Attainment Metaphor


Personal learning, in terms of “getting there”

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … a territory/area/domain/field (typically involving challenge)
  • Knowing is … attaining a goal
  • Learner is … a seeker (individual)
  • Learning is … journeying (arriving at, reaching, progressing, accomplishing, achieving)
  • Teaching is … leading, guiding, directing, facilitating


Ancient (entrenched in the language)


While the cloud of associations around the Acquisition Metaphor is likely the most commonly invoked in English, it is rivaled by the Attainment Metaphor within discussions of formal education. The Acquisition Metaphor casts learning in terms of “getting it” (e.g., taking in knowledge-objects), and the Attainment Metaphor takes on more movement-based sensibilities as it casts learning in terms of “getting there” – a notion that meshes well with interpretations of knowledge as discrete regions (e.g., fields, areas) to be traversed, and conceptions of learning as progressing across (and sometimes dwelling in) those regions. More descriptively, the Attainment Metaphor seamlessly blends notions associated with several distinct grounding metaphors:
  • Achievement Metaphor – From the Old French phrase à chef “at the end,” the word “achieve” originally had to do with finishing, and it later came to be associated with accomplishments and gains from one’s efforts. That is, the Achievement Metaphor is about “getting done,” and it thus sits comfortably with and across both the Attainment Metaphor (about “getting there”) and the Acquisition Metaphor (about “getting it”). Within education, it is commonly used in reference to grades, levels, and awards.
  • Fact Metaphor – from the Italian facere “to do,” something done, made, accomplished, or achieved
  • Progress Metaphor – The Progress Metaphor casts learning in terms of a journey, thus turning attentions to explorations, paths, distances, pacing, guidance, wandering, getting lost, obstacles, smooth portions, rough patches, and progress.
Clearly, the grounding idea for both of the above notions is the Path-Following Metaphor – that is, the Attainment Metaphor might be described as a few Literalizations (see Conceptual Metaphor Theory) from the Path-Following Metaphor. Other associated notions include:
  • Accelerated Learning (Acceleration; Radical Acceleration) – This phrase is used in multiple contexts, each with its own nuance, but all are tethered to a path-based metaphor of learning – which enables/compels notions of speed as one seeks to attain a goal.
  • Action Plan – a detailed strategy that is almost always framed in terms of the Attainment Metaphor, which typically shows up as clearly defined steps toward a desired goal
  • Aligned Curriculum (Coherent Curriculum) – a program of studies that is designed to enable teaching and learning by ensuring well-sequenced, well-structured, well-supported, and well-aligned learning experiences. Some commentators parse “alignment”:
    • Horizontal Alignment (Horizontal Coherence; Horizontally Aligned Curriculum) – either (1) coherence across subject areas at the same grade level, or (2) ensuring that multiple courses in the same discipline and at the same grade level are following the same Learning Progression (see below) – that is, they are in sync with topics and evaluations
    • Vertical Alignment (Vertical Coherence; Vertically Aligned Curriculum) – curriculum structured so that each lesson (or course, or grade level) prepares them to engage with the next, more-advanced lesson (or course, or grade level)
  • Benchmark – predetermined levels of performance that are used to gauge learner progress. The source of this metaphor is the practice of carpenters of carving marks in workbenches at specific measurements.
  • Learning Progression – a sequenced set of learning foci and activities that trace out the stages/steps/progressions that are seen as necessary for most learners in order to attain a concept, a skill, a habit, any other sort of learning goal
  • Learning Trajectory – two popular meanings, both of which are in essence updated versions of the Attainment Metaphor. One focuses on teaching and lesson planning, typically incorporating considerations of assumptions and beliefs that infuse planning activities while being more attentive to learner diversity. The other focuses on personal learning, typically expressed as a retroactive tracing of the path of learning one has followed.
  • Purposivism – an umbrella notion that applies to any discourse that emphasizes goals, outcomes, and other purposes to explain actions


As with other Folk Theories of learning, the underlying notions of the Attainment Metaphor are so intricately woven into everyday English that it’s nearly impossible to notice when they are being invoked. And so, even though the Attainment Metaphor has a major shaping influence on formal education (e.g., the word curriculum originally meant “a path to be followed”; a schooling experience framed in terms of curriculum necessitates regular progress reports; in discussions of Assessment and Evaluation, the word “attainment” is often synonymous with measurements of learning; it goes on), it is rarely explicitly named … and even more rarely critiqued. These details should perhaps be unsurprising, as the word learn is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root, lois- (meaning furrow or track), suggesting that notions of movements and trajectories are deeply and pervasively associated with learning in English. Within the modern field of education, one of the stronger indications of the pervasive path-based imagery associated with the Attainment Metaphor is the popularity of the suffixes -agogy and -agogue, which is derived from the Greek agein, “to lead.” A comprehensive list is beyond our purposes, but a selective subset includes:

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

As with most other Folk Theories, no one knows when this one was first embraced. As with the Acquisition Metaphor, the imagery associated with the Attainment Metaphor is invoked within most western languages, indicating very ancient origins.

Status as a Theory of Learning

The Attainment Metaphor falls among Folk Theories.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While not a theory of teaching, interpreting learning as attaining goals as one progresses across fields of knowledge brings with it many immediate and “commonsensical” prescriptions for teaching. In this frame the teacher would be expected to facilitate attainments by guiding (directing, pointing, etc.) learners through fields of knowledge, which supports emphases on clear learning goals, pre-set paths/trajectories/curricula, stepped progress, and so on.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The Attainment Metaphor meets none of our criteria for a scientific theory


  • Accelerated Learning (Acceleration; Radical Acceleration)
  • Achievement Metaphor
  • Action Plan
  • Aligned Curriculum (Coherent Curriculum)
  • Benchmark
  • Fact Metaphor
  • Horizontal Alignment (Horizontal Coherence; Horizontally Aligned Curriculum
  • Learning Progression
  • Learning Trajectory
  • Pedagogy
  • Peeragogy (Paragogy; Peer Learning; Peer Teaching; Peer to Peer Learning)
  • Progress Metaphor
  • Purposivism
  • Vertical Alignment (Vertical Coherence; Vertically Aligned Curriculum)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Attainment Metaphor” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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