Publish at April 06 2015 Updated December 16 2021

Ten visual metaphors for training

An educational detour to help understand

Pierre-Paul Delvaux exhorts that unlike poetic metaphor, which aims to make the familiar unusual, pedagogical metaphor aims to make the unusual familiar.

"[...] There is in the use of pedagogical metaphor an obvious gap between two domains, one is assumed to be known by the learner and the other is the domain to be discovered. The learner is invited to create a link, therefore to create meaning, and this in an explicit way. The metaphor is then an instrument of understanding."

The pedagogical metaphor is thus a paradoxical detour. It moves away from what it explains in order to make it better understood. But this figure of speech can take us even further. It certainly makes us understand what the trainer already knows. But it can also encourage us to discover new ideas or new functions.

In A thousand and one proposals for pedagogy, A. de Peretti and François Muller set out a series of examples of visual or narrative metaphors, which can also help to invent or remember. Cinema, orchestras and bicycles are all examples. The following images are essentially visual metaphors.

1. The boat in the middle of the sea

As soon as a training or facilitation is about the environment of a project or structure, the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) matrix has become inevitable. Anyone who has taken a training course on marketing, management, strategy or project management in the last twenty years has come across this matrix Strengths,

Weaknesses, opportunities, constraints...

The ship metaphor takes us a little further, and because it takes a detour, it allows participants to be creative, sometimes even humorous.

Winds, the sun can mean opportunities, or more generally favourable factors. Lightning in the distance, dark clouds will represent threats and constraints. There is nothing to stop you going further, and presenting icebergs, sea serpents, sea monsters and for good measure, friendly dolphins or friendly ships!

The ship presents an anchor, or even several which represent brakes, internal heaviness, while the sails, the rudder, the sailors, the resources in the hold may symbolize more positive elements.

The maritime chart is also an often used metaphor. The one produced by the Rectorat de Paris on innovation and change is particularly successful.

2. The Hot Air Balloon

Simpler, but for a similar purpose, the Hot Air Balloon can help imagine the elements of a project's environment. Thus, clouds, winds, sun, birds are all elements that will help trainees formulate ideas.

The Hot Air Balloon must become lighter to gain height. It is the ideal metaphor to question what we keep, and what we throw away...

3. The rocket

To present hierarchical stages of an action, draw a rocket. It explains levels 1, 2 and 3 of a device. See how the Franche-Comté regional health agency uses it. Mistress Séverine's binder provides mission rocket.

4. The house, the dwelling


Architectures have separate areas. The Greeks already used them as a mnemonic device, with the method of the loci. Each room and place represented an idea. All you had to do was imagine walking from room to room to find the thread.

In psychology, the "Casita" illustrates the elements that underpin resilience.

5. The pencil

The image of the pencil has become popular recently to illustrate attitudes towards innovation, particularly in pedagogy.

The eraser, the ring, the wood, the sharpened part, and the lead. There are enough elements to spin the metaphor. But why bother with such a detour when we could be content with a list? Because when we see the pencil, we will find all this typology instantly. Even better, if we come to add elements to it, such as a pencil sharpener, it may enrich the model...

6. The chemistry lab

chemistry lab

Some of the processes seem complicated to us and feel like a gas factory. Chemistry shares with electronics the images of complicated, "convoluted" mechanisms...

But it is also the image of a clever mixture of ingredients, the alchemy produced by the magic of a perfect dosage. The recipe for success in any field comes down to asking the question of key success factors.

The drawing below suggests energies, measuring instruments, ingredients, time frames, valves...

7. The city

This is not strictly speaking a metaphor, but a city map or an aerial view, or even a presentation of buildings can stimulate the imagination. The image can present institutions, audiences for a service, actors in local life, populations, etc.

The image below is normally 120 x 29 cm. Learners place tokens on it according to the communication effort they feel should be given to the organisations presented.

8. The bicycle

Suggested by André de Peretti and François Muller, in their book Mille et une propositions pédagogiques, the image of the bicycle allows for a fairly detailed self-presentation.

It is the starting point for a pedagogical dialogue on one's strengths, areas of progress, strategies... In his article "Are you a good teacher", François Muller encourages teachers to do this analysis themselves.

9. The tree

The tree is among the most fruitful matrices for presenting metaphors.

In the business field, it helps to present the business, from the fundamental skills to the main lines of business, to the most isolated know-how. The image gives a coherent and unified vision of a structure that has many activities.

Euroconsult designed a tree of this type for the company Sollac, of which the diagram below gives a very simplified version.

arbre_ compétences

The family tree is a useful metaphor for making the currents of ideas in the Human Sciences understood. An example in geography helps to illustrate this principle. The roots are the fundamental sciences from which geography will draw, such as mathematics or history, the trunk corresponds to the major historical stages, while the branches constitute the main currents that become more refined to finally arrive at the main authors.

Another example, which this time brings the feeling of abundance, and multitudes of paths, comes to us again from François Muller and his site "Diversify".

The Swiss Army Knife

The Swiss Army Knife is resourceful. It is very useful in life, but also to signify a service or product that has many functions. Flash drive, scissors, magnifying glass, corkscrew. Each of the tools is a metaphor in itself and there is nothing to stop us inventing improbable ones.

Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez


Innovation map - Paris rectorate

Severine's schoolbag - accessed 31 March 2015

Regional Health Agency - Franche Comté - accessed 31 March 2015

Diversifying François Muller

The teacher and his settings. The Pedagogical Web accessed 31 Aug 2015

The pedagogical metaphor Pierre-Paul Delvaux

The prodigious memories Vincent Delourmel

When work gives you the blues! An Intervention Focused on the Resilience and Power to Act of People Who Experience Psychological Violence at Work Thesis by Jacinthe Legros 2004

A Thousand and One Proposals for Pedagogy André de Peretti, François Muller ESF 2013

Toolbox of Strategic Perspective Michel Godet 2004 page 56 for the tree of skills.

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