On Metaphors and Proprietary Blends

June 6, 2017



I recently read a compelling blog post by Peter DeWitt and Thomas Guskey (2017) on the misuse of educational language. They boldly took on the topic of creating what I would call "proprietary blends" of educational concepts and accepting credit for the original concept. Wait! I used "proprietary blend" as a metaphor... Is this okay? Is it alright that I use the agro-metaphor mentioned in their blog post as I describe the "heavy lifting" of implementation of standards-based learning? Well, it depends on the reason for using that metaphor, I suppose. Am I using it as a way to give imagery and help a person visualize or feel the concept? Or am I using it to create a proprietary blend of the idea and call "standards-based learning" my own instead of a collective effort that arose from many scholars over the past 20 years? Herein seems to lie the answer to the question of appropriateness.

The Role of Metaphor in Memory

Metaphors and similes do have a role in aiding understanding and memory. They help us attach new concepts to concepts we already understand. Here is a nice TED video on the topic. And here is an interesting article on how memory metaphors have been used in cognitive psychology to explain complicated concepts (Roediger, 1980). The use of metaphor is even included in the Common Core standards for writing. I thought "elephant in the room" was a nice image to use to represent metaphor for this dialogue that has been "stirred up."




We've traditionally used many metaphors to describe educational concepts. Peter and Tom talked about borrowing metaphors from agriculture, and there have been many from architecture as well: setting a strong foundation, scaffolding a concept, form follows function. I recently developed a course for ASCD on special education, and we went through a "blueprinting" process. Funny, I didn't think about the metaphor at the time, but when Evelyn told me the first step was to blueprint the course, I knew exactly what she meant because I attached my understanding of a blueprint to what we needed to do to get started. She could've said "outline." But the metaphor worked fine. In the case of "scaffolding," that's actually what that strategy is called now. The name of the strategy is a metaphor!


Early Childhood Special Education's History of "Proprietary Blends"

My background is in early childhood special education. And one of the biggest issues of the past 20 years in home-based early intervention is in the area of...well...it's hard to say what to call it, because so many people in the field have called it something different. The idea is that when we serve young children with disabilities, it's best that we don't have a team of specialists bombarding families on a frequent basis, and that we all work together to serve them via one main person, and that everyone comes together to design the strategies and the main person supports the family. Words to describe this include, transdisciplinary teaming, consultative service delivery, primary service provider model, coaching, natural environments service delivery, routines-based intervention, and so on. Many acronyms have evolved, and one of the problems this diverse language has created is that it has become difficult to even conduct a library search around this topic because there are so many terms that largely overlap to describe something similar. Granted, there are nuances that different scholars describe, but are the proprietary blends so different that it warrants confusion within the field? Fortunately, the scholars have come together to create a set of Recommended Practices (DEC, 2014) that significantly aids this understanding in the field and the origin of the ideas. I'm in no way diminishing the excellent work of these scholars, but I am suggesting that all of the competing terminology that is then subsequently attached to individuals can be confusing to the novice trying to get a handle on what to do.


Proprietary Blends from New Knowledge

In the case of the early childhood special education example I gave above, each of the people working on these concepts (e.g., Robin McWilliam, Carl Dunst, Toni Linder, Juliann Woods, and later Dathan Rush and M'Lisa Shelden, and so many more) are the scholars in the field generating the new knowledge, research, and creating the models. Some of this work was explicitly collaborative and some was concurrent in different locations in different research institutions and universities. Sometimes we do, indeed "stand on the shoulder of giants." We are able to actually contribute a new nugget of knowledge that is possible because we are building on those who came before us. I suppose this is true for every new nugget of knowledge we create. And we should do our best to acknowledge those from whom the knowledge originated. These new bits of knowledge take considerable time to cultivate and grow (Shoot! Another agro-metaphor). And each of these early childhood scholars and many more actively participated in generating the new knowledge.


By the way, many metaphors even have citations: "on the shoulder of giants" is a metaphor attributed to Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century (Merton, 1955).


Less Sweet Proprietary Blends

But there is another type of proprietary blend that feels a little different... Sometimes, rather than creating new knowledge simultaneously with different verbiage, existing information is simply presented in a different way, perhaps with metaphors and similes. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, as the different presentation may help someone understand the concept. Also, people have different strengths. Some are excellent researchers, and others are excellent writers or presenters. But what feels like a "sour" proprietary blend is the presenting of a nugget of knowledge in a slightly different way or with slightly different language and then claiming the creation of the original knowledge. There are more egregious examples in academia of senior professors' taking credit or first authorship for junior faculty work (e.g., Edison and Tesla). These examples are indefensible, outright stealing and grounds for being dismissed from the American Psychological Association for those in the social sciences who are members. But the "sour proprietary blend" is more subtle.


A common example of a sour proprietary blend I see in early childhood special education is in the area of Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTIi). The first thing I do when I thumb through a book on RTIi is flip to the references and see if I find Doug and Lynn Fuchs. Their seminal work in RTI, an example of which is here, and the work of other researchers is the foundation for everything that has come since in this area. Certainly, there are many theoretical influences that shaped their understanding, but as far as the specific procedures of RTIi, everyone who is writing and presenting on RTIi should be clear that they are presenting the work of the Fuchs and other researchers and institutes (like Oregon RTI), and not knowledge they created. Sometimes, the presentation of knowledge by an external party can lead to misinformation. This has happened with RTIi research. For example, it is a misunderstanding that Tier 3 is special education. It is not. (If you're interested in exploring free RTIi resources from the researchers in depth, please see the RTI Action Network and RTI4Success.)


RTIi is only one example in which years of work toward generating a piece of knowledge is swiftly scooped up and polished for presentation by an unaffiliated party. It happens all the time throughout the field. Getting the knowledge out there widely is wonderful! Dissemination of best practice, adoption by the field, and subsequent student success, is the ultimate goal of all our work! As Peter and Tom acknowledged, the omission of crediting the original sources can be accidental, and we can't assume malicious intent. But it is important to talk about this and improve the way we communicate and share new knowledge. Thank you to Peter and Tom for your excellent blog post highlighting the issue! I'm going to keep using my agricultural, architectural, and other metaphors as a way to aid understanding, but I hope this dialogue can help everyone have a clearer understanding of the difference between knowledge creation and the presentation of others' work, and the relative value of each..


DeWitt, P. & Guskey, T. (2017). Why do we recycle and sometimes misuse educational words? Retrieved from: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2017/06/educational_words_why_they_are_recycled_and_sometimes_misused.html


Division for Early Childhood. (2014). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education 2014. Retrieved from http://www.dec-sped.org/recommendedpractices


Fuchs, D. & Fuchs, L. (2006). Introduction to response to intervention: What, why, and how valid is it?" Reading Research Quarterly, 41(1), 93-99.


Merton, Robert K. (1965). On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. Free Press.


Roediger, H. L. (1980). Memory metaphors in cognitive psychology." Memory & Cognition, 8(3), 231-46.



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