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Representing Science in Words and Images

Representing Science in Words and Images:
From Metaphor-izing to Video-tubing

From Mr. Verb

Part I
The Context

Introductions: what I've learned from scientists:
an attention to the materiality of things,
to the observations on which our interpretations are based
(Teresa on abstractions arising from the concrete)

Today's question: what science teachers might learn
from the meaning-making habits of a humanist....?
what might happen if we go interpreting...?

The New York Times Science Times, July 22, 2008:
Cornelia Dean, "If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone"
InnoCentive, a company that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them [expresses] "a huge shift in popular culture, from consuming to participating” enabled by the interactivity so characteristic of the Internet...sometimes called open-source science, taking the name from open-source software in which the source code, or original programming, is made public to encourage others to work on improving it....“the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it,” often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.

Part II
A Language Game: Simile-Making
(="an instrument developed for another purpose"):
For me, (doing/teaching) science is like...
For my students, (doing/learning) science is like...

What happens when we convert our similes into metaphors?

--What is a metaphor?

--What does the word mean (literally)?

What does it do (pragmatically?)?

bear/with/carry across/

μετά (meta), “‘between’”) + φέρω (pherō), “‘I bear, carry’”)

Metaphor talks about a concept by describing something similar to it.

Metaphor & Simile--by Robert Lovejoy

How does a metaphor differ from a simile?



Luisana: A metaphor is a story...
incredibly useful because they provide the learner
with a “mental back-and-forth;”
requiring a compare and contrast between
two resembling ideas/things/etc....

Alison Cook-Sather: Finding New Metaphors for Education
(from "production" and "cure" to "translation")

Scott Gilbert (Swat Biology) on Science's "Fictions":
The way we think is channeled by the similes, metaphors and analogies we use.
A simile describes a "rational similarity,"
and an analogy states the similarity explicitly.
But a metaphor "hides the source of the identity,
and so heightens emotion and undercuts rationality."
The essence of a metaphor is understanding one kind of experience
in terms of another, and the fit is always going to be inexact....
Metaphor is important precisely because it hides the logic of association

(think of all the words which imply that "argument is warfare," or "argument is a path").

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By:
foreground some aspects of an identity
between two items, while backgrounding others

All metaphors fall short
Where inquiry GETS serious is just where this happens,
where the image won’t “carry” the idea “across,”

where you start to see how the limits of our language can limit our world
(and vice versa: how limits of our world limit our language)

all thinking is analogical:
necessary feature of discourse whenever we try to cope with a new concept
(optional only after we achieve mastery?)
we make sense of all new experiences in terms of previous information
lack of directness makes metaphor effective:
allows students to express attitudes they could not express directly

Metaphors work when (and because)
they are incorrect, untrue, inaccurate, and subjective...
precisely because they are wrong.
Once any metaphor becomes dominant, it influences, limits, and controls subsequent actions...
for that reason the metaphor needs to be negotaited by the group.
What happens when students and their teacher are working from fundamentally different root metaphors?

The key is to contextualize rather than simply categorize or evaluate these metaphors:
what are they telling us about the students' conception of and attitude
towards the process of doing science (as well as the students' conception of and
attitude toward the teachers' role in that process)?
What are we doing to contribute, positively or negatively, to that conception and attitude?

Metaphors are a starting point for dialogue about these issues....
they can help us learn what we need to teach, and how to teach it...

Let's go back and analyze our metaphors...
what do they say about our sense of comfort with (doing/teaching) science?
About our concepts of where authority lies?
About our ability to inquire and interrogate?
About our students' ditto?

Part III:
The Difference Between Words and Pictures

The Accessibility and the Assailability of Pictures:
Are there differences between words and pictures as ways of thinking?
Individually? Collectively?

Words...make it possible to break apart some of the unity of feelings/intuitions/etc in a way that makes it possible to ask questions about and compare/contrast different parts of the whole.... more "assailable," more subject to common testing [than paintings are....].

