Beyond the “Banking and Sage on Stage” Metaphors for Teaching and Learning—Better Metaphors and Teachers who Foster Discovery and Transformational Learning

Patricia Benner, R.N., Ph.D., FAAN

Copyright August 15, 2019

Metaphors can inspire reflection, exploration, and articulation of approaches to teaching and learning. Paulo Friere (1970; 2000) critiqued the dominant “banking metaphor” for teaching and learning. By banking metaphor, he meant teaching students as if they are passive, empty bank accounts into which the teacher’s goal is to deposit information. This powerful metaphor is rampant in classroom teaching with PowerPoint slides giving lots of textbook-type information and in clinical teaching that focuses primarily on procedures, technology, and policies. The banking metaphor for teaching and learning also shows up on the Internet with courses that have minimal student-to-student or student-to-teacher interaction (Dreyfus, 2009). Friere (1970; 2000) noted that the banking metaphor inhibits the creative power of students, blocking teacher attentiveness to and curiosity about their students. Little attention is paid to what the student already knows or does not know or understand. The banking metaphor emphasizes the status quo and is not designed to inspire consciousness-raising, critical, or creative thinking. Information-giving alone, by its nature, is not designed to be liberating or innovative, because it is not inquiry-based. Also, information-giving alone does not create a genuine dialogue between students and teachers.

Excellent teachers on our website have insightful and inspiring metaphors that offer food for thought for all teachers. Dr. Linda Felver has two metaphors; “making soup” and “improvisational acting,” which are highly compatible with each other and offer a stark contrast to a banking metaphor. Both metaphors create the interactive, inquiry-oriented learning required in any practice discipline. In describing her invitation to students to join her in making soup together on the first day of class, she brings a large pot with many soup ingredients to make her point. She is confident that each student brings essential ingredients for learning and enrichment. Dr. Felver’s metaphor of ‘making soup with students’ is a perfect counter to the banking metaphor of teaching, where students are viewed as passive recipients of information rather than sources of knowledge, questions, and other ingredients based upon their diverse backgrounds, and experiential learning.

She also uses a second metaphor—improvisational art. In her classroom, Linda Felver strives to capture the lively original insights from her students that create new understandings in her science classes, in this case, pathophysiology.

From Dr. Felver’s perspective, each student comes with a wealth of their own life experience of health promotion and illness prevention. Each comes with life-long encounters with healthcare that have cultivated insights, questions, and perspectives. Dr. Felver lives her metaphors in her classroom. She expects to learn from her students and that her students will learn from each other. They will become an active learning community, making a delicious pot of soup where the sum is greater and richer than anyone contribution could be, teacher included. They will create the art of inquiry and understanding in their improvisational use of concepts, clinical experiences, and questions about how patient experience and health care delivery could be improved.

Most metaphors function in one’s taken-for-granted background meanings. It takes observation and reflection on teaching and learning to recognize what one’s teaching-learning metaphor is. For example, I moved into teaching with minimal coursework in teaching and learning. I came from practicing in coronary care, intensive care, and trauma units. I vividly remember trying to adjust my sense of timing. In the critical care unit, time was parsed in five and fifteen-minute segments. I found it difficult to adjust to the slower pace of teaching and learning. Unwittingly, I came with ICU metaphors of fast pacing requirements for precise information and measurements, and always trying to find the one right answer. This background metaphor was not immediately apparent to me. It was hidden in my pervasive experience of being in the world as an ICU nurse. I also expected that I had to know or find the one right answer, or at least the best available answer for any “content” I was teaching. Note that this is an inherently stressful and untenable stance as a teacher because it sets the teacher up to imagine that they can and should know all the necessary information/knowledge needed by their students. Even such a static storage of knowledge exists about particular clinical cases is mistaken and misleading, because it doesn’t consider variations in the particular case in relation to generalizations. My teaching metaphors were imported from critical care practice, therefore focused on efficiency, content, and clinical reasoning. However, it was difficult, if not impossible, to teach clinical reasoning using metaphors for teaching gleaned from critical care arenas. My unarticulated view of knowledge had to do with just-in-time-for-action knowledge, a form of snapshot reasoning at particular moments in time. Clinical reasoning, however, requires ‘reasoning across time about the particular, through changes in the patient and/or changes in the clinician’s understanding of the clinical situation’ (Benner, Hooper-Kyriakidis, Stannard, 2010). My drive for knowing all the answers in those early exhausting days knew no bounds. This was mythical because it was based on the conquering heroic vision of knowing all, with no uncertainties or unknowns lurking the background. My motivation and misguided assumptions blinded me to the student’s background knowledge, their puzzles, their questions. It saddens me to think how my anxiety for “knowing all the right answers” may have translated to my students. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my metaphor for teaching was “sage on stage,” an impossible and poor model for teaching and learning. This wrong-headed metaphor for teaching was tackled head-on in the OCNE Project (see May 14, 2014).

Metaphors, or taken-for-granted understandings of teaching and learning, function in all approaches to teaching and learning, whether or not the teacher is aware of them. What is exciting about the teachers’ metaphors presented in this learning module is that they exemplify the best research on learning outcomes. The teachers are attentive, curious and responsive to their student’s thinking.

