The Metaphor of Progress

Whatever anybody says, time is most definitely not money.

Time is space.

Let me explain: the language we use to describe and reason about time uses space and (more exactly) movement as a metaphor.

We may picture ourselves journeying through time, where we are physically moving toward the future; perhaps like a passenger on board a train: “We’ll soon reach the end of the month”, or “It’ll be a long time before I reach retirement age.”

train 1

Alternatively, we may picture ourselves as standing still and time moving past us; perhaps like a person standing on a platform watching a train go by: “Christmas will soon be here”, or “The examination season will soon be upon us.”

Original image from

Why do we make these analogies? It is not just to co-opt words but to co-opt their inferential machinery. Some deductions that apply to motion and space also apply nicely to possession, circumstances and time. That allows the deductive machinery for space to be borrowed for reasoning about other subjects. […] The mind couches abstract concepts in concrete terms.

— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, p.353 [emphasis mine]

I don’t want to suggest that time is only a metaphor, but rather that our ordinary, everyday ways of thinking about time are, in the main, part of the time-is-space bundle of metaphors.

And this, of course, is fine. We live our lives relying almost exclusively on inference, induction and guesswork (rather than logical analysis, deduction and rational consideration) and — usually — it’s great! These short-cuts and rules of thumb often lead us to the correct answers more quickly than other pathways. But not always.

Sometimes our machinery of inference gets things wrong. For example, who could have predicted the strange composite entity known as spacetime that is used in relativistic physics and the many counter-intuitive (but experimentally verified) predictions that stem from it?

So, if time is space, what is progress?

Pinker (pp.357-8) summarises the work of Lakoff and Johnson which suggests (amongst other things) that “virtue is up“:

He is high-minded.
She is an upstanding citizen.
That was a low trick.

It seems to me that, currently, in the world of education in general, progress buys into both the progress-is-up and progress-is-forward bundle of metaphors.

These test scores are disappointing: we need to move this class forward to show progress.
She has made excellent progress and is working at a higher level.

And my point? That although the word progress sounds real and concrete, it’s actually not. It is just a metaphor.

When we say that students are “making progress” what are we actually saying? Are they gaining higher test scores? Are they copying stuff neatly off the board? Are they writing coherent, original paragraphs in their exercise books? Are they working on a higher textbook page number than last week? Are they able to solve more difficult problems? Do they collaborate with each other to solve problems? Are they more often in brain-state X rather than brain-state Y?

I am not sure. If I say (and I have said it before and will probably continue to say it again, both verbally and in writing): “Student A has made progress. She is working at a higher level than she was last term.” —  is there actually any useful information in that first sentence other than the implication than I like what Student A has done?

Again let me reiterate that I, myself, am not sure about this. But since the idea of progress is central to much of appraisal and performance management in education, I would like to feel we are not building on sand. Is there a way of nailing this idea of progress, other than “I knows it when I sees it”? (For some reason, I hear this said in a Yorkshire accent.)

When inspectors ask to see evidence of students making progress in a lesson, are they actually only asking to see “some stuff that I like”?

Let me emphasise that I am not averse to metaphor, especially professionally useful metaphors, but I am not sure if progress is one of those.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He  must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

Is it time to throw away the simple ladder idea of progress? Just asking…

The only way is up, baby
For you and me, baby
The only way is up
For you and me

— Yazz and the Plastic Population

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