The Magic of Metaphor

Jul 5, 2010

Category: Words    Tags: , , ,

‘The Magic of Metaphor’ is a book about how to tell stories, how to apply stories and when to apply them, but it’s the seventy-seven stories themselves that take precedence. Nick Owen has dug deeply to come up with a selection of well-sourced tales stemming from a variety of traditions. Collated together under titles such as ‘Pacing and Leading’, ‘Response-ability’ and ‘Choice Changes’, their aim is to provoke thought in us as teachers and leaders. Amongst others, there are stories to encourage creativity, to promote perseverance and to challenge the choices we make.


For a good teacher, isn’t the job about so much more than the lesson in hand? Aren’t there are so many ‘life-lessons’ that we want our students to grasp? We’d dearly like them to realize the greatness of their potential. We want them to twig that it’s not what you know, it’s how you use it. And we’d love it if they cottoned on to the fact that attitude is everything. Using metaphor is perhaps the most powerful way of lodging these important messages in their minds and ‘The Magic of Metaphor’ provides 77 ways to encourage your class to ‘cotton on’, ‘twig’ and realise some of life’s most valuable lessons.

We all use metaphor in the classroom — a little story, quote or an anecdote that illustrates a deeper point…

When we use these examples, we don’t get out a book and read from it. These are natural stories that we tell as part of the flow of our teaching. So, ‘The Magic of Metaphor’ is best used as a sourcebook — bolstering the stories you already use in your classroom.

It’s worth noting that not all of the stories included here are suitable for use in a classroom setting. Nick Owen writes for all kinds of leaders, not just teachers and so discretion is needed. But, with a little imagination, even some of those that aren’t child-friendly can be tailored to meet your needs. If you are a teacher or school leader who is genuinely motivated by standing on the shoulders of wise men and want to inspire your class or colleagues, ‘The Magic of Metaphor’ will prove to be a (pardon the pun) wise buy.

Ask 'What's the point?'

It’s tempting, when reading these sorts of “stories-with-a-point”, to want the moral of the tale in black and white at the end. When it’s missing (as it occasionally is in ‘The Magic of Metaphor’), it can be frustrating… When we first read the book, we were often left wondering what the point of the tale was.

There is a clear point to not having a clear point, though. It gets us THINKING. We all bring our experiences to bear on the stories and what one person sees in a metaphor is often completely different to someone else. “What’s the point of that story?” and “What’s it trying to say?” are great questions to explore with your class. It is so much more beneficial to discuss each pupil’s interpretation of the story than telling them what the offical moral of the tale is supposed to be. In his final chapter (on ways to use the metaphors in the book), Owen describes a story that had been downloaded from the internet :

So, what’s that all about? Owen goes on to list sixteen different interpretations (and all equally plausible) readers had submitted to the website.

Read an ambiguous story / fable to your class without giving them the point. See how much discussion it can provoke. As the book points out, the variety of interpretations that you get back will often give as much insight into your class as they do into the story itself.

Look for relevance'

Not every story will be about you or your class. But when you discover one that is, you’ll know it! Owen’s metaphors have a useful habit of jumping off the page and embedding themselves in our memory.

One of the stories that sticks in the mind is the true account of the study of communication patterns in dolphins :

Print that quote out and stick it on your desk. It might look like a simple quote about dolphin training, but don’t we know better? It’s about you. You and your class. We challenge you to read that story (p.61–2 in the book) and not be left seeing the value in getting to know your class as people and planning how you’re going to build better relationships with your pupils.

A good quote has the power to make a point succintly and memorably. That’s part of the reason we have a series of random quotes in the footer section of this website. They reinforce what we want to say in a way that we could never do. ‘The Magic of Metaphor’ is full of pointed metaphors that are relevant to you and your class, thankfully Nick Owen leaves the application to the reader and so allows us to apply them personally.

Many of the metaphors featured in this collection are versions of traditional wisdoms, passed down through the generations and across cultures. In some ways, there is no one true telling of the story — they have been re-told so many times.

Take an idea and make it your own. The story of the Quarryman? Turn him into a coal miner if it’s more understandable to your pupils. Most stories take up barely more than a page and so are simple enough to build upon. Encourage your class to pick out the bare bones of the metaphor and write their own fables with the same moral.

Stories and metaphors are powerful things. ‘The Magic of Metaphor’ is packed with tales that stick in the mind long after you’ve put the book away. Use them wisely. Consider where the could be used most potently in your classroom. What about as a lesson plenary, to really ram a point home? Or within Circle Time, when discussion often flows most freely?

As we mentioned above, ‘The Magic of Metaphor’ hasn’t been specifically written for your classroom. It’s a book for trainers, therapists, speakers, managers as well as teachers. But, the wisdom included (and yes, it is wisdom) most definitely makes for a book to influence your classroom and inspire your teaching.


Emotional Intelligence in the Classroom by Michael Brearley
The Little Book of Big Stuff About the Brain by Andrew Curran
The Big Book of Independent Thinking edited by Ian Gilbert


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So, what do you think?

  1. Have just found my half term challenge… thank you!

    Miss W
    8:37 am on October 20th, 2011

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