Learning through Metaphor

Weaving the humanities into business school learning for executives who have real problems to wrestle with can be very powerful, but it is hard to design certainty into the pedagogy; the designer can’t be sure that the metaphor will work for everyone.

One of the most common ways that human beings attempt to make sense of the world is by analogy. We use our memory of a similar situation to make decisions about what to do now.  We extrapolate from our experience of one product to gain insight about another or about the manufacturer or brand.

So in learning about ourselves, about our abilities, we also need to  consider the use of analogy:  the exploration of a created situation which is similar to, but not identical with, the reality we face, in order to allow us to explore insights about what is happening in our real situation and what we might do.  This logical idea underlies the use of carefully designed simulations as teaching aids.  We have all seen small groups of people work with Lego as a way of exploring their communication and collaboration abilities in a small-scale, carefully structured laboratory.  The range of possible outcomes is relatively limited and the learning goals are consequently obvious, and this works well with a group whose learning needs are homogenous.  The simulation can be designed to deliver predictable, predefined insights about teams or collaboration, for example. In the 1980s and 1990s, outdoor simulations were popular – pot-holing, or constructing a raft to cross a Scottish river.   Here the analogous simulation is very complex, and uncontrollable; it is possible that the learner may gain insight into how the group works together under pressure, but it is equally possible that they will spend the day feeling cold and frightened. They might even drown in the river, despite the best intentions of the learning designer.

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Sometimes, the analogous operates more like a metaphor, freeing the learner to respond to a range of different associations, comparatives or resemblances between the created situation and their reality.  We can’t be sure what the learner will take from the situation, but the richness of the possible connections ensures that they will gain some insight.  Weaving the humanities into business school learning for executives who have real problems to wrestle with can be very powerful, but it is hard to design certainty into the pedagogy; the designer can’t be sure that the metaphor will work for everyone, that they will see the connections, that the experience will generate insight which will transcend the day and change their approach to problems at work.  For a few, it may just be an interesting interlude in a day spent in a lecture theatre.  For one or two, it may be regarded as an inexplicable waste of time.

But this lack of certainty should not prevent us from using a range of different metaphors in our learning design, particularly where the participant group is diverse in terms of experience and learning style.  Where the learning goal is multiple,or unpredictable, a metaphorical simulation works well and can be used effectively to address topics which we would never “teach” because the content is too diverse, or situation-specific. We want the learner to gain insight which is relevant to them and which they can use in their context. Drawing on a metaphor from the world of art or music, for example, requires the learner to make a connection between what is presented and what they already know.   The designer has to set up the metaphor as an opportunity to learn, not a test. The simulation is an opportunity to experience, to see differently, rather than to build a raft and get across the river.   It does impose the requirement that we allow time for participants to consider the  idea of learning from metaphor, the opportunity to gain a range of different insights from their own reactions to the event or even from the reactions of their colleagues.

In recent development workshops  for executives at Oxford,  we have been working with senior partners in professional services firms and senior leaders in industry who are focused on the leadership connections they build, inside and outside their own organisations.  The pedagogic design was complex: how can you work with a large group of successful often distracted business executives on topics such as unselfishness, on being focused on the other person’s agenda not their own, in less than 2 hours?  They need to consider how they lead in a peer-relationship with a client, how they lead in areas where they themselves are not expert,  how they relate to others and how they identify what their followers need from them.   This is not something we can address in the lecture theatre: no amount of data or PowerPoint animation will transmit these ideas in ways which affect people after they leave the workshop.

So, we have offered participants the opportunity to think about how they lead and how others follow them, in working with a group of expert singers and a conductor.  We take the group out of the lecture theatre into a College Chapel, and we ask them to volunteer to conduct the singers, without knowing the music, and with very little preliminary exposure to elements of conducting.  They feel themselves exposed in front of their colleagues, but rise to the challenge, and are sometimes shocked at the unique situation in which they find themselves.  But that shock is also part of the point: that although the situation is unique – they have none of them ever led a group of singers in a chapel before – there are similarities in how they lead their teams of experts or in how they relate to clients outside their own organisation, in how they respond in the moment, without extensive analysis and preparation.  The shock of the simulation and its differences often helps them to see the similarities, and if we can build in some micro-coaching around each performance, sharing an outsider’s view of what is happening between volunteer conductor and singers, we can help them to develop sharp and memorable insights into their leadership.

This metaphorical situation reaches the parts which PowerPoint simply can’t access.  Those who have volunteered never forget the experience,  and we believe that they never lose the insight, either.

About author
Associate Fellow at Oxford University - Saïd Business School
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