Illumination Metaphor


Interpreting learning in terms of shining a light on darkness

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … enlightenment; all that has been illuminated
  • Knowing is … seeing
  • Learner is … a see-er (individual)
  • Learning is … coming to see (pulling into the light; overcoming darkness)
  • Teaching is … showing; highlighting; shining a light on


Ancient (entrenched in the language)


The Illumination Metaphor frames knowledge and learning in terms of visibility and clarity. Perhaps most commonly encountered in phrases such as “I see” – meaning, “I understand” – the Illumination Metaphor tends to be coupled with either the Acquisition Metaphor’s version of knowledge (i.e., there’s an object to be seen) or the Nativism’s version of knowledge (i.e., there’s an inner truth to be pulled into the light). The Illumination Metaphor is perhaps most powerfully represented in the original meaning of “think”:
  • Think Metaphor – derived from the Old English þencan “cause to appear to oneself”
As with most Folk Theories, the Illumination Metaphor assumes separations of inside from outside and mental from physical.


The Illumination Metaphor rests on and supports the uncritical and indefensible assumptions about learning that are associated with most Folk Theories. It may be bolstered by the fact that vision takes up more brain resources that any of the other senses, a detail that some have used to argue that vision is the dominant sense. (Hearing and touch are the only other senses that are used as metaphors for understanding, but they are much more rarely encountered … and are typically associated with a strong emotional component, hinted in “I hear that” and “I feel you.”) A more fundamental failing of the metaphor is an associated need for an "inner eye" or a homunculus (Latin for "little person") to view the whatever is internally illuminated.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

As with many other Folk Theories, it is impossible to date the Illumination Metaphor. It is prominent in the Bible and in ancient Greek texts, so it dates back at least millennia.

Status as a Theory of Learning

The Illumination Metaphor is included among Folk Theories.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While not a theory of teaching, interpreting pedagogy is widely interpreted as illuminating, making things clear, shining a light on, highlighting, and so on. It is difficult to specify the nature and extent of the Illumination Metaphor’s influence on teaching practice in general, but it is especially evident in expectations for clarity (in explanations, expectations, evaluations, etc.).

Status as a Scientific Theory

The Illumination Metaphor meets none of our criteria for a scientific theory.


  • Think Metaphor - Think Metaphor – derived from the Old English þencan “cause to appear to oneself”

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Illumination Metaphor” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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