Draw an image of what [doing/teaching] science is....
Now draw your students'....

Cf. this representation with the wordy-one: how's it differ?
Is it more or less directive?
Does it offer more or less space for revision?
Is it more or less available for combination with another representation?

Part IV
Thinking about our Representations

Putting our experience into WORDS,
& Putting our experience into IMAGES
What's the difference between writing and...
How much "abstracting" and "concretizing" goes into each process,
intercedes between the experience and the representation?

Part V: Testing this Out
What are these substances?
In what ways can you (your students) come to know them?
In what ways can you/they effectively represent their knowing?
What is foregrounded, what backgrounded, in your words? In your images?

(Cf. these activities to Tola & Barbara's
Using the Senses to Write a Descriptive Essay)


Anne Dalke's picture

Reading Culture: a Nudge

Some further thinking about literacy and the web @ Reading Culture: A Nudge.
Anne Dalke's picture

responding to images

One easy "humanities"-based exercise (sorry I didn't think of doing it when I visited the Institute last Wednesday morning) would be to have your students view and respond to a provocative or ambiguous image--first with words, perhaps then with an image of their own. Then compare: how is their understanding enhanced (or limited) by seeing other perspectives on the image? The point here would not be to get it "right," but to illustrate the variety of interpretations available.

Paul and I use this exercise frequently to kick off our first semester writing workshop; see Getting Started for the most recent run.

Cross-posted @

Paul Grobstein's picture

The drawings from the session

Diane OFee-Powers's picture

Humanities and Science

It was a pleasure to be a student of Anne's once again and listen to the discussions from the humanities department and the science department!

As I stated before I am scheduled to teach RELA next year with the possibility of teaching science. Therefore, I enjoyed today's activities and do plan to use this in my classroom. Today's discussion of having the students drawing first, then writing isn't anything new, BUT..... it was a gentle to remind me to get back in the habit of having the kids utilize their artistic abilities. The students are responsible for 5 writing assignments per report card period, AND writing can be like pulling teeth! (similie) Hopefully, by having them draw, etc will assist them in their writing assignments.

RecycleJack Marine's picture

Where is my watershed?

Everyone lives in a Watershed. Judith Odom's lesson about the direction of watersheds. All water goes through a water cycle and along its route pollutants collect and eventually end up in rivers and oceans. Creating a Watershed Model was a great activity that gives students visuals about their watersheds. I recalled how difficult it was to get my fourth graders to comprehend what GROUNDWATER is and the role it plays in the water cycle.

What do we do with this information now? I taught a Water unit with FOSS kits where students pour water into filters containing various earth materials. But they cannot relate to the sample materials we use to simulate these earth materials. By making the watershed model, using sand and rocks and actual earth students may be able to make the connections. I have a grant from the PA DEP to create a Storm Water Rain Garden that shows where rainwater goes when it reaches the ground on its way to the street sewers. This garden, when made, may help students understand their watershed along with the model.

bronstein's picture

Our activities this afternoon

I have to say how impressed I was with the lesson our group put together.  My "co-conspirators" were so dedicated and productive that I really felt like "the slacker" in the group.  The lesson turned out to be very adaptable.  We structured it one way, but the same materials can be used to make 2 or 3 different types of comparisons.  By using one flavoring agent, we could compare the permeability of different types of barriers (plastic bags or wrapping materials) . . . or by using multiple flavoring agents, we could use one type of packaging to determine if one flavoring agent effuses faster than another.  Also, Tola found a way to modify the "scratch and sniff" portion of the exercise to make it more effective.

I think that this exercise can be used for a legitimate chemistry lab.  We might not be able to incorporate specific material from any given chapter in the curriculum into this lab (other than the scientific method and the difference between mistures and solutions), but taking the time to teach separation techniques and interpretation of data should go a long way in getting the students to understand the way science is actually done.

Preparation will take no more time than most of our regular labs . . . and, though the materials are not the normal ones stocked in storage, the cost is not  excessive and should be coverable within the normal department budget.

