The conduit metaphor is a common way for people to imagine how information is passed from one person to another. This metaphor paints a picture of information passing as a message to a receiver and the receiver picks it up and pops it in their mind. I have even seen a keynote speech recently where the speaker made the additional point that the receiver needs to be pointing their antenna in the right direction to pick up the signal.
I have been aware for sometime that this metaphor is unreliable at best and I was recently reminded of this fact reading Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Stuff of Thought.
Another misleading conceptual formula is the conduit metaphor, in which to know is to have something and to communicate is to send it in a package. Again, it has a kernel of truth; if information were never transmitted with some fidelity from mind to mind, knowledge could never accumulate in a society, and language itself would be useless. But cognitive science has repeatedly shown ways in which the metaphor falls short. … language understanding is more than just extracting literal meaning, as George Costanza learned too late when he realized that coffee doesn’t necessarily mean coffee [his girlfriend asks him up for coffee and he says no because it keeps him up at night]. And once a meaning is extracted and stored in memory, it does not sit there like a knickknack on a shelf; memory research confirms Twain’s observation that people tend to remember things whether they happened or not. Traditional education was dominated by a version of the conduit metaphor sometimes called the savings-and-loans model: the teacher dispenses nuggets of information to the pupils, who try to retain them in their mind long enough to give them back on an exam.
But now I’m stumped. Is there a better metaphor or analogy for illustrating how we transfer our knowledge? Until we have one, the conduit metaphor will reign supreme and organisations will continue to waste money training staff by employing the expert to lecture students.
Some of the references Pinker makes include:
Blakemore, S. J., and U. Frith. The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
Schacter, D. L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:
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