Eating (as a metaphor for learning)

Biggs (2003), while discussing the need for ‘constructive alignment’ when developing curricula, notes the common occurrence of metaphors in English that make a connection between eating and learning.  The most common of these is the negative association about ‘spoon feeding’ students. Biggs writes:

“Spoon feeding, like the other level one metaphors with their curious affinity to metabolic processes – ‘regurgitating’, ‘chewing it over’, ‘stuffing them with facts’, ‘ramming down their throats’, ‘getting your teeth into’–puts a stranglehold on the student’s cognitive processes. Spoon feeding does the work for the students, so that they have little left to do but obediently swallow.” (p. 27)

To counter this, Biggs recommends that more emphasis should be put on what the student does rather than what the teacher does, meaning a greater emphasis should be put on activities where the student is actively engaged in the learning process.

However, it’s interesting to explore how prevalent eating metaphors are in an education setting. Getting students to ‘ruminate’ on things is not a bad idea. Ideas themselves can be ‘distasteful’ just as some activities cannot be some student’s ‘cup of tea.’ Things can be ‘easy as pie,’ and then of course there’s the old proverb: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’

Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, scientist and author, wrote in his essay “Of Studies” makes a great comparison between reading and eating:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

The prevalence of metaphors about eating is most likely has something to do with the infantile origins of the student-teacher relationship, echoing its child-parent origins. This is presumably why ‘spoon feeding’ has such a negative connotation. It implies total helplessness and passivity on the part of the student.

Further reading

Biggs, JB 2011, Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does, 2nd edn, McGraw-Hill, Maidenhead (UK).