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Tapping Into Creative and Metaphoric Thinking in the Classroom

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Duct Tape and Pom-Poms” by Anita Stewart McCafferty in AMLE Magazine, October 2017 (Vol. 5, #4, p. 6-9),; McCafferty is at
In this article in AMLE Magazine, Anita Stewart McCafferty (University of Southern Maine) says she realized several years ago that in her middle-school and university teaching, she was asking lots of What, Why, How come, and So what questions but rarely What if…? Looking at the four types of prompts teachers can potentially use, it was the fourth that she was not using:
Mastery prompts – What? Who? When? Where? Students are asked to:
- Recall important facts and details;
- Summarize key ideas;
- Remember and describe key content and skills.
Understanding prompts – Why? How? Students are asked to:
- Ask questions;
- Use logic, reason, debate, and inquiry to explore ideas;
- Focus on concepts, big ideas, and generalizations.
Interpersonal prompts – How so? So what? Students are asked to:
- React to, empathize, reflect on, and explore feelings;
- Learn about things that affect people’s lives;
- Make personal connections to the content.
Self-expressive prompts – What if? Students are asked to:
- Make connections and associations;
- Think divergently;
- Imagine and create;
- Think metaphorically;
- Generate possible solutions.
By not using this last kind of prompt, McCafferty says, “I clearly missed opportunities for my self-expressive learners to share their unique ways of thinking about and linking concepts and ideas, and just as important, I missed ongoing opportunities to help all students develop their metaphoric thinking skills across varied content and curricula.”
So McCafferty became an apostle of metaphoric thinking, which she believes opens students’ and educators’ minds to unseen connections and deeper thinking and writing. She recommends starting small, for example, asking students to think of an object that reminds them of a quality and why. Students jot their thoughts, share them with a partner, and then she calls on every student to see what they’ve come up with. As an exit ticket, McCafferty suggests: Was today’s work session more like a soccer match, watching a beautiful sunset, riding a bike, writing a poem, climbing a mountain, or playing a video game? Please explain your thinking. “Without exception,” she says, “every time I have engaged learners in this type of thinking task, an emotional reaction occurs in the learning environment. ‘Oh, that’s so clever.’ ‘I never would have made that connection.’” Students come up with all kinds of associations and are fascinated with what other classmates come up with.
Here’s a more tactile approach that McCafferty began using with many of her classes and presentations. She dumps out the contents of two baskets and lets students or adult participants look at the objects – for example, a flashlight, bow, pliers, paint brush, squishy ball, ribbon, coins, locket, dongle, keys, elastics, chopsticks, decorative balls, yarn, hammer, tweezers, bandages, battery-operated candle, perfume, lip balm, floss, batteries, random toys, baseball, puzzle pieces, dice, marbles, variety of student artwork, small containers, watch, alarm clock, timer, sticky notes, printed out quotes and pictures, mirror, magnifying glass, whistle, seeds, screwdriver, duct tape, pom-poms. She then asks everyone to pick an object that best connects to the topic of the day (leadership, for example) and explain why.
“Their responses are stunning and insightful,” says McCafferty. “They articulate how ‘hard’ the task is and how it stretches their thinking. They are delighted by their peers’ responses… This is divergent thinking about how unlikely items or ideas are similar. Comparative thinking is often a precursor to evaluative thinking and decision-making. Self-expressive questions and tasks push learners into deeper thinking beyond surface recall or surface level analysis, asking them to imagine or create something new.”
“So go ahead,” urges McCafferty. “Grab a basket or a recyclable shopping bag and begin filling it with an eclectic assortment of items or photos. Present it to your learners with an invitation for them to think metaphorically. Be prepared to be awed by their insightful responses.”

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