I look forward to seeing the other presentations so that I can get other labs to improve my current curriculum.

LuisanaT's picture

A word is worth a thousand pictures

“Science for kids is like buried treasure….sometimes forgotten.” ME

Giving students the “pay off” (the contrived answers) and when to give that “pay-off” are both relative. Lower levels of education (elementary school as well as introductory courses) need to include more “pay-off” to build the student’s initial repertoire of factual knowledge/common sense/problem solving skills/etc. It’s crucial to pull out the scaffolding at the right time, which has to be at an early time.
So as students get older, the “pay-off” can be more philosophical, more open-ended, and give less “answers.” In a lot of educational situations, we are doing a disservice to students if we act like “god” and assure them that their conclusion is “correct” when providing them an absolute answer. Teachers (and less common but just as important, students) feedback is meant to make the students aware of how close their understanding is to being less wrong and still revisable.
bronstein's picture

Metaphors and smiles (sic)

At first the same feelings Anne said she had about science surfaced within me when she started to ask us to do "humanity-type" activities.  "Oh, man, why do they ask me to do this silly 'touchy-feely' stuff?"  But, when I let go of the I-function and just let my "CU" do its thing, I found that I actually came up with 2 images that made lots of sense to me:  a web and a cloud.  They were also very easy to draw (heh, heh).

The image I have as science as a web shows the interlocking of all knowledge, that everything relates to every other.  My goal is to enable my students to develop methods to make connections among all the nodes (facts, concepts) in the web – as well as learning the information contained at the nodes.

The students, I believe, at first see science as a cloud, which obscures not only the relationships, but also the facts (nodes) themselves.  Our job as teachers, then, is to evaporate the fog, to enable the students to see through the mist to the web that is hidden within, to see not only the nodes but also how they all relate.


jrlewis's picture

Scientific Figures

I wonder how scientific figures fit into our discussion about using pictures and words to represent stories?  They are visual representations containing a combination of pictures and words.  Especially important to interpretation is the figure legend.  Figures and their legends are considered a more concise manner of conveying results than merely words. 

We expect students to interpret figures that we generate or present from the literature.  We try to teach students how to create clear and concise figures for summarizing data and lab reports.

Figures require interpretation by the audience/reader of the article.  However, I am not sure where they fall in terms of the observation/story spectrum.  Figures might be a lower level analysis of the results to be used in a higher level or meta-analysis of the results.    

Wil Franklin's picture

Some Thoughts So Far

Thanks to Anne for highlighting so many key issues for teaching and learning.

  • More images for younger students? More words for older?
  • What does the image-word developmenal continuum suggest about how much scaffolding is needed in our lessons?
  • Why? What does that say about understanding?
  • Is undestanding primarily based on images derived from the senses?
  • Are these "observations". Does this mean Montessori is on to something when they nuture sensory discrimination?
  • Is, as Paul suggests, the difference between interpretation and observation "fuzzy"?
  • If so, what is science? ...making interpretation, then using it as the vehicle to carry the tenor of a new interpretations.
  • Does it follow that science is taking primary sensory "interpretations" and developing useful "metaphors" for public consumption?
  • What does that mean for inquiry? ...inquiry education?

For me inquiry is a never ending loop between observation and interpretation that constructs understandings that takes into account more and more observations in a consistent narrative. If observation is just another level of interpretation, then it is even more important to learn about the "loopyness" of inquiry. I see observations as just the primary level of interpretation where our senses filter "reality" into nerve pulses for our brain to find patterns in. That means it is interpretation all the way down. And that means the more levels of interpretation we can peel away, the closer we get to primary sensation and the less susceptible our interpretions are to dispute. Or in other words, the "better" the interpretation is as evidence...evidence that we can use to build a consensus story.


So...gaining proficiency in the skill of inquiry, the better we become at finding useful evidence and building believable stories.

Susan Dorfman's picture

Words, drawings, and feelings- Thanks Anne!

