Week3 had a moment when I started to enjoy studying. I’m gonna hang on to that memory. It might get me through reading academic papers, which I suspect is going to be a substantial part of H800. Click here to read A Sfard‘s Metaphors for Learning, which was the main topic for this week.

So what is the metaphor of participation learning ? I honestly couldn’t say with any certainty. Is it just a fancy name for group work ? It seems it is more about how the group works than what it does, and the “how” is what is learned so that the individual does “better” in the group.

Does what she say have any real-world application ? I think participation in forums – the exchange of ideas – might bring it into play. And then there is how I learn to teach.

Is this about needing a mix of vocational and academic education ? I read about this in Goodyear’s paper, 2006, Technology and the articulation of vocational and academic interests, earlier in the week. I wonder if the vocational training might be part of what PM is about; learning to work together, rather than just learning what to do. Goodyear references Collins & Ferguson, 1993; Morrison & Collins, 1996, when he refers to epistemic fluency  – the idea that people working together can co-construct knowledge, and says that people need this ability for their use of contingent knowledge, which, simply put, is knowing the culture of the organisation one is working within.

Anna Sfard.

The extract starts by sating, “educational research is caught between two metaphors.” The word research jumps out at me – not teaching practice, but research, and further emphasizes this by saying the 2 metaphors are present in most recent textsnot teaching. Immediately, I wonder if this is worth reading. But I have to. 

Acquisition, to me, is straightforward. We all acquire knowledge, skills and experience and I call this learning, as I’m sure most people do. As she says, “natural and self-evident”. I wonder, is experience what she calls,  “gaining ownership of some self-sustained entity” ? I can see that knowledge is, and perhaps some skills are. She then seems to exclude experience as something you can acquire with her own incomplete list of things acquired; and says that once acquired, we can apply, transfer and share. Do parents not apply, transfer and share their experience (wisdom) with their children ? So, I’m wondering if she holds the same metaphor for acquisition as I do.

It then becomes clear why she has defined acquisition in the way she has – it allows her, “to mark dissimilarities” between different schools of thought. She lists some schools of thought – constructivism, interactionism, situationism and sociocultural theories, and uses them to show that she thinks their ideas are bound up by the acquisition metaphor. I see a possible flaw in this – the limited definition of acquisition.

So, onto the PM. “New research talks about learning as a legitimate peripheral participation (Lave and Wenger 1991) or as an apprenticeship in thinking (Rogoff, 1990).” That last bit made me smile :

Sorry I messed up. I wasn’t thinking, I’m only an apprentice thinker.

She then latches onto a subtle change in the language used to discuss theories – about how they have shifted from knowledge to knowing; not a state but an action. This seems to be quite a big semantic leap to me. Knowing s a gerund – a noun describing the idea of an action. It is not a verb, you know, a doing word. Knowing is simply another kind of noun. But, she says, “this is a remarkable foundational shift”. Indeed.

She says that acquisition implies discrete learning but the participation metaphor implies a constant flux of doing.   How so ? I cannot see this line of argument at all. Acquisition can be constant through the learning period, which at some point must end for rest, after which it can start again, repeating what went before and then adding to it. Making connections to previous learning, pre-exisiting concepts and real-world ideas is one of the key ways to help people understand and remember, i.e. teach. So when does learning, acquiring, stop ? When I finish a learning point, an exercise, a lecture, a lifetime or a degree programme ?

She mentions the context of learning being integral with the learning (activities). I can see how something could be learned and the context be irrelevant, but I think this is for pure knowledge, not for learning skills or gaining experience, or where there is a combination of more than one of these three. She also emphasizes PM is about communication and discourse. So AM isn’t ? It seems contrived.

The next paragraph talks about social integration; that learning something is a means to joining a community; the idea seems to be that we go from apprentice to master through a social participation. In that context, the exam/qualification system is used to show our social status. This seems to me to be self-evident but can I say that this is a metaphor about learning ? Or is it about education ?

