Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Using metaphors and rich pictures in university education

Mark Campbell Williams and Philip Dobson
Department of Information Systems
Edith Cowan University

"Two roads diverged in a wood
.. I took the one less travelled by,
And that made all the difference"
(Robert Frost)

Abstract: Can teachers and students use creative approaches incorporating metaphorical ways of writing and the drawing of rich pictures to enrich teaching-learning in university classes? We have found that incorporating these into learning journals can be a way of balancing the technicism that so often dominates technologically oriented disciplines.


In what ways can teachers and students use creative approaches to enrich teaching-learning in university business computing classes? Instead of the tired old technicism that seems to dog computing education, can students and teachers alike move towards what Marcuse calls a liberating rationality? Since 1992, we have been conducting interpretive, autobiographical, action-research to explore this area. Students and teachers have been encouraged to work together in a dialogical way using open discourse to reflect on aspects of information systems beyond mere hardware and software. The teaching-learning process has included group personal introductions; the writing of personal learning journals; encouraging group work; encouraging dialogue in lectures and laboratories; highlights of humour; times of values clarification and goal setting; deciding on motivational metaphors; clarifying world-views; drawing rich pictures of the unit; the telling of stories and alternative myths; relaxation exercises with guided visualisations; and including unconscious wellsprings of knowledge in the research process.

In this paper we will briefly discuss the idea of metaphors and rich pictures as part of learning journals in university business computing classes. We will then give examples of how two mature age students used these concepts in their education.

Learning journals

The form that I currently use is that in the second lab students submit a sheet listing their beginning competency level in computing, their previous experience and their expectations for the unit. On the back of the sheet, students paste a recent newspaper clipping about IS and write some comments. Every second laboratory, students submit further sheets with the following headings:
  1. Reflective examination of your learning process in the laboratories: You will describe what you are learning and how you are progressing in your ability to use computers for your present or future work. This has to be in a creative, artistic format using stories, autobiography, metaphors, rich pictures, doodles, poems, stuck-on pictures or the like.
    (The philosophy behind this is that computing education is generally narrowly technicist and should be balanced by creative approaches in education and professional training.

  2. Newspaper clippings (relevant to IS and up to date) with comments - to be stuck on the back of the sheet.
The learning journals are ranked to give a score of ten percent of the total assessment. I give a practical test in the last computer laboratory to enable students to verify the learning outcomes described in their journals.

Rich pictures

A rich picture is a drawing of a system that can assist in better planning or understanding. The term springs from what is known as soft systems methodology (Checkland and Scholes, 1990). This is a widely used technique for better understanding the cultural and political context of organisations in management consulting or in computer software development.

For example, the rich picture below (figure 1) was drawn by a first year student at the end of the foundation unit (Information Systems I - MIS1100) to help her understand the various elements of the unit and how she made sense of it to achieve her goals. She used an Apple Macintosh computer for the first time for 20 minutes to create this simple rich picture.

Figure 1

The rich picture can have an IN (or input), and area filled with relevant pictures of important areas, an ON GOING (or output), a WASTE (or wastage from the system) and REFLECTIONS (or feedback to the system). This student sees that she entered the course as a small bird and went on from the course as a powerful eagle. The learning journal provided a form of feedback in the unit and stress was the waste in the system. The icons in the rich picture are metaphors used for creating rapport and for communicating the nature of shared and unshared experiences (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).


Bowers asserts that all human thinking is both cultural and metaphorical in essence (1993, p.60). The essence of metaphorical thinking is understanding a new concept or experience by relating it in something else. Profitable ways to harness this is to avoid inappropriate generative metaphors such as the mind as "computer," mental fatigue as "burnout," curriculum as "input," and student behaviour as "output" (based on student-as-machine metaphor). A better way would be to explain dissimilarities between what is being compared and by placing metaphors in historical context (Bowers and Flinders, 1991, pp. 34-35).

He is very concerned that educators be aware of their moral responsibilities to use language in a way which helps students become part of communities and cultural and natural ecologies. For example, in critiquing the work of a computing expert, he asserts that: "The metaphor of an 'Information Age', which is the most recent expression of liberal ideology, serves to hide the moral/spiritual nature of the ecological crisis." (1993, p.93). Bowers understands that the metaphors used in education are of crucial importance - do they point to technicism or to something else? He sees current computing education as dominated by a nineteenth century mechanistic root metaphor.

Bowers (1987) understands that a much more morally responsible way as placing teaching and learning within an historical and linguistic context that assists the process of cultural-communicative competence which involves bio-regional and ecological sensitivity and self-reflexivity. In his book, The Promise of Theory, (1984), he explored in detail the way in which classroom socialisation and cultural/communicative competence are interwoven. Teachers largely control whether the students gain the language to be able to reflect on life on culture in a mature way within a community and a social and cultural and bioregional ecology. If the students do not gain this cultural-communicative competence they continue to unknowingly live by the exhausted and inappropriate assumptions from previous times.