Anne had us work with similes (science is like...) to to begin a discussion of what science means to us as teachers and then what science means to our students. At first, it seemed that the words we used did not interconnect enough with the words we used to describe what science means to the students. Anne then had us translate the similes into metaphors (science is...) to refine the thought process. The surprise was that it took the next activity of translating the similes we used into drawings to bring out the separate stories behind the terms and then reveal the connections. Let me explain.

My quick response was that science is like a switchboard. I was imagining wires going in all directions and connecting many different pairs of entities with the connections constantly breaking and new ones forming. I had more difficulty with a quick word to describe how I think my students think of science until I realized that for the last 16 years, my students identify my courses with raisins. When alums return to say hi, they ask if I still give each student a box of raisins on test days. I started the practice to associate test days with a pleasant experience. Relunctant to give candy, I chose raisins as a healthy snack that provides iron.

The switchboard and the box of raisins did not seem related to me. Luckily, Anne then had us translate the words we chose into drawings. The image that came to mind was not the switchboard but the mass of twisting lines used to represent a large folded protein. I decided to use one continuous line; starting it with a small circle and ending the line with a much larger circle. For me this represented the tremendous energy involved in the evolution of highly ordered life forms from simpler forms. It was not a simple forward process. My students always want to know why things are the way they are. Why are the proteins in the electron transport chain in that particular order? I answer, "because it worked. We do not know all the iterations that formed and were not successful. What we see in the time frame of our lifetimes is what is working now. That is the wonder of life." It took a drawing to stimulate me to put this feeling of science into words out of the context of my classroom. For my students, I drew the box of raisins and realized that is was so related to the drawing I made of my feelings about science because it took an opposite approach. The raisins in the box were ordered. As they spilled out of the box, the raisins landed in a scattere3de, seemingly random arrangement. It is my job as a teacher to help my students put the raisins back in the box, i.e. to apply order to the seeming randomness of the pile of raisins. Later in the year, the students learn why I chose raisins as the test gift. They learn that iron is a key part of the hemaglobin molecule that allows oxygen to bind and makes the red blood cell so much more efficient at distributing oxygen to cells than plasma. They learn that the brain has the highest requirement for oxygen of the body's tissues, and that sitting and thinking requires more calories than they thought. The raisins provide oxygen to their poor test traumatised brains. They not only associate raisins with tests, but tests with energy requirements in braincell that rely on oxygen for aerobic respiration.

Thank you, Anne! I can now explain why I give raisins. Hopefully, I will also now be more discerning when I employ metaphors as aids for learning in my classes. I will also be more inclined to ask my students to choose words to describe how they feel about a new topic under discussion. One caveat- the students in my Grade 7 course make 3-D models of the cell. I can assess their understanding of the micoscopic world of the cell in the relationships expressed in their choices of materials to represent the organelles and the arrangement of the materials in the soccer ball or cantaloupe in which they build the cell. Their models are worth a million words.


Deesha Lockett's picture

Words/ Images

Today's session was interesting and thought provoking. I've used the concept of images and words with my reading class when talking about predictions. I would have the class make predictions of what a story may be about based on the pictures in the story or simply by the title. These predictions are recorded so that they can compare them once the story has been read.
Babtunde A Oronti's picture



I wonder what this world would look like without science. It will be pathetic because there will be so many opportunities “staring us in the face” and we will fail to take advantage of them as much as we should because we won’t see that they are available. This is the main reason why I equate science with eyeglasses. It’s the means by which we “see” this world clearly and better.

In addition, eyeglasses and other equipments that enhance our optical capability are used mostly for exploratory purposes. The same thing with science, it’s all about exploration and discovery. When it comes to the students I teach, they see science as recess in the sense that what they are going to encounter during recess is never predetermined. One day, they might go out there and have fun. Whereas on some other days, they go out there and series of events that come up may lead to fights.

So in effect I’m saying that they come to science class to make discovery and play with manipulative and in the same vain they go to recess to make discoveries and play with toys. Secondly, my students see science classes in the school place where they are opportune to move around and interact better as compared to other subjects.

