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Blog post Part of special issue: Exploring issues in secondary subject English: Reconnecting curriculum, policy and practice

An ideological wolf lurking in the metaphorical sheep’s clothing? The importance of metaphor analysis in English education

Caroline Godfrey, PhD student at Aston University

In the current era of regulation and regimentation, English teachers’ sense of professionalism is constrained by their ‘policy’ identities (Ball, 2003). Their sense of subject exists within a narrow text of official documents, such as exam board specifications and government publications.

Although we rarely give much thought to the language of such documents, careful inspection reveals that, like our everyday language, these texts abound in metaphors. In the 21st century, metaphors are no longer seen as ornamental rhetorical devices, but are instead attributed with the power to construct social reality (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). In fact, the more inconspicuous these metaphors, the more likely they are to be ‘carriers of ideological orientations’ (Bowers, 1980, p. 270), shaping the way we view matters of policy and practice.

The concept of the curriculum as a journey, for example, is now so common in educational parlance we could almost forget its metaphorical nature. As a case in point, Ofsted’s recent curriculum research review of English refers to linear progression, in examples such as ‘starting points’ (p. 26), ‘step by step’ learning (p. 31) and ‘the end point of the national curriculum’ (p. 31), no less than 43 times (Ofsted, 2022) – although these references may not be immediately apparent to the average reader. Seemingly innocuous but in reality potent, the curriculum journey has a powerful impact on the way school subjects are conceptualised.

‘Seemingly innocuous but in reality potent, the curriculum journey has a powerful impact on the way school subjects are conceptualised.’

It is not difficult to trace the origins of this conceptual metaphor: Johnson (1987) suggests that the idea emerges from what he calls the PATH schema, or our embodied sense of motion along a path towards a physical destination. It is this same PATH schema which underpins the common conception of our whole lives as journeys. The omnipresence of this conceptual metaphor means that, unfortunately, it suffers from multivalency (Goatly, 2002), a phenomenon which occurs when the same metaphorical source (here the journey) is used to convey ideas about two different targets (a human life and a student’s learning). This can lead to confusion when the qualities of one journey, such as the obvious beginning and end of a human life, at birth and death respectively, are erroneously linked to the other (learning) journey, with the resulting linear conception of education falling foul of the ‘fallacy of perfected steps’ (Dearden, 2201, p. 121), perpetuating a misunderstanding of how learning actually happens.

If learning in general doesn’t occur according to systematic progression along a path, most would agree that it certainly doesn’t happen this way in English. The curriculum as a journey metaphor therefore begins to look increasingly anachronistic, particularly if we probe its underlying conception of space. Space, according to this metaphor, is conceived as a surface over which the student moves; at each step the student ‘acquires’ knowledge, just as, in the past, a coloniser might have ‘acquired’ land (Massey, 2005): ‘mastery’ over content learned is thereby conceived similarly to the mastery over space once occurring as a result of colonial ambitions. As Massey points out, however, the coloniser’s view of space ignores the various trajectories, the different histories that the people who occupied each conquered space had been living and producing. So the conception of space implied by the curriculum as a journey metaphor can be seen as the epistemological equivalent of an outdated imperial arrogance, ignoring the contemporaneity of diverse viewpoints that exist in every English classroom in the ongoing ‘conversation’ of the discipline that Eaglestone references in this BERA Blog special issue.

‘The conception of space implied by the curriculum as a journey metaphor can be seen as the epistemological equivalent of an outdated imperial arrogance.’

Given the continuing focus on curriculum within contemporary educational discourse, it is important that we bring these kinds of discussions front and centre. The alternative is a situation in which teachers’ policy identities encourage an uncritical acceptance of the metaphorical sheep’s clothing concealing potentially damaging ‘wolves’ such as the ‘curriculum as a journey’ metaphor.


Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228.

Bowers, C. A. (1980). Curriculum as cultural production: An examination of metaphor as a carrier of ideology. Teachers College Record, 82(2), 264–284.

Dearden, R. F. (2012). The philosophy of primary education. Routledge.

Goatly, A. (2002). Conflicting metaphors in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region educational reform proposals. Metaphor and Symbol, 17(4), 263–294.

Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination and reason. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press.

Massey, D. (2005). For space. Sage.

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2022). Research review: English.