Susan's story

"I have given up a section of my life for the last 12 weeks to MIS1100. I have given my time, energy, frustrations, tears and laughter, a minute fraction of my life's travel and I have been rewarded twenty fold. Regardless of the mark on a piece of paper at the conclusion of this unit, I have passed. I have gained knowledge and confidence in the area of computers. When I look back I was panicked in the early part of the course, not in the lectures, but in the unfamiliar areas of word processing, setting up files, all the everyday things I employ others to do. I had a string of adventures, and I have become friendly with the systems maintenance people across two campuses. My job is to make people feel good by filling up their otherwise boring evenings getting me out of scrapes. I wish to heap accolades on these people, and suggest if all students had some real interaction with them the knowledge would flow, and the campus would be a much friendlier place to work and study in. I no longer inwardly panic, I take pride in getting into a mess and fighting my way out, and if there are people to help me along the way, how much richer is the experience." (learning journal, 12 November, 1993).
A mature age student working as the head of an accounting section, Susan was a hard-working person with a very positive view of life. She took up the challenge of university study balancing this with a rich family and community life in addition to her responsible career position. As she commented in an interview: "I have come from a stage of panic to non-panic - this is a big step for me. It is not really competent yet but non-panic is a real gain. I'm not panicked by computing and computers anymore." (interview, 23 October, 1993). In this quote and the quote above, note the metaphors of "stage of panic to non-panic"; "a big step"; "a minute fraction of my life's travel"; "a string of adventures"; "heap accolades"; "I take pride in getting in a mess and fighting my way out"; and "knowledge would flow". Let us look at the rich picture Susan created at the end of the unit.

Figure 2

The laboratory group which Susan was a part developed a lively and friendly community camaraderie giving each other nicknames - hers was the self-styled nickname "the little old dinosaur". We see how she sees herself entering the course as a slow moving turtle with "lack of confidence" and, although time was seen as waste from the system, she emerges as a strong dinosaur. This is a curious metaphor and could easily been seen in a negative light. However, in Susan's case I think it represents a humorous way of expressing strength and growth in the context of a rich learning community.

Nigel's story

Nigel was a mature age student returning to formal education after a number of years away. His background was in accounting and he had rather limited contact with modern microcomputer usage and information technology. He has a very positive approach to the unit. In his learning journal he developed a metaphor for his expanding knowledge based around 'The Wizard of Oz':
....So I used this metaphor about going down the yellow brick road and the castle, it' a bit corny but it seemed to be what he [the lecturer] wanted so I let go, I started to do a lot of creative writing and a lot of landscapes and people coming in and so it's turned into a novella...I found it good to do although doing it over 14 weeks it becomes harder to bring in new characters and it gets a bit corny but I actually have enjoyed doing it that way....If people are allowed that sort of scope then you can write it as a novel, you can put into any sort of format you want. It's something I wasn't aware of. Because as I said you have to do structured things in other subjects I only sort of moved the margins a bit so that slowly I filled them out. (interview, October 21, 1993)
The above metaphors are legion. Nigel's creative talents found expression in this way of educating. His positive approach to life is reflected in a comment made in one of his learning journals about Robert Frost's poem which heads this paper: "This paper is about not being one of the sheep in life". That said, he stated that with his background in systems installation much of the benefit of the unit was in the actual technical knowledge gained. He saw himself as "a pirate in the high seas of IT and picking the gems" (interview, October 21, 1993). This is mirrored in his rich picture (figure 3 below).

Figure 3


In this paper we have not discussed our motivational and guiding theoretical frameworks which include the notions of cultural and communicative competence in the educational thinking of C. A. Bowers (1988, 1993); critical social theory notions of what is equitable, fair and good (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1990; Marcuse, 1964; Habermas, 1972, 1984, 1987); the holistic elements of soft systems methodology (Checkland and Scholes, 1990); and the Jungian psychological notions of the unconscious and individuation (Jung, 1953-76). Suffice to say that a certain theme of recent literature on computing education from Joseph Weisenbaum (1977) through to C.A. Bowers (1993) has warned of a dominance of technicism - an over-emphasis on technique to the detriment of meaning or purpose. The concern is with an overly narrow emphasis on hardware and software computing techniques and an undue trust in technical solutions to human problems. This way of thinking is sometimes referred to as an instrumental rationality (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1990; Habermas, 1972; Dryzek, 1990), a technocratic consciousness or technocratic rationality (Habermas, 1972; Bowers, 1988, 1993; Ellul, 1990) or, more simply, as technicism (Bowers, 1988, 1993).

By incorporating metaphorical language and rich pictures in learning journals in university business computing, we have observed considerable numbers of students and teachers express themselves in ways that are unusual for this discipline. In this process we suggest that their has been a kind of educational wholeness, a blossoming towards balanced attitudes, a balancing of the technical with the artistic. In our more poetic moments, we see this as hints of human splendour within an otherwise instrumentally rational and technocratic milieu.


Adorno, T, & Horkheimer, M. (1992). The dialectic of enlightenment. London: Verso.

Bowers, C. (1993). Critical essays on education, modernity, and the recovery of the ecological imperative. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bowers, C. A. (1992). Ideology, educational computing, and the moral poverty of the information age. Australian Educational Computing, 7(1), 14-21.

Bowers, C. A. & Flinders, D. J. (1991). Culturally responsive teaching and supervision: A handbook for staff development. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bowers, C. (1988). The cultural dimensions of educational computing: Understanding the non-neutrality of Technology. New York: Teachers College Press.

Checkland, P. (1981). Systems thinking, systems practice. John Wiley.

Checkland, P. & Scholes, J. (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Practice. Wiley.

Ellul, J. (1990). The technological bluff. Michigan, USA: Eerdmans.

Habermas, J. (1971). Towards a rational society. London: Heinemann

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action: Vol 1. Lifeworld and system critique of functionalist reason. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action: Vol 2. Reason and the rationalisation of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jung, C. G. (1953-76). The collected works of C. G. Jung. London: Routledge and Keagan Paul. Vol 6: Psychological types. Vol 8: The structure and dynamics of the psyche.

Marcuse, H. (1964). One dimensional man. London: Routledge and Keagan Paul.

Weizenbaum, J. (1977). Computer power and human learning. San Francisco: W. H. Freedman and Co.

Please cite as: Campbell Williams, M. and Dobson, P. (1995). Using metaphors and rich pictures in university education. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p36-41. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/campbell-williams.html

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