In conclusion, I really want my students to continue to see their science classes as fun and “recess” time so that I can optimize their potential for learning and discovery.

Cynthia Henderson's picture

lesson plans

We were able to engage in activities to help students explore opportunities in touch ,smell,and taste.Chemicals have different properties.The sense of smell varies in each individual.Are we losing or gaining signals constantly or randomly?
Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

Afternoon Activities Teacher to teacher

I found this afternoon session to be very valuable. Excellent job to all! I found the activities to be very do able and fun for my students to do as either warmup activities or as part of a unit. I think it ties in very well with the morning session, thinking and learning using similes and metaphors. I formed a lot of questions and I think I can use them to jump start an excellent learning opportunity for my students!
Barbara Kauffman's picture

Sniff & Identify Smell Investigation

I believe intermediate school students would work well in small groups with this investigation. My students would require modeling and reinforcing the rules. I certainly look forward to an extension of the investigation into another day or even a week, too. Well done!
Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

Science is a metaphor, a simile

What science is ..... a simile.... a metaphor.... a picture.... a word, this means a lot to me because it helps me explore and make visual pictures. My students also think sometimes in pictures and the word analogies are wonderful ways to active and create new impressions that they might struggle with, if they had to write about them. These ideas can be stored in the unconscious and bought back when they need to apply it in their learning. I enjoyed how everything was bridged together and came full circle.
Teresa Albers's picture


Today's class was a merry-go-round ride, or, was it a ferris wheel, or, was it a roller coaster? It definitely was not a bumper car experience.

THe discussion on metaphors was quite interesting. It's amazing how readily we use metaphors in daily conversation to explain experiences. Metaphors are inaccurate, that is an interesting thought. Then, reflecting upon that thought, it is obvious that they are inaccurate, but they do convey in quite a compact bullet what may take considerably more words to express. They also allow the introduction of emotion and color to communication between people in a that enters the brain through a different threshold than non-methaphor language does.

Cynthia Henderson's picture

science and writing

Ann was helpful in helping me to understand how science can be more incorporated in science.Closure seems to be a need for young minds in the content area.Pictures seem to be the primary communicator rather than words with younger students.Sensory perception,prior knowledge,and experiences makes a big difference.
Ayotola Oronti's picture

The Accessibility and the Assailability of Pictures

           From the discussion this morning, I remember my students coming from a vacation and being asked to write about their experiences. Many of them usually just have one or two sentences that their vacation was fun or exciting. Now I understand that though the pictures are concrete on their minds, they are limiting in using words to express themselves.

           This is an eye-opener for me because my main concern has always been that when students come to me in 4th grade in September, they seem not to be able to write more than one or two sentences despite the fact that they have a wealth of experience in many topics. Now I know their limitations, I will be able to help them express their pictures in words or vice versa.


Ayotola Oronti's picture

Metaphors / Similes for science

For me science is like water. Water is used everywhere, everytime by everybody. Water is useful in our everyday life existence. Without water there will be no life, not even for plants and animals too. In other words water is Life.

On the other hand science is also needed in every part of our lives. It can be seen rearing its head up every time everywhere and with everybody. I can safely say water is life, science is life and so science is water.

For my students science is like recess. During recess they get to play around and they believe it is a time to be free in expressing themselves. At the same time they have several options of playing around and it is never a boring time. In the science class, students feel like they have a chance to take a break from learning, play around with "toys" and have fun with their friends. 

Since they think recess is life for them and I believe science is life, then I can merge these two together to give students fun in science so that their concept of life can blend with my own concept of life.


