Posted by: Michael Atkisson | October 4, 2010

Acquisition vs. Participation: Metaphors of Knowledge and Learning

My critique of Ann Sfard’s (1998) Article “On Two Metaphors for Learning and The Dangers of Choosing Just One.”

In Sfard’s Article “On Two Metaphors for Learning and The Dangers of Choosing Just One,” she described two metaphors, the acquisition metaphor (AM) and the participation metaphor (PM), and made a case for employing both metaphors to describe learning in modern educational settings.

AM assumes that knowledge is objectified in the individual mind in a finite sense. In other words, it is assumed that knowledge has physical properties; it may be possessed, acquired, shared, transferred, constructed, built upon, lost, or subject to other affordances of objectified knowledge. Learning is process of using knowledge according to these affordances. AM is a primary assumption in various learning frameworks such as cognitivisim, constructivism, social learning theory, and others; all of which imbue the mind with the ability to possess knowledge.

PM assumes that knowledge is a property of action, social negotiation, and identity that an agent experiences through interaction with the world. Knowing is the principle epistemological descriptor because it indicates activity.  Learning is embodied by doing, participating, developing community membership and identity. PM is a primary assumption in learning frameworks such as cognitive apprenticeship, situativity theory and communities of practice. These frameworks view learning as the result of negotiating meaning through interaction with others, with context, and the physical world.

A practical area in which the difference between AM and PM quickly becomes apparent is knowledge transfer. In the context of modern schooling in the United States, knowledge transfer holds a near royal decree as the preponderant demonstration of learning. Within AM transfer means that someone has applied knowledge learned in one context to another context. Within PM, however, the basic assumptions behind knowledge transfer are not part of the metaphor. For example, knowing is indivisible from context, and contexts don’t have finite boundaries, and there is no such thing as objectified knowledge that could cross a boundary anyway.

This difference between AM and PM is significant because it suggests that the assumptions about learning and instructional design do not hold true from one metaphor to the other. They lend themselves to different kinds of learning activities and environments that best suit the pinnacle of their type of learning. For example, formal schooling fits very well with AM because it is assumed that what is learned in school can be applied to everyday life. Schooling, in terms of PM, would view the learning that transpires there as contextual to the school environment, not necessarily to everyday life.  On the other hand, apprenticeship lends itself very well to PM because it is the negotiated meaning and practice as one advances to the center of a community that evidences learning. In apprenticeship, transfer is not so important, because the learner is already in the desired context.

As the differences of AM and PM are illustrated, it appears that they are not compatible metaphors for two principle reasons. First, there is not a common language that would allow learning to be compared on the same scale in both metaphors simultaneously. Second, there is no representation of either metaphor in the other.  Both of these factors result in little overlap of explanatory power between the metaphors.

Returning to Sfard’s question of whether it is better to employ both metaphors, it is important to clarify the explanatory potential of a metaphor. All metaphors, by design, illustrate some properties of the situation or object, and obfuscate others.  Consequently, a metaphor cannot be a theory of all things. Whichever learning metaphor is employed, some type of learning will not find place to be adequately described. The use of multiple metaphors can enable greater coverage of learning practices, but it is important to note that some metaphors are better representations of the phenomena than others. For example, Skinner’s (1992) characterization of language learning in terms of operant conditioning was woefully misleading and inadequate according to Chomsky (1967), the famous linguist and his theories. In the end, whether AM or PM is used to describe a learning situation may depend on the object of the learning.


Chomsky, N. (1967). Chapter 4: A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. In L. A. M. M. S. E. Jakobovits (Ed.), Readings in the Psychology of Language (pp. 48-63). Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Sfard, A. (1998). On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13.

Skinner, B. F. (1992). Verbal Behavior. Copley Publishing Group.

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