The Cognitive Canvas: Using Metaphor to Light the Way – Part I

I find figurative language to be one of the most powerful weapons in the teacher’s arsenal. (Oh dear I’ve started already!) The ability to talk comfortably in metaphor has been identified as a strongpoint of my teaching and that got me thinking…

A teacher who can use language to ‘paint a picture’ of key concepts/processes is a teacher less likely to hear the haunting phrase “I don’t get it”. Think about it. We spend all day talking in figurative terms to pupils. “Put your thinking hats on…”, “pull your socks up…”, “the post-16 pathway…” ad nauseam.  Harnessed correctly, a palette of linguistic trickery can break down barriers (not again) and open doors (there it is) enabling pupils to access higher order cognitive tasks and to find their own unique ways of accessing complex concepts & processes. Can you go over the top? Certainly. This is a weapon best handled with care (d’oh!) but with cautious deployment and good training, you’ll be a figurative commando in no time! (If you like the military imagery, check out Double Tapping later in this post.)

Going on Safari: Hunting the Beast


Purpose: To ensure that pupils understand the difference between identifying & explaining.


Encourage pupils to avoid simply ‘going on safari’ when writing about a text. In other words, avoid simply stating what you can see from a distance. This is best conveyed to pupils with over-the-top ‘binoculars’ hand gestures and a loud squawk of, “Oooo, look! A simile on the horizon!” Emphasise that this excitable ‘safari’ behaviour is merely identifying language techniques and not explaining them. Which leads us to…


Hunting the Beast! Explain that true explanation requires us to hunt down the ‘linguistic beast’ spotted earlier on the horizon. Go in for the kill and drag the carcass back to base for forensic examination!

This metaphor can be used as above or built up until it becomes something quite gory and unique! I find that older pupils (boys in particular) relish the idea of ‘ripping open’ the ‘kill’ and ‘examining the entrails’! Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but a surprisingly effective way of ensuring that C/D pupils begin to offer the appropriate level of explanatory detail.

Don’t just go on safari – hunt down the beast and gut it!

Double Tapping


Purpose: To encourage pupils to craft effective openings for pieces of persuasive writing.


This one really engages those boys who love the Call of Duty games but aren’t so keen on learning to craft effective persuasive writing!

The lesson begins with a gory and high-energy description/role-play of the methods employed by the US Navy Seal team who killed Osama Bin Laden. The ‘double tap’ is one shot to the heart followed rapidly by a shot to the head. Bang! Bang! No recovery from that.

Now, with the class hanging on your every word, explain that a good piece of persuasive writing opens in the same way…

Shot to the heart = emotive language employed for persuasive effect.

Shot to the head = immediate use of facts & statistics straight after the ‘heart’ shot.

A worked example:

Task: Write an email to your Head Teacher persuading him/her to close the school early during winter weather.

Double Tap response:

Dear Sir,

I’m sure you remember the carefree, joyous days of your youth when you eagerly awaited the first snowfall of winter. Well, 95% of your hardworking pupils are feeling this way right now…

So that’s the ‘double tap’. It’s a great way to engage pupils and ensure effective openings to those persuasive pieces.

Building an Iceberg of P.E.E.


Purpose: To ensure that pupils produce fully developed & detailed explanatory paragraphs (Point, Evidence, Explanation).


We all know the oft flaunted notion that only 10% of an iceberg is visible; the remaining 90% or so hiding away below the water’s surface. Use this simple image to encourage pupils to ensure that their explanatory P.E.E. paragraphs are largely ‘below the surface’. A quick pencil sketch of an iceberg in the margin of a piece of work can be of real assistance to the C/D grade pupil struggling to offer true depth and detail. Avoid early cries of, “I’ve finished”, by urging pupils to count the lines that they’ve written and ask them to ensure that the ‘iceberg’ is 90% ‘under water’ (the explanation is the bulkiest part of the paragraph). Of course quantity alone is no good. For much improved P.E.E. paragraphs, pupils must ensure that the explanation part of a ‘P.E.E. iceberg’ tackles two key questions…

  • How does the language device work?
  • Why did the writer choose these words (purpose/intention)?

Guaranteed improvement over the old slap-dash approach and pupils are now ready to consider analysis and evaluation in future lessons. All down to the ‘iceberg of P.E.E.’ Just don’t eat the yellow snow!

Going Back for a Refund/Secret Shoppers


Purpose: To ensure that pupils set coherent and useful targets during peer assessment.


So you’ve planned and executed a great piece of AFL peer assessment. Pupils have checked their peers’ books; highlighters have been deployed and targets set. Just one little problem… Pupils have simply written ‘check your spellings’ or ‘improve your handwriting’ or one of the numerous nothing-statements that pupils fall back upon when they can’t/won’t come up with a true target!

The solution that I’ve found is to use good ol’ figurative language again. Build a culture in your classroom of ‘excellent customer service’ and stress that those ‘customers’ that are unhappy with their targets will be ‘going back for a refund’. (Your statutory rights are not affected).  As pupils generally dislike doing the same piece of work twice they will be more likely to ensure a high-quality target the first time around.

This metaphor can be developed with the inclusion of ‘secret shoppers’. These are pupils that have been notified of their role before the peer-assessment task and report back to you with a comment on the quality of their partner’s feedback. Tell the class that, “we have a few secret shoppers in today” and watch them take more care in the wording of their peer-assessment targets.

© Paul Norris and ‘edugeist’, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Paul Norris and ‘edugeist’ with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.








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