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


My inaugural blog was an exploration of the ways in which I use figurative language in the classroom to foster an atmosphere of comprehension, engagement and shared vision. As promised, here’s part II, the critically acclaimed sequel…

Break Dancing Granddad


Purpose: To encourage analysis rather than mere explanation.


What does ‘Break Dancing Granddad’ do? He breaks it down, man!!!

This metaphor is best served during a loud call & response session backed by some old-school Run DMC or even better… The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme!

I once had a eureka moment during preparation for GCSE English Language mock exams whereby I realised that my pupils were being held back by a misconstrued notion of the difference between explanation and analysis. (You don’t see sentences like that in hip-hop anymore).

Inspired by David Didau’s excellent blog on ‘zooming in & out’ I began using novel pictures of pensioners engaged in exuberant break dancing positions to make the point that those that analyse – go the extra mile for their art.


Having completed some comprehensive work on the ins & outs of explanatory writing, it was natural for pupils to begin to two-step (d’oh!) towards wider, fuller analysis of their points. The cognitive block, it seemed, was the jump, jump, jump towards writing comments which contained bigger picture reflection and broke points down to their (hard)core before ‘building’ back up to consider ways in which points relate to the text as a whole. This is a skill as necessary in History as in English and the ‘Break Dancing Granddad’ metaphor can be deployed curriculum-wide to encourage pupils to ‘break it down, man’ and go the extra mile in their analysis/reflection.

It’s silly, it’s infantile and it will stick in pupils’ minds on a rainy Tuesday morning in the examination hall. Apply liberally.

Launching Rockets


Purpose: To keep classroom discussions firmly on track whilst avoiding too much ‘teacher talk’ and encouraging democratic participation. Great for developing oral literacy across the curriculum.

Method: Quite simply, a ‘rocket’ is a digression. An off-topic point which ‘launches’ the conversation ‘away from base’ and into the ‘stratosphere of distraction & confusion’. Use colourful rocket-themed classroom posters/models to remind pupils of all ages to ‘avoid launching rockets’ during group discussions and class dialogue.

Everyone loves a good digression and I have to admit that many of my own points during class conversations are ‘rockets’ themselves. Indeed, high ability year 11 groups should be able to hold the thread of an argument whilst ducking & weaving around the point exploring alternatives/related ideas etc… However, the fact remains that classroom talk that is too disparate and free-flowing can lead to confusion and chronic misunderstanding later down the line. Far better to have a clear plan for classroom talk which involves pupils looking out for ‘rockets’ and using the metaphor to suggest politely that their peers have gone way off-course!

I picked this idea up on a training course once and although it was clearly aimed at younger pupils, I have put it to good use with a range of age groups.

Battle Planning


Purpose: To ensure that pupils possess good time management skills and a strategic overview of their examination performance.

Method: Time management under exam conditions is often a massive problem for pupils studying the incredibly compartmentalised GCSE English Language course. Begin by removing the word ‘exam/examination’ from lessons a good few months before the event. Insist instead, with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, that pupils refer to their summer ‘experience’ or for fans of gratuitous alliteration: ‘Your Exciting English Education Experience’.

This seemingly senseless semantic subterfuge actually serves to ‘reframe’ pupils’ expectations of the exam and in doing-so can help to reduce stress as you explain to the class that they should view their ‘English Education Experience’ as a ‘morning of activities’ to be planned for and completed one-by-one. As it slowly dawns on pupils that their ‘English Experience’ is actually an opportunity for them to proudly show off the skills that they’ve accrued over eleven years of tax-payer funded education, they will come to realise that a ‘cunning plan’ is required to help them to make the most of it.

The preparatory spiel is, I feel, much needed. It’s one thing for teachers to trot out the mantra (adopt a nasal tone) “plan before you write” and quite another for autonomous pupils to produce personalised ‘battle plans’ for their ‘English Experience’.

Battle Planning is then, nothing more than pupils being encouraged to spend a few minutes at the start of the exam, sorry, experience, sketching out on the front of the paper a mini-timetable for the morning/afternoon.

My Battle Plan (09:00-11:15)

09:00 – 10:15 – Part A (Q1-4)

10:15 – 10:40 – Q5

10:40 – 11:15 – Q6

Play around with the structure of the responses. Play around with the timings. Play around with the weighting given to tasks. Always ensure that there is a battle plan in place before commencing work.

© 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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