The next paragraph seeks to explain the metaphor. She says participation signals that, “learning should be viewed as a process of becoming a part of a greater whole.” I’m struggling to think of anything I have learned that could support this idea; the best I can come up with is learning how to manage people; classroom management; fully participation with the aim of making individuals function as a whole. However, this is secondary or perhaps I should say foundational to the learning that takes place. Is it learning ? Or just exploiting and developing social skills ?

She says that, in the PM, there is no point in talking about, “the stand-alone learner and decontextualised learning”. Within the limits of her theory, this is obviously true. But have I learned by participation as a stand-alone learner ? I think this hinges on the definition of participation. If there is engagement with others, it holds, but if it is a community project through a website then there is only a very limited level of interaction in a context that is largely irrelevant to what was learned. As always, there are grey areas, and every idea has its limits. It is, after all, a metaphor for something real, not the reality itself. Once again, I wonder if there’ll be a practical side to this metaphor.

Her second point on PM is that AM and PM are not mutually exclusive and , “the act of aquisition is often tantamount to the act of becoming a participant.” She says she will argue that the “discourse on learning” must include both.  Note, discourse, not pedagogics.

Her final point is that AM / PM is not the same as individual / social. For example, learning knowledge and also, ” internalising socially established concepts” are both AM, she says, but they are on opposite ends of the social-individual scale. Acquisition / Participation is a division made by the nature of learning, whereas the social / individual classification has the same ideas of what learning is. So how do all four relate ?

She gives a table that re-defines things from the am and pm views.

Concept          AM view                                                           PM view

teacher           provider, facilitator ( a lecturer ?)         expert participant ( a group leader ?)

goal                 individual enrichment  (success ?)          community building (friendship ?)

knowledge     possession   (develop, share ?)                 aspect of practice/discourse/activity  (how to share ?)


We need both because it will temper theoretical excesses. I find that ironic. But it is clear that she wishes to avoid a polarisation of views about learning and teaching and the problems that this can cause, without giving free rein to anything goes either. It also helps us to see how data is coloured by our pre-exisiting ideas, or metaphors, which of themselves will not be enough to “cover the entire field” and that there will never be “a unified, homogenous theory of learning”. Shame, because if there was, I could just read that one paper on it.


I’m asked to reflect on the way I have used technologies in formal and informal contexts and what and how I learned. Then reflect on whether I have written about knowing more, gaining something, being able to do something, participating a new group or activity, and feeling differently about something. After this, I’m expected to analyse them for am/pm, neither, social/individual.

I did this as I was writing the above. I am heavily am-oriented and pm is purely a measure of my social skills. the latter are very useful in handling students in groups (Moodle) and as individuals (email), and I can say that every interaction adds to my depth of experience and thus I learn. But this is acquiring experience so I don’t feel that pm is independent; it is always part of am.

I learned how to do smt (surface mount technology) soldering by trying to do it. I got no instruction of any kind. I simply bought the soldering iron and the solder and tried. At first, I could do only non-smt, then I could do sop  quite well, then recently I have succeeded at ssop. I did it alone. It is neither am or pm. It is a skill gained through experience; repetition/practice.

I sometimes feel uncomfortable learning as a group, for example, in public forums about diy audio. I find others have a wide variety of motivations for transferring knowledge and while some do it modestly and benevolently, others are just a pain in the arse to deal with. So, if I can, I’ll learn on my own and seek group interaction to test any ideas I lack confidence in. I like to share and help others but the limit there is time. I can see how my experience makes me valuable to the forum and gives me status; knowledge is power. I understand how the pm metaphor applies to this aspect of social “learning”; and thus improving social “status”.

Overall, I found the metaphors to be of little practical value, because I still see learning in the same way I did before. The only applications I can think of are learning in forums, and classroom management skills, but I don’t see how the pm metaphor helps; social skills are the norm, unless you are a psychopath. I think a teacher is a facilitator, group leader, provider and expert, and when classes are interactive, a participant too. Student responses help the teacher structure and deliver and improve for the students’ benefit. There’s am and pm in there but it seems contrived to deconstruct it this way.

So, I wonder why this course asked me to do this reading ? I think it is simply to raise my awareness of the need for interaction when using technology-based learning; using the forums and Elluminate spring to mind; and to be mindful of what is “going on” when I use them.