Barbara Kauffman's picture

Humanities & Science

Anne's visit was informative and enjoyable. I'll implement some of the approaches she used (ie. listing student's ideas/words about science on chart paper related to similes/metaphors) with my class. I predicted that her presentation would be interesting because we can always gain a lot by hearing from other disciplines. That's why I enjoy teaching across the curriculum, too.
Paul Grobstein's picture

metaphors:bservations/interpretations, primary/secondary stories

Interesting connection between this institute and bbi08. Lakoff's point was that all understanding is metaphorical, ie is a story, an interpretation based on observations (for Lakoff, the observations were primary bodily sensations). Another way to say this is that all understanding is constructed from some set of starting points, and so is challengeable as a construction.

But the observations/primary stories are themselves constructions, and so also challengeable (see observations/stories/interpretations and following). What is an observation/primary story for one person may not be for another. To the list of "my knee hurts", we might add "this tastes like wine" and now oxygen and hydrogen (as in the metaphor "water is oxygen and hydrogen"). Asking what kind of pain, or having a wine expert probe for subtler tastes makes possible different "observatons/primary stories". And oxygen and hydrogen may be the concrete ("vehicle" and water the abstract ("tenor") for a chemist but not for a beginning chemistry student.

All of this doesn't in any way affect the main points, that all understanding is metaphor/story and should be understood as such (no, we can't "be careful about using metaphors"; we have no alternative to using them and so need to make their strengths and limitations clear), that all understanding is challengeable, and that communicating understanding needs to be understood as encouraging challenge.

It does though raise some very intriguing new issues. Among them is the rationale for distinguishing, in any given case, betweenbobservation and interpretation (see observations and interpretations and following). And the basis for doing so (Joyce's suggestion that observations are what we commonly agree on). And the question of how the brain switches from one set of primary observations to another.

Ayotola Oronti's picture


      I see the connection between the Inquiry Institute and the BBI too. For the BBI 2008, I had worked on how I can help my 4th grade students get it less wrong at writing. These students come in with a wealth of experiences that are stored up in their brains as pictures or images. The problem is that they cannot easily translate these images into words. For example when asked to write an account of their summer vacation, some can manage to have two sentences. Now I understand their plight. Pictures are concrete and as such limiting while words on the other hand are more assailable, almost without boundaries.
           I once had an activity in my class. My students were asked to take a picture walk of a story and to write a prediction of what that story will be about. Their predictions/stories were very close. We all read the story and I asked them to illustrate the story they've just read and add an ending to it. To my surprise ALL their illustrations were very diverse. I can safely say that because pictures / images are concrete and words are more accessible, there were differences in the stories written for each. This helps me relate to Paul's question again:  Are there differences between words and pictures as ways of thinking? 
jrlewis's picture

I actually talked to a

I actually talked to a woman, who was afraid to major in chemistry because she couldn't accept that atoms were concrete not abstract objects.  She became a math major because there are many concrete concepts in math.  Unlike in science, math has proofs, truths, and universal statements. 

Different people are comfortable eith different subjects.  Or was her career a result of a failure in her science education?

Wil Franklin's picture


I think of math as entirely/completely constructed and chemistry as one of the most if not THE most material of all disciplines. What am I missing?
jrlewis's picture

As a highly constructed and

As a highly constructed and structured discipline, math can deliver truth talk.  Science can not compete with that.  As a more material discipline, chemistry is subject to alterations in its stories on account of new observations and interpreatations.
Cynthia Henderson's picture

science and words

Science is like a parable or paradigm shift in our minds.Imaginaton is a part of the process.
Anne Dalke's picture

Our Similes for What Science Is...

For me, science is like...

a worm

an octopus


a playground

a box of toys

a can of soda

a spiderweb


a switchboard



a recipe for chocolate cake

a flashlight

the A-bomb


blogs (and blocks?)



For my students, science is like...


fun (2x)

a box of chocolates



playing with a box of toys


a cloud


recess (2x)

a party

fortune cookies


a hula hoop

forgotten, buried treasure


What happens when a teacher who thinks science is (for example) a pair of eyeglasses, making the possibilities of the world more visible, enters a classroom where the students are imagining science as recess? How to negotiate the difference between the implied metaphoric understandings that structure our engagement? How to find the commonalities? How to enact them?

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