Saturday, 9 October 2010

Metaphor, Visual Literacy & When to go digital

Recently, we've studied the impact of metaphor in the Language unit in my Theory of Knowledge (ToK) class. I used to teach English 10 and remember the challenge of getting 10th graders to first, find a metaphor in a piece of writing (usually poetry) and then, the biggest challenge, to get them to understand its figurative meaning, which often was the key to theme. In ToK, we consider ambiguity as a means to getting the mind to a deeper point of understanding via making an unusual comparison. We consider how it can in fact enhance meaning and understanding, however, because of interpretation and possible problems with denotation and lack of background information, at the same time the use of metaphor can be problematic to meaning and understanding. I've noticed a great leap from the gr. 10 mind to the mind of a senior in high school who now can more readily grasp the deeper meaning and analyze how the process of metaphor actually works. (Ironically, the metaphor above was created by a 9th grade student. He compares the Buddhist cycle of birth and death to that of the water cycle! He includes a detailed explanation of each bit of the drawing and describes accurate comparisons between the two concepts.)

I asked my ToK students to show their understandings of the different metaphors up for discussion, in small groups, to come up with a visual that would reveal the meaning of the metaphors to others. I instructed them to draw something simple with few words, using only paper and pencil. We took up the following:

1) Metaphor for explaining & understanding
2) Metaphor for challenging orthdoxy
3) Metaphors in the IB Diploma Program: e.g. the Big Bang
4) Metaphor for conditioning thought and action

Have a look at the various renditions the students came up with. Can one visual be classified as a 'Digital Story' (assuming it's digital that is)? Consider 'Communications in the human body' (drawing below) under the 'Explaining & understanding' category. Nothing need more be presented about its meaning than the picture and the label to get the meaning, assuming one has had exposure to the concepts depicted in the drawing.

With the aide of a presenter, can the other examples like the 'The Great Leap Forward (in Chinese)' under 'IB metaphors' and 'The Selfish Gene' under 'Challenging orthodoxy' become 'zen presentations'? If I had known about: Punch, Personal, Unexpected, Novel and Challenging, I could have instructed them at the start to incorporate these concepts into the mini-presentations of their metaphor visuals to the class. When they did actually present the visuals, most wanted to come up to the front of the class and use the document camera to display their creations. Some had actually prepared a few written notes for support. In all cases, their was a 'flow' that was evident as they presented what they had created. And in all cases, we could understand the deeper meaning intended by their metaphor. But, can I count these as 'digital' if only the document camera is being used?

An amazing understanding was made in this study that the use of metaphor is pervasive and 'universal.' We naturally slip metaphor into everyday speech as well as the most formal spoken language or written documents. Consider Martin Luther King's Speech: "I Have a Dream" as one of the greatest examples of extended metaphors that could move a whole nation into a new paradigm of governance. Here's a classic excerpt:
"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"
What a way to affect the African-Americans and other supporters by comparing the action of the government to that of renigging on a money promise! Lots of possibilities here for both digital storytelling and presentation.

In researching for this post, I came across Educational Origami and followed the link to traditional and digital practice. What an amazing find! What educator could argue that it's too difficult to change a discussion style or presentation practice given this set of ideas? On the other hand, it's also daunting. Yes, we do spend time developing traditional-style lessons as it stands now and what's the difference if we switch to spending the time on digital? But 'balance' is the key concept here. At what point is the investment not worth the return. (Can't seem to escape from the use of metaphor myself...) And when/ how do students learn best? To use a now familiar metaphor (that I've used in a previous posts) on the pendulum swinging to the far left, i.e., Web 2.0 (the far right being standard traditional practices), I still argue that we have to remain balanced. It's not everything that has to change. Didn't our instructor, Jeff, say himself how he used paper and pencil in setting out the ideas initially for his Ted Talks presentation? That fact that he could have gone immediately into Keynote to plan out ideas there says a lot for the need to judge when traditional over digital might be the better call. And traditional may in fact work best all the way through to the end of the lesson or project. Although the metaphor designs my ToK students came up with were simple, simplicity here worked well with paper and paper only—through to the end. (Apart from using the digital camera to show the drawing to the class!)

So, I guess my argument here is the need to make a judgment call when lesson-planning. It could be that we also allow students to choose. I'm thinking about this very thing at the moment as the choice on how to deliver the ToK Oral Presentation for the Internal Assessment can be done traditionally or digitally. And, of course, there's always the balanced combination...

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