Dr. Lisa Day says her goals are to listen and let the students’ ideas, knowledge, and thinking show up. Sarah Shannon seeks to place the students in the conflicted ethical spaces of practice and help them develop “keels” so that their thinking is grounded in notions of good practice, ethical principles and the patient/family’s concerns and best interest. Dr. Shannon knows that without keels, students’ thinking will be subject to shifting tides, fads, and as a result, will lack coherence, validity, and reliability. Sarah listens to her students, asks them thoughtful, situated questions, and helps them to figure out the practical and ethical outcomes of their thinking. In Shannon’s inquiry-oriented class discussions, students are often brought up short (Kerdeman, D. 2003) by their thinking. For example, in her ethics class, Shannon points out that withholding information from patients/families can lead to lying to them. Sarah is tactful, not judgmental, and leads the student to the probable outcomes of their thinking in the practice cases. As a clinical ethicist, Sarah astutely forecasts where breaches in ethical principals can lead in practice. Such forecasting fosters deep learning, encouraging students to think through where their approach might lead them in their practice.

All five of our teachers in this Metaphor module use unfolding cases in the classroom. In their clinical teaching, they guide student inquiry by astute questioning, attentiveness, genuine active listening, and responsiveness. Diane Pestolesi, an athlete who learned by situated coaching in volleyball, brings this experience from sports into her teaching practice—situated clinical coaching. Pestolesi is a master clinical teacher and brings the clinical into the classroom through unfolding cases. As her students point out, Diane, like all the teachers in this module, focuses on priority setting, and what is most salient (relevant, meaningful) in the clinical situation. Diane asks questions genuinely wanting to hear the students’ answers and ferret out their clinical understanding. She is not judgmental, does not seek to trip the student up, nor is she seeking only one right or wrong answer. She follows the well-established teaching and learning research that demonstrates that both require starting from where the student is, and clarifying students’ understandings as starting points for teaching and learning.

Carol Thorn uses the metaphor of ice sculpting, and as a metaphor, it becomes a dynamic interaction between the ice, the environment, and the teacher. The ice sculpture, like students, change across time. She does not expect students to remain the same. She expects them to change with experiential learning. Listen carefully to Carol Thorn’s student responses to their clinical debriefing seminar. Students point to Thorn’s situated coaching, her questioning strategies, her ability to make them feel at ease in the new and foreign hospital settings. She gives them maxims about what is essential to know, nice to know, and “nuts to know,” guiding them to a sense of salience about the nature of clinical situations.

Learning was a ‘co-adventure’ in his classroom.

My metaphor for teaching undergraduate and graduate students changed as I listened to feedback on what worked for them as I took more graduate coursework on teaching and learning. I was influenced by a master teacher, Hubert L. Dreyfus. Dreyfus’ approach to teaching focuses on cutting edge learning in his field and learning from his students. Professor Dreyfus’ interview is the final video in this module. His teaching was exemplified by a passion for the subject, attentiveness, and engagement with students. However, what propelled his teaching was his ongoing curiosity about the subject matter and the students’ knowledge, questions, and understandings. Professor Dreyfus, who died in 2017, focused on learning, as he joined his students in learning. Learning was a ‘co-adventure’ in his classroom. His teaching was always discovery-oriented, but never gratuitous discovery. He took the students to the edge of his understanding of a difficult philosophical text and then pushed on for discovery of a fuller, richer understanding of the text. He avoided the “call and response” approach to classroom teaching (see, Benner, Sutphen, Leonard-Kahn, Day, 2009). By call and response, I mean, a sage on stage approach of having the student guess what the teacher already knows, or what can be found in the textbook.

Metaphors are essential and ubiquitous, dangerous and fruitful all at once.

As I became more and more interested in what students knew and what they understood, my teaching became a rich adventure of learning for me. Like Diane Pestolesi, I ‘received more than I gave.’ Teaching and learning became invigorating rather than exhausting, though the challenges, puzzles, and learning never went away. Metaphors are essential and ubiquitous, dangerous and fruitful all at once. Our task is to understand what metaphors are guiding our teaching, and how that fits with the research on learning. We will fail to adequately learn as teachers if our metaphors leave out these elements; situated embodied know-how and commitment on the part of both teachers and students learning from one another. Karamit Gill (2019) notes that any form of teaching and learning where the teacher and student do not come to understand and know one another as persons cut off the student’s awareness of their individuality and knowledge. All of these are essential conditions for commitment and learning. Lack of engagement and commitment blocks learning. Anonymous teaching-learning, overly detached and objectified teaching (Dreyfus, 2009) “tends to promote people who think the same way, following wherever the crowd leads.” Students who have keels and learn to think for themselves, becoming become innovators. The “banking” and “sage on stage” metaphors are unfortunately alive and well in nursing education, particularly in classroom teaching (Benner, Sutphen & Leonard-Kahn & Day, 2009). The educators profiled in our metaphor module point to a way out of these dominant metaphors that impede learning.



Benner, P., Hooper-Kyriakidis, P. Stannard, D. (2010) Clinical Wisdom and Interventions in Acute and Critical Care.A Thinking-in-Action Approach. New York: Springer

Dreyfus, H.L. (2009, 2ndEd.)    On the Internet (Thinking in Action).New York, NY: Routledge Univ. Press.

Friere, P. (2000, 1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed 50th Anniversary with Donaldo Masedo (Intro) and Ira Shor (Afterword) New York, NY: Bloomsberry Academic Publishing Co.

Gill, K. Editorial (2019) Editorial: From judgment to calculation: the phenomenology of embodied skill Celebrating memories of Hubert Dreyfus and Joseph Weizenbaum AI & SOCIETY

Kerdeman, D. (2003) “Pulled Up Short: Challenging Self?Understanding as a Focus of Teaching and Learning.Jo. of Philosophy of EducationVolume37, Issue2, May 2003, pp. 293-308.



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