Duct Tape and Pom-Poms

Engaging middle school learners in metaphoric thinking through self-expressive prompts

Everyday Leadership Object Prompt A
Please take a few minutes to think about characteristics of leaders you know and respect. Then choose an object from the table that represents a quality or characteristic you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates why you chose the object and how it represents a leadership quality you value.

“I chose the duct tape because it reminds me of someone who is willing to solve problems. It might not always look pretty, but if it works, then who cares? Usually, duct tape is something you have around, so it doesn’t cost a lot of extra money to solve the problem at least temporarily. You can buy time to look at other ways to solve the problem more permanently. I admire leaders who problem solve, not just spend all their time talking about the problem. My grampy is like that, he’s a fixer, and I think he’s a great leader in our family.”

—Josiah, a 7th grade student

“Pom-poms. Pom-poms, because I think a leader needs to be like a cheerleader. They need to cheer others on and encourage them to get involved. Our cheering coach tells us that our role is to get as many people in the stands involved in the game as possible. I think that’s what good leaders do. They want as many people to be involved as they can get. Plus, good leaders are positive and encouraging.”

—Emma, a 7th grade student

Every time I engage middle school learners in a symbolic representation activity such as the one briefly described above, I am wowed by their insightful answers, especially compared to the answers I typically get if I alternatively word the prompt like this:

Everyday Leadership Prompt B
Please list qualities or characteristics you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates one of the leadership qualities you value.

Purposefully Planning Questions/Prompts

Planning a few well-designed questions or prompts (such as prompt A) to elicit higher-order thinking as well as to promote varied skills of the middle school learner has the potential to vastly improve student learning. I first learned of questioning in style through the work of Silver, Strong, and Perini and their application of Carl Jung’s work. They introduced the idea of mastery, interpersonal, understanding, and self-expressive learners and asserted the need to pose questions, prompts, and learning tasks from the various quadrants. I since have come to see the work not so much from a learning style perspective but from that of different thinking skills. Dr. Robert Marzano and Dr. John Hattie’s work on high-impact teaching and learning strategies has provoked me to re-examine the quadrants from a thinking and doing perspective. Figure 1 depicts the types of thinking learners are asked to do in each of the quadrants, the kinds of questions posed, and the high-impact strategies associated with each (as represented by the effect sizes from Marzano and Hattie’s research). Note that typically, the larger the decimal, the greater the impact on student learning.

 Figure 1. Different Types of Prompts

Purposefully planning prompts that engage learners in different types of thinking improves engagement by a wider majority of young adolescents. In addition, purposefully posing questions or prompts to all students in the various quadrants encourages all learners to develop thinking and processing skills across the styles.

Analyzing My Questions, Prompts, and Learning Tasks

When I first learned of the application of Carl Jung’s work to questioning and prompts, I decided to analyze my units of study and associated tasks and questions through this lens. I was startled to discover that I did not provide many, or often any, opportunities for self-expressive thinking within my integrative units. I asked lots of “what,” “why,” “how come,” and “so what” questions but rarely asked “what if” questions. Rarely, if at all, did I think to pose questions that asked students to think metaphorically or to consider “what if” possibilities or to express their knowledge using alternate analogies or modes of articulating their thinking. Sure, I encouraged learners to demonstrate their understanding through a variety of creative means, such as multi-media presentations, written papers, songs, oral presentations, and drawings, but I did not weave ongoing opportunities for them to practice thinking metaphorically during the learning. I clearly missed opportunities for my self-expressive learners to share their unique ways of thinking about and linking concepts and ideas, and just as important, I missed ongoing opportunities to help all students develop their metaphoric thinking skills across varied content and curricula.

As a result of new knowledge and an analysis of my own teaching practices, I began a mission to provide more opportunities for my learners to develop skills around metaphoric and divergent thinking.

Developing Metaphoric Thinking

Like any other worthy learning task, modeling and scaffolding are requirements for success. I often begin a symbolic or metaphoric thinking prompt with a sentence starter for those who need it.

________ (object) reminds me of _______ (quality or characteristic)

because __________.

Learners share their thinking with a partner and, whenever possible, do a “whip” around the room, where they share with the larger community of learners. This activity allows some of my learners who may not be engaged with other types of prompts to shine. The whip around also provides multiple models of metaphoric and divergent thinking for all learners.

In addition to scaffolding, modeling, and interpersonal engagement, symbolic/object representation activities such as the one I have described provide a tangible object for those who need to interact with something in a tactile way.

In order to encourage metaphoric thinking beyond the object prompt, I regularly provide self-expressive exit tickets or reflection prompt choices. Other times, learners are invited to explore “what if” questions or to provide an alternate way of thinking about the topic.

Self-Expressive Reflection Example
Was today’s work session more like a soccer match, watching a beautiful sunset, riding a bike, writing a poem, climbing a mountain, or playing a video game? Please explain your thinking.

Benefits and Results

Without exception, every time I have engaged learners in this type of thinking task, an emotional reaction occurs in the learning environment. “Oh, that’s so clever.” “I never would have made that connection.” Those engaged in the metaphoric activity recognize that this is different thinking and are impressed by the connections their peers make. The connections made are most often ones that the learners would have never thought about if they had not engaged in the learning task.

The more learners practice metaphoric thinking through the use of objects and symbols, the more common it becomes for them to engage in this type of thinking without objects being present. Examples in classroom discussions and in writing change. Learners begin to use analogies to explain relationships, connections, and abstract ideas. Language becomes more colorful, more vivid, and more engaging.

I encourage learners to listen and watch for examples of metaphoric thinking in the books they read, the movies they watch, the music they listen to, and the conversations they hear. One middle school colleague I am privileged to know has her students tweet examples; for those who do not tweet, she has a Twitter bulletin board where examples get posted.

This is not merely a literacy exercise in rich word choice, although I will be the first to acknowledge that the metaphors are often poetic and artistic in delivery and composition. This is divergent thinking coupled with comparative thinking—a sophisticated and challenging way of thinking about how unlikely items or ideas are similar. Comparative thinking is often a precursor to evaluative thinking and decision-making. Self-expressive questions and tasks push learners into deeper thinking beyond surface recall or surface level analysis, asking them to imagine or create something new.

Middle Level Educators and Symbolic Representation Activities

After having spent a decade in the middle school classroom, I had the privilege of becoming a middle school administrator and now a faculty member in an educational leadership program at a university. I carry two baskets of varied objects with me everywhere I go so I can engage educators in symbolic representation activities to promote metaphoric thinking. Their responses are stunning and insightful. They articulate how “hard” the task is and how it stretches their thinking. They are delighted by their peers’ responses. They inevitably try the task with their own learners and come back to meetings or classes excited to share their experiences with young learners engaging in this type of thinking.

So, go ahead. Grab a basket or a recyclable shopping bag and begin filling it with an eclectic assortment of items or photos. Present it to your learners with an invitation for them to think metaphorically. Be prepared to be awed by their insightful responses.