Change Minds with Metaphors


One way to change minds is to use metaphors when you teach and train. Social service, health and lifestyle educators are all about behavior change. To change behavior, we have to first change thinking. One very effective way to do that is to use metaphors to change minds - to nurture the learning needed to motivate behavior change. 

Metaphors are an evidence-based teaching strategy.

The learning literature supports the use of metaphors in teaching. Connecting new concepts to known concepts through the use of familiar metaphors supports learners in comprehending, organizing, remembering and applying new information. 

Metaphors are effective teaching strategies for a wide array of learners, but they are especially effective for learners with cognitive disabilities or traumatic brain injuries.

Effective metaphors have specific characteristics.

The most effective metaphors are vivid, concrete, familiar and have high relevance for the targeted learners. As with any other teaching strategy, your metaphor must be culturally appropriate for the adult learners you are targeting. 

Metaphors can be visual and serve as advance organizers.

Metaphors displayed visually also function as advance organizers. Advance organizers are graphical representations of course content. They not only organize new information and provide a big picture overview for learners, they show how the parts of a curriculum are related to the whole. 

Metaphors organize the content to be learned and lay out a pathway through a curriculum. 

I have used lots of metaphors in teaching and will often create a metaphor at the start of a new curriculum design project to organize all the pieces into a unified whole. I use the metaphor as an advance organizer to clarify my own understanding of the content to be taught.

The visual representation of the concepts, skills, and issues of the course helps me organize new content into a logical flow for teaching. The resulting metaphor becomes a road map for how I will weave together and present the new curriculum content.

Metaphors explain new material by relating it to something familiar.

Metaphors not only provide a road map for curriculum design, they also organize and make accessible new material that may be overwhelmingly complex or detailed to the learner. Attaching new concepts to a metaphor that is familiar and engaging increases the likelihood that learners will be able to understand, retain and apply what is presented. 

An example curriculum metaphor - parenting compared to a road trip.

The first metaphor I created was for a prison parenting program, Parenting Inside Out. I used this as a road map for my curriculum design and as an active learning strategy for the delivery of the new concepts, skills and issues. 


Destination Adulthood

In the road trip metaphor, the destination is a healthy, successful adulthood that I named Destination Adulthood. Parents begin by writing on sticky notes the desired characteristics of their children once they reach adulthood. They list things like a college education, a spiritual faith practice, a happy intimate partner relationship, a home of their own, good health and so on. 

Children as cars, parents as station attendants

Next the parents are given a car cut out for every one of their children and a station attendant to represent themselves. On each car the parent writes the name, age and positive attributes of one child, completing a car for each child. On the attendant they write down all the ways they "fill up" or nurture their children for the journey. Parents post their cars and attendant on the roadway graphic which is attached to a classroom wall, while sharing with the group what they’ve written. 

Parenting "guardrails" for the child's journey

After the parents have a chance to post their cars and attendants, the instructor gives a brief overview of the "parenting guardrails" the parents will study and practice together while adding them to the journey metaphor picture. These guardrails include skills like setting family rules, monitoring children, and providing affirmations for compliance or consequences for non-compliance with those rules. Guardrails are the parenting strategies that offer course correction and keep children on the path towards Destination Adulthood.

Roadsigns announce skills to be mastered

Then parents post signs along the road to represent the family mission statements they will create to guide them, along with additional skills that will be learned in the program to support positive parenting such as effective listening and speaking skills. I include a few blank signs and these are given to parents so they can write down what else they'd like to learn. Then these parent-completed signs are added to the journey metaphor.

The journey metaphor is a roadmap for the course

This metaphor is built on the wall in the classroom much like a giant story board. It stays on the wall for the duration of the program and instructors often use it as a Table of Contents to orient parents and help them move between parts and whole, connecting each skill or concept learned to the goal of helping children reach Destination Adulthood.

