Today’s post is written by Andrea May, #chat2lrn crew member and Vice President of Instructional Design Services at Dashe & Thomson in Minneapolis, MN. Andrea is an instructional designer, project manager, wife, mother, Girl Scout troop leader and theater artist.
My mom was a junior high and high school home-economics teacher when I was a kid. She made sure that my sister and I knew our way around the kitchen and a sewing machine, whether we wanted to or not. I distinctly remember helping her bake a scratch cake for my sister’s birthday one year and she used a metaphor to explain the difference between cooking and baking. “Cooking is an art, and baking is a science,” she told me. A light bulb went off in my head. I suddenly understood that you have a lot more license to be creative with cooking. Baking, on the other hand, requires precision and attention to detail if you want things to turn out right.
The use of analogies and metaphors in learning programs can have a powerful impact on a learner’s understanding of new or complex concepts. They highlight the similarities between knowledge we already have and that which we are trying to learn. Analogies and metaphors create a scaffold in the learner’s mind allowing new information to be added on top.
In a recent post by Annie Murphy Paul The Key to Innovation: Making Smart Analogies she explains analogies and how they work for learning:
A useful analogy reveals the deep commonalities beneath superficial differences. We can think of analogies as having two parts: the base and the target. The base is the thing you know about. The target is the thing that’s new. Analogies are created by elaborating the similarities and the differences between the base and the target. When we us
e an analogy, we take what we know about the base and move some of it over to the target. Northwestern University psychologist Dedre Genter calls this process “bootstrapping the mind”—elevating ourselves into the realm of new knowledge, using the knowledge we have already to pull ourselves up.
For example, if we look back at the metaphor my mom used to describe the difference between cooking and baking, the base is art and science. I knew that art is all about creativity and making something new out of whatever materials you choose as
your medium. Science on the other hand is much more rigid and focused on proving theories with repeatable results. So if art is the base and cooking is the target, the commonalities are the ability to be creative, try new things and improvise where needed. On the other hand with a base of science and a target of baking, the commonalities come down to following strict procedures to ensure repeatable results.
If you think back to your school days you might remember some common analogies and metaphors that your teachers used to help you understand a new concept. Fractions are often taught by visualizing a pizza or pie with some of the slices removed. Radio waves are compared to the ripples on water when you drop in a stone. And electricity is often compared to water flowing through pipes. These simple ideas that we all understand provide a context for the more complex ideas to take root.
As an industry, we need to use all the tools available to us to increase understanding and retention. Using analogies and metaphors is a great way to do that. In short, if we can find an example that is common knowledge for our learners that can be used to effectively draw comparisons to a new concept, half the battle is already won.
Join us this week for #chat2lrn to discuss your thoughts on using analogies and metaphor to enhance learning. Join #Chat2lrn this Thursday July 10 at 08.00PDT/11.00EDT/16.00BST and let’s chat about it!
Additional reading on this topic:
Skills Practice | Understanding and Making Analogies – by Jonathan Olsen, Sarah Gross and Katherine Schulten
Learning To Learn: Embrace Analogies – by Kalid Azad
Using Analogies – by Akron Global Polymer Academy
How to Write Better Analogies for Learning by Connie Malamed