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Education and Technology:
Serendip's Experiences 1994-2004

Expanding the Conversation

Serendip was founded ten years ago in part as "a continually developing set of resources to explore and support intellectual and social change in education ...". Over the past decade, Serendip has been involved in an extended (and continuing) process of "trying out things" to see how the web can be used in education as have many others. This section of reflections on education and technology contains materials contributed by others reflecting on their own experiences.

Dialogues, Roles, and Metaphors: Changing Education

Your reflections on the web as interactive conversation connect with thinking I have been doing over the last ten years and several projects I have developed premised on:

  • The centrality of dialogue - of ongoing exchanges of ideas and perspectives - to education/learning
  • The revision of traditional roles, such as those of 'student' and 'teacher,' in education.

Elsewhere I have described two projects that embodies these premises, Teaching and Learning Together and Talking toward Techno-Pedagogy. Here I discuss describe a larger, conceptual framework I have been developing to help me rethink how I understand and engage with others in education.

Alison Cook-Sather

Finding/Creating New Metaphors for Education

Alison Cook-Sather

The most fundamental values of a culture will be coherent with the metaphorical structure of the most fundamental concepts in a culture.

- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980, p. 22

Two metaphors that have dominated how schools are conceptualized and run since the advent of formal education in the United States are education is production and education is a cure.

 Education is ProductionEducation is a cure
History During the early 19th century, urban schools in particular 'came to be viewed as institutions to be managed and a set of educational experiences to be organized' (Schlechty, 1991, p. 21).

By the 1850's public discussion about educational policy illustrated the 'complete acceptance of the industrial model by educators' (Schlechty, 1991, p. 21).

The graded school that was conceptualized at that time 'was to be one of the chief tools used in the process of manufacturing good Americans' (Schultz, 1973, p. 131).

In colonial America children were thought to be ''born into sin and creatures of Hell, Death, and Wrath and therefore corrupt natures' (Mather in Allison, 1995, p. 9). Characterized as ''depraved, unregenerate, and damned,'' children 'had to be broken so they could be taught 'humility and tractableness'' (Robinson in Allison, 1995, p. 9).

[S]ome nineteenth century supporters of education argued that crime could be eliminated in a society only through the proper education of children ... In the twentieth century this impulse continued and expanded as schools adopted programs designed to end drug abuse and alcoholism, reduce traffic accidents, and improve community health' (Spring, 1978, p. 3)

The Curriculum 'An assembly line down which students go' (Schlechty, 1991, p. 42). A prescription, with the ideal prescription being highly individualized - administered to each student depending on his or her needs and deficiencies (Schlechty, 1991) and capitalizing on his or her strengths. These deficiencies and needs are assessed and treated through diagnostic testing, the use of scientific instruments, and 'intervention strategies (treatments) based on research and derived from clinical trials' (Schlechty, 1991, p. 26).
The Students 'Products to be molded, tested against common standards, and inspected carefully before being passed on to the next workbench for further processing' (Schlechty, 1991, p. 21). Patients who accumulate records of tests and regimens of treatments, particularly in special education and remedial programs - two places in school where one is most likely to find academic 'casualities' (Schlechty, 1991, p. 27).
The Teacher A factory worker: 'not very skilled, not very insightful, and, within the context of 'real' professions such as law and medicine, not very bright' (Schlechty, 1991, p. 23).

A technician: 'My job seems to be like an engine that is well taken care of. Everything works the way it is supposed to work. There is a set rhythm and reason to why things work in the way they do' (Efron & Joseph, 2001, p. 78).

An executive: the manager of a system, located not 'inside' the process of teaching and learning but rather 'outside,' a position from which he or she 'regulates the content and the activities on the learner' (Fenstermacher & Soltis, 1992, p. 16).

A diagnostician: 'one who casts oneself as an observer, scrutinizer, and assessor, as well as an engaged leader' (Solomon, 1999, p. xvi).

A therapist: 'an empathetic person charged with helping individuals grow personally and reach a high level of self-actualization, understanding, and acceptance' (Fenstermacher & Soltis, 1992, p. 4).

Both these metaphors keep students passive, as products or patients, confined within institutions that contain and control, like factories and hospitals, and managed by teachers who are technicians or managers on the one hand or diagnosticians and therapists on the other. (I go into great detail about metaphor and the metaphors that have dominated notions and practices of schooling in Cook-Sather, A. 'Movements of Mind: The Matrix, Metaphors, and Re-Imagining Education,' Teachers College Record, 105, 6 [August 2003], 946-977; references cited in the above table are given in full in that paper).

Disturbed by these and other metaphors used for teachers, schools, and education, I developed a new metaphor to capture what I see as the essential processes of education:

Education is Translation

Definition: Translation means to bear, remove, or change from one place or condition to another; to change the form, expression, or mode of expression of, so as to interpret or make tangible, and thus to carry over from one medium or sphere into another; to change completely, to transform

A student is a translator of herself. When a student engages in education, she engages in both the literal and metaphorical processes of translation. The literal and the metaphorical levels are always working together; they are inseparable. On the literal level, she must learn to recognize a new vocabulary, think in new ways, and speak and write using these new ways of thinking and these new words. There are stages as well as recursive qualities of this kind of translation. Through this level of working with language and ways of thinking, if she engages in it fully, she translates oneself in a more metaphorical sense: she makes a new version of herself— she integrates the old and the new into a renewed self that has elements of both. In both the translation of language and the translation of self, she preserves something of the original or previous versions, and she renders a new version appropriate to a new context and to the relationships with herself, with others, and with the content she explores within that context.

A teacher is the creator of a context in which she or he can facilitate, support, and encourage the students’ translation of themselves.

The school is a site of translation, one context among many in which students learn, but the one whose specific responsibility is formal education.

When I conceptualize education in these terms, I emphasize its primarily language-based nature, I foreground interpretation, expression, and communication as rich, complex human processes, and I argue for ongoing transformation - ongoing interpretation and articulation not only of meaningful words but also of meaningful relationships and selves - rather than a static state or relationship, as its desired goal.

Essential to this formulation of this process is the notion that the student, the person who is engaged in the formal process of education, is both the translator and the thing translated. This assertion is part of what takes the notion of translation out of the literal realm in which it is usually applied and into the realm of metaphor. Such an assertion prompts us not only to rethink what translation is but also challenges the tendency in education for teachers to try to transform learners - to make them into versions of knowers that the teachers themselves have in mind.

The metaphor of translation as I use it not only argues for a new way of understanding education, it also shifts these relational dynamics. By reconceptualizing education as a process of translating languages and selves, and by shifting the locus of control for that education, for that translation, to students, we can shift these unequal power dynamics. By defining translation as I define it and by altering our notions of the participants in and the processes of education, we re-understand both translation and education.

Further Reading: Here are some publications about education as translation. I welcome further dialogue about these either on this forum or by email (

Cook-Sather, A. (forthcoming). Education is Translation: A Metaphor for Changing Learning and Teaching. The University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming.

Cook-Sather, A. (2003). "Education as Translation: Students Transforming Notions of Narrative and Self." College Composition and Communication, 55, 1 (September), 91-114.

Cook-Sather, A. (2001). "Between Student and Teacher: Teacher Education as Translation." Teaching Education, 12, 2, 177-190.

Cook-Sather, A. (2001). "Translating Themselves: Becoming a Teacher through Text and Talk." In Christopher M. Clark (ed.) Talking Shop: Authentic Conversation and Teacher Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

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