NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Metaphor as a doorway to understanding

A metaphor is what motivated me to undertake my PhD … I was a full-time high school teacher, teaching English and music, with a background and training in jazz music performance … To me, jazz and teaching were similar. Jazz was a metaphor for teaching.

By Daniel Hirsch

A metaphor is what motivated me to undertake my PhD. 

Before embarking on my doctoral studies, I was a full-time high school teacher, teaching English and music, with a background and training in jazz music performance. At this time, I was constantly aware of the abstract connection between these two aspects of my life. To me, jazz and teaching were similar. Jazz was a metaphor for teaching. 

This metaphor offered me a doorway … First, it gave me a sense of familiarity with, and relatability to, the new concepts and ideas I was uncovering. Second, in a purely practical sense, it gave me something to actually research, a starting point.

In pedagogy, the jazz metaphor explains the way that teaching can be seen to be like jazz: the two practices contain similar undertakings, such as improvising and listening, and the role of the teacher, especially in the classroom, can be understood through the way a jazz musician interacts with their ensemble. 

When teaching, I often use metaphor, and other figurative language, to contextualise concepts or ideas that may be new or complex. Metaphors allow students to view an unknown concept through the lens and knowledge of a known one. This is not a new idea by any means. I am not offering metaphor as the destination of my student’s learning but rather as a way of understanding, a doorway from their own knowledge into the space of learning. 

In this way, metaphor is a powerful medium through which to learn, offering both the familiar with the fresh, the understood with the unknown. Remaining in this liminal space, and not passing completely through the doorway, may limit one’s ability to fully learn and appreciate the new for what it is. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to only understand a new concept purely in a metaphorical sense, or in a relational sense, as helpful as this can be. I want my students to understand an idea or concept for what it really is

These are both practices of improvisation in which I, the practitioner, am improvising. The link is not metaphorical; it is real.

As I began my own research, exploring the relationships between my practices as both a jazz musician and high school teacher, I learned that the jazz metaphor was a familiar one in the field of pedagogy. At this early point in my research, this realisation was comforting. Like my students, this metaphor offered me a doorway and functioned in two ways for me as a researcher. First, it gave me a sense of familiarity with, and relatability to, the new concepts and ideas I was uncovering. Second, in a purely practical sense, it gave me something to actually research, a starting point.  

While I have progressed through my candidature, the role of the jazz metaphor in my research has been questioned and thought about until it stopped being the primary focus of my research and instead became a part of my research.  

I have been aware of this transition in my own thinking from contextualising teaching as a jazz-like practice to a practice of improvising. I have broadened my understanding from the metaphorical to the actual. In doing so, I have come to realise more about my own practices and my place within them. Instead of understanding these relationships as metaphorical, I now see them as practical ones. These are both practices of improvisation in which I, the practitioner, am improvising. The link is not metaphorical; it is real. 

The initial use of the jazz metaphor was a helpful one for guiding my research, and grounding me in the research process. Being able to walk through the metaphorical doorway has helped me to appreciate my research in a more meaningful way. 

Metaphors are an effective tool for orienting oneself in, and in relation to, new knowledge, which is perhaps something we do instinctively not only as teachers, researchers, and students but also as humans, especially as we search for familiar spaces of comfort in the vastness of global ideas and connections. However, limiting our learning to the lens of metaphor, whether accidentally or intentionally, may limit our ability to appreciate new research and knowledge for what it truly is. Not as something only in relation to, or only understood through, but as something that can also stand on its own. 


Daniel Hirsch is a Brisbane/Meanjin-based high-school teacher and jazz musician, as well as a PhD candidate at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. His PhD explores the connections between jazz culture and high school pedagogy. Daniel has a Bachelor of Music with First Class Honours and a Graduate Diploma of Secondary Education, specialising in Classroom Music, Instrumental Music, and English. He has performed at a range of music festivals in Queensland, including the Brisbane International Jazz Festival, Broadbeach Jazz Festival, and Woodford. 

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