I found this diversion highly information, indeed so much so , that I feel without it I could not have come to my current level of appreciation of acquisition and participation, that instead of separate staged entities, they can be bound together in a single experience.

This idea of ‘vicarious learning’ has been popular with educational researchers as a topic since 1993 and originally formed part of Bandura’s (1977) work.

It is of course what happens all around – we learn by default, by observing others being taught, and either struggling or succeeding at a task or with a concept. Has human kind not done this always? You learn from your parents, siblings and peers, from uncles and aunts, elders and others in your immediate community and from any group or community your are sent to or put into in order to learn.

The suggestions it that ‘observed behaviours are reinforced’ … with a bias in favour of positive reinforcement of ‘good behaviour or outcomes’ rather than poo behaviour and none or negative outcomes. I wish I believed this to be the case and will need to see the research. There are always exceptions to the rule, people who pick up the bad habits and the way NOT to do a thing, or through their contrary nature deliberately go against the grain (though by doing so their formal learning would soon be ended).

Is observation ‘participation’ ? Surely it is?

Yes I learn as ‘one removed as it were’ from the interaction they are watching. Indeed, it is ‘acquisition’ too.

Reading this puts a wry smile on my face because of the way the language of e-learning has settled down, we come to accommodate phrases and ways of putting things that make sense to all in a less cumbersome fashion than this – it is the nature of language. ‘web-based generic shell designed to accept data from any discipline that has cases’.

The PATSy system looked at/looks at:

· Developmental reading disorder

· Neuropsychology

· Neurology/medical rehabilitation

· Speech and language pathologies

It is a:

· A multimedia database/resource.

· + virtual patients

· Clinical reasoning and diagnosis

‘Results showed that online interactions with PATSy were positively correlated with end-of-term learning outcome measures.’

It is helpful where students struggle to articulate their misunderstanding.

TDD (task-directed discussion)

Useful for reflection.

Especially to reveal what a student DOESN’T know, not what they DO know.

It provides:

· A multi-media database

· Discussion tools

· Reading resources

It operates:

· At a distance (does it say)

· On campus but working alone (clinical)

· As observers of learners and as learners themselves.


Cox, R. (2006) Vicarious Learning and Case-based Teaching of Clinical Reasoning Skills (2004–2006) [online], http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ esrcinfocentre/ viewawardpage.aspx?awardnumber=RES-139-25-0127 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (last accessed 10 March 2010).

Metaphor in Learning

25th February 2011

It could be the subject of of PhD Thesis

Metaphor is the essence of learning, of knowledge transfer, of transmitting ideas, of ideas themselves, of innovation and creativity.

We labour it

Reading Sfard and various other authors/academics and philosophers … and a neuroscientist I draw my own conclusions in relation to learning in general and e-learning in particular.

The first image is from Gareth Morgan. The explanation of how metaphor is used, and potentially abused (or simply confused) is clear. ‘Man is a lion. He is a lion because he is brave.’

We permit poetic licence

We then move on to the idea of what I am calling (for want of a metaphor) Stage 1 Learning, that necessary first step where the person learning needs to acquire ‘stuff,’ where knowledge is imparted or experienced. This might be a lecture, a talk, a video, a book. Acquisition for me is not the metaphor, it is the description of what is occurring. I cannot see ‘acquisition.’ I can see someone at a supermarket check-out ‘acquiring’ goods, I can even visualise the ‘sausage machine’ concept/cartoon of information/knowledge being ground out of books and deposited in a person’s head.

Moving on to Stage 2 Learning (though it could be any stage 2 through to infinity) we have a tool of learning, ‘participation.’ Here, once again, I understand an adjective describing actual participation, as demonstrated in the John Seely Brown lecture, of students working together at a table (round of course), with those on the ‘periphery’ taking part tangentially while those in the middle are the primary ‘actors.’ THIS is learning in the Congo Rain Forest to get honey from the top of a tree, this is learning above the Arctic Circle to cut blow-holes to harpoon seals … this is how ‘man’ has always learned. a) where’s the new thinking? b) is ‘participation’ a metaphor, or simple an adjective?

For me participation is the end of term play, the Christmas Panto, working on a student newspaper, blog or TV magazine show.

To use metaphor suggests improving communication of ideas and doing so in a persuasive and memorable way. There are clichéd metaphors. They lose currency through over use. Educators appear to be stuck in a rut on this one, regurgitating old ideas.

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