Can Teaching Critical Reflexivity be Improved Using Metaphors? The Hippo in the Room

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This case study investigation reflects on the use of metaphors to teach postgraduate education students the importance of personal bias and subjectivity to their research, and advocates the use of critical reflexivity to deal with it. Students are reluctant to be critically reflective as they can feel threatened by the reflective process, feel they can sit apart or outside their research, write without bias and/or feel critical reflection may damage their research findings. It explores the effectiveness of an approach to overcome this reluctance by applying a metaphor. In a Zambian research class, students introduced a metaphor for personal bias by likening it to an encounter with a hidden hippopotamus. These are difficult to tame, hard to deal with, and can remain hidden for a long time. They appear unexpectedly, cannot be ignored, and awareness the main defence. Subsequent dissertations showed an improved early adoption of critical reflexivity. This metaphor was then used as a key discussion point on a postdoctoral education programme in the UK and investigated formally using focus groups. Students reported a greater understanding of personal bias, recognised the importance of being critically reflexive, and felt the metaphor was instrumental in their understanding of the need to advise of their position in the research. Underpinning this approach is the assertion that metaphors can help explain personal traits that are difficult for individuals to describe (Hoggan, 2016). The use of a personal values framework; morality, competency, personal and social behaviour, provided a supportive writing framework resulting in an increase in critical reflexivity early in the students research.
Original languageEnglish
Article number3
Pages (from-to)35-50
Number of pages15
JournalEducational Futures
Issue number1
Early online date31 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2017


  • critical reflexivity
  • teaching
  • research
  • personal bias
  • metaphor


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