Captain, crew, cargo

Metaphors are powerful learning tools.  Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World, advocates using them.  Poets use them.  Good writers use them.  Coaches use them.  Teachers should use them more.

"If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a metaphor is worth 10,000."

In comes captain, crew and cargo (or passenger).

January, when school semesters are transitioning, and teachers (and students) need a fresh start (or pep talk), this metaphor is a powerful one.  Basically, explain to students that in their classroom each students takes on a daily role.  Sometimes, a student will take on the "captain" role and show leadership qualities in the classroom.  This may be leading a small group, contributing to class discussions and in some cases, "over" contributing.  There are times, however, that instead of being a captain, a student may be more of a crew member.  Crew members are worker bees - they contribute to class discussions, work hard in small groups, but never quite take on leadership roles in the classroom.  We need crew members, in all situations (and captains) to get the job done. 

Students who do not take on either role - captain or crew - usually are cargo.  They are "dead weight," so to speak.  They do not contribute to other students' learning in the classroom and often times they delay learning as their contributions are null and their energy/enthusiasm undetectable.  Some educators prefer to call cargo, passengers, as cargo seems so lethargic and passive, while passengers might be quietly enjoying the ride and simply choosing not to contribute that day.

At any rate, sharing the captain, crew, cargo metaphor is powerful in that students understand several things:

1.  As their teacher, you are paying attention to their behavior.
2.  You are cognizant of their role and contributions in the classroom.
3.  Once you introduce this metaphor, you can discuss the importance of cycling through the roles.  Being captain everyday might be overkill for some students (and their peers).  Being cargo everyday may be too passive for learning. 
4.  Most students can remember the metaphor as it easy to relate to:  Captain, crew, cargo.  Of course, having a visual for this can help.  Maybe incorporate some clip art to support this.
5.  From that day forward, you can talk to students using this metaphor.  For example, a student who never shows leadership qualities, but is a hard-worker (thus, s/he a crew member), you can assign them the "captain" role for a small group project that day; Why not broaden their skill set?  For someone who is cargo daily, you can communicate to them that you need them to be a crew member for the next activity.  It is subtle way of influencing students' behaviors and participation.

Try this one out this week.  Post comments below and share how it worked for you and your students.



  1. My second grade class and I discussed the captain, crew, cargo metaphor today. I was introducing a study of communities, and it tied in really well with the idea of our classroom community. It was a really deep conversation for 7-8 year olds to engage in and they were riveted with it. Thanks for the idea, Jen!

  2. Kristen - That is the power of metaphors, isn't it? All different age groups can relate to them in different ways. I originally learned of that specific metaphor while working in outdoor/adventure education. Outdoor/adventure ed is riddled with metaphors. Thanks for sharing your success. Come back and visit the blog! Best, Jen

  3. Jen,
    This is the same concept that the school that I work for uses. All of our classes are called crews, for example Mrs. Rachael's crew or Mr. Rob's crew. I work for an expeditionary learning school so of course it is much different than the tradional school setting.

    By the way we finally got Monarch Academy added to the list of approved schools for field work.

  4. Hi Jen,
    Wow, I wish all college profesors would use this! Every time I take a class, I cannot help but immediately recognize my fellow captains,crew members, and cargo (yes I prefer the term cargo!)Thanks for supplying the metaphor! By the way, I took your EDU214 class and loved it.

  5. Vickie - I was thrilled to see Monarch Academy on the partnership list. You know how much I love schools!

    Ginger - So lovely to see your post. I hope all is well with you. It's been a while since we had class together, no?


  6. Hi Jen and All the wonderful Bloggers out there!!
    I am a HUGE fan of the Capitan Cargo Crew metaphor. I teach high school science, which often requires a lot of group work and participation (ok by often I mean ALWAYS). What is nice about using it with the high school kids is that they have a little more awareness of their day to day behaviors. So when they come into class they will often announce who they feel like that day: “Ms. Green I am all Capitan today and ready to lead the group”! Or if they have a bad day, they will let me know they are feeling more like cargo. They know that it’s ok to rotate through the rolls and it’s always nice to have a heads up from them.

    I made a large poster of a ship with a Capitan, Cargo and Crew member which is hanging at the front of my room. And I just found some Capitan hats (pirate hats) from the dollar store. I am going to try and use them when we do the group work.

    Thanks for the fabulous idea; I hope it works as well for others as it has for me!!
    Slainte! Emily

  7. Emily - Thank you for your ideas regarding captain, crew and cargo. I think it is awesome that your students are recognizing which role (mood?) they are in when they come to class. I also like your visual - the poster. Super!


  8. I love knowing that with this i can identify which role a student is taking on. i feel i would not inform them about these roles but have my teaching address the differences to have all the students show their knowledge of the information without the need to show the class what kind of role they play in the classroom.
    Gyler T

  9. I love Captain, Crew, and Cargo! I remember when we discussed it in class; I knew I would use it in my classroom one day. What I like most about it is that it gives the teacher the opportunity to get those cargo folks out of their shells. I'll admit, when I was in school I was cargo in most of my classes. It's not that I didn't want to participate; it's that I was shy and didn't feel confident in my studies. If I would've had a teacher to push me into a captain or crew role, I think I would have overcome my shyness quicker and studied more.

    I think that it helps if the students know they will all get their chance at being Captain, Crew, or Cargo. Maybe if a student knows that they will have group work the next day, and they know they might be chosen to be the Captain or Crew, they may study more. At least I hope they do! :-)
    Patricia L

  10. Excellent metaphor and I am going to implement it next week. I see a perfect opportunity and I want to give it a go. I like the idea of moving some of the captains out of that role and giving other students an opportunity to lead. I often wonder if the kids who cruise along in the crew and cargo roles, would have more to say if the captains were silenced, if only for a little while. Now, that's not to say that the comfortable captains aren't valuable but sometimes letting others take the lead can be beneficial for all.

    Meredith L.

  11. I love this idea for a few reasons,
    1. It lets students know that you are aware of what their role is in your classroom. Students that are trying to fly under the radar as cargo might think they are getting away with it, but with this process you are letting them know from the start that you are going to be paying attention to everyone.
    2. It helps students with metacognition. Students become aware of their role and how they think and contribute in the classroom.

    I think all classrooms should adopt this tool!
    Emillee C.

  12. This concept will be very helpful in my classroom. I think it is important for students to be aware of their own moods and to know that the teacher is as well. I like, too, the idea of drawing popsicle sticks with students' names written on them, but I think that using that method in conjunction with this captain-crew-cargo method will be more effective. We don't always know what has been going on in the life of a student prior to them walking into our class, so I think that allowing the leeway for them to be cargo once in a while is appropriate.

  13. During my fieldwork I did observe a certain student demonstrate being the captain, a crew member, and cargo. On some days the student would be very interested in the class work, constantly answering questions and lead small group activities. On other days she would just do her work and give comments. Other days she would be distracted and play around. This is a good metaphor that describes what constantly occurs in the classroom. This also can be observed in our class. I believe the teacher should observe her students and make sure that a particularly student doesn’t always have the same role and that there is variation. Ana V

  14. I can't clarify the emotions I had while perusing this blog. I was totally entranced.