Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Metaphor of School as A Business & How It Has Narrowed Our View of Learning and Life by Cheryl Binkley


The metaphor of schools as businesses has become the dominant way of describing Education these days. It is difficult to find a conversation about schools in which business terminology and ideas do not pop up. Terms like emerging markets, global competitiveness, and monopoly are ever present in considerations about what our schools should be like and what they should do.  

The result of using business as The Metaphor (not just a metaphor) extends even beyond schools to most of the conversations about our society and culture in today’s academic and policy making circles. Our policymakers and policy advisers even see business in a particular light. Business in its contemporary neoliberal iteration is Competition, made up of winners and losers. Business is no longer a method whereby we share goods, develop products, or provide purpose and support for our communities, but is focused almost solely on making money for the investor class.


In other words, our leaders see life as business, and business as pure competition.


The fallout from that deeply embedded and distorted metaphor is heavily influencing every aspect of life in these early stages of the 21st century.


It has colored how we see others--Those around us are competitors to beat, whether they are family, friends, or newcomers.


It has defined how we structure increasing global connections-- creating global corporations that win power and money in a global competition where winner takes all. Nations and other societies are competitors to dominate and compete against.


It has influenced how we see God-- In this metaphor God is the ultimate winner who rewards followers with a piece of the winnings, making religion a competition, rating which is the most spiritual by who gets the most converts, the most airtime, and the most money.


And in schools, it has made grades more important than knowledge and school ranking and rating a cutthroat process.  


In this metaphor, schools must align to the business model of global competition and be measured and datafied to prove their level of competitiveness or die.


The level of embeddedness of this metaphor has become so pervasive that many see business and competitiveness as the quintessential human characteristic, holding that humans are almost completely motivated by the desire to win.


Most of us don’t question this way of looking at the world on a daily basis.  We let the message and the metaphor wash over us and we go on about our daily tasks, not asking how it is influencing what we do or what we believe.


Yet, those who do question what motivates us, and what metaphors work best as representations of our way of life and learning, tell us that competition or extrinsic motivation is only one side of the story, and not a very effective side when wielded as it has been of late. We know that Competition and Collaboration are two sides of a duality in which both sides of the polarity are needed, like breathing out and breathing in. We cannot do only one or the other.


We know that other values besides winning and having the most are just as powerful for us as wanting to be first, values like discovery, caring,  gratitude, and meaningful connection. We know that the desires to create and serve are just as necessary to innovation as the desire to be first and most.

In English classes, I teach students that when using a metaphor, it's important to recognize the ways in which the metaphor works, and the ways in which it fails. At this point, we need to collectively do that examination.


Gareth Morgan, in his Images of Organizations puts forward a variety of metaphors for organizations. Those who see organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems speak of organizations as ecosystems or biological entities.  There are a wide variety of metaphors and comparisons we can use.  Perhaps it is time we widen our choices of metaphor.


Perhaps it is time, we do question those who try to frame the growth and development of our children and the meaning of our lives as a race, a contest, a business to run for maximum productivity and profit.  

Perhaps it is time we question our world being framed in that way as well.

*Graphic quote from Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

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