Many times when a parent contemplates a less-than-helpful parenting strategy they only need to be asked if that strategy would help them reach the Destination Adulthood they put up on the wall on the first day of class. They can see their hopes and dreams in plain sight and are able to reflect upon whether a strategy will help them accomplish the goals they said were important to them. No instruction beyond this is generally needed because parents are capable of telling themselves what is or isn't helpful in achieving their goals. Many insights occur through this process as parents connect strategies they've experienced as children with impacts in their own lives in the present or recent past.

Metaphors are attention-gainers and help with buy-in.

Not only does this metaphor serve as an advance organizer relating parts to whole, it serves as a vehicle for gaining attention and buy-in on the first day of class. It creates a shared vocabulary that parents continue to use throughout their 12 weeks together. Parents can be heard talking about how they “provided guardrails” during in-prison visits with their children in order to help their children stay on course toward "Destination Adulthood."

Learners add to metaphors as evidence of their learning.

This metaphor became so powerful that the parents added to it and I incorporated their contributions into edits of the curriculum. The parents introduced “potholes” and other road hazards such as substance use and criminal activity along with “detours” to deal with the “potholes” such as a prison stay during which they could improve their skills with classes such as ours. Parents who spoke on panels for prison officials and family court judges used the language of the journey metaphor to share how they had changed their minds and transformed their behavior as parents as a result of taking the course. 

One parent changed his mind because of the metaphor.

One of my favorite student epiphanies around this metaphor happened in week 9. One of the dads I was teaching zipped into class and skidded to a stop in front of the journey metaphor that covered one wall. He said, "You know, Tracy, I signed up for this class to get my 4 and 5 year olds to mind me once I get out. But I don't think that's what this class is about." Then, touching his "family" with kid-cars and himself as attendant, he slowly traced his finger along the highway until his hand reached "Destination Adulthood" while he said, "Instead, I think it is about me doing my parent job so that my kids can reach their potential. What do you think?"

What do I think? Are you kidding? RIGHT ON! is what I think but not wanting to steal the joy and power of his discovery, I said, "That's really thoughtful 'Joe' would you be willing to share that with the group at check in?"

The journey metaphor effectively engages parents.

The population of adult learners this course serves typically has not experienced a great deal of educational success. Many attend the class on the first day reluctantly, as they contemplate the 90 hr. commitment they are making, along with after-class homework assignments.

The use of this active learning strategy is a very safe first activity that allows the parent to experience immediate educational success because s/he knows all the answers! All the parents can tell us what's terrific about their kids and all they ways they show them love and fill them up! This success in getting all the answers right encourages them to hang in there and return for the next class. It is no secret that you can’t touch hearts, change minds or transform behavior if students don’t come back to class.

The journey metaphor supports significant positive change.

The Parenting Inside Out (PIO) metaphor supports the effectiveness of the curriculum as a whole. PIO was shown to significantly reduce recidivism, self-reported substance use and depression, while increasing parent-child contact in a randomized controlled trial. As a result of these study findings, Parenting Inside Out is listed on the National Registry of Evidence Based Programs and Practices with a 4.0/4.0 for training design. 

Metaphors support learning and retention.

Metaphors are a wonderful way to organize the writing and learning of new curriculum content and they often help to make sense out of confusing and overwhelming details for the learner. By using a metaphorical story or picture to connect the familiar to the unfamiliar, metaphors make unfamiliar content more engaging, accessible and memorable to the learner, proving to be especially effective for learners with cognitive challenges.

How are you using metaphors?

In what ways are you using metaphors in teaching and training to support learning and retention? Please share your good ideas in the comment section below.


Garner, R. (2005). Humor, analogy and metaphor: H.A.M. it up in teaching. Radical Pedagogy, 6 (2). Retrieved from,_Analogy,_and_Metaphor__H.A.M._it_up_in_Teaching.html  

Ylvisaker, M., Hibbard, M. & Feeney, T. (2006). Tutorial: Advance Organizers. LEARNet. Retrieved from