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eLearning Blog

Using Analogies and Metaphors to Enhance Learning

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.

analogies in Learning

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 use 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.

metaphors in Learning

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.

Unfortunately, in the world of corporate learning, I don’t think we utilize metaphors and analogies nearly enough. For example, an ERP system like SAP can be a difficult concept for end users to understand. Comparing an SAP system to a river with a variety of tributaries that all ultimately flow into the same ocean can help people understand the effect that a log jam in one section of the system can have both upstream and downstream. If we use this analogy, mater data in an SAP system can be compared to the huge lake at the source of the river. Production requirements and sales orders (tributaries) flow into the system and join with the main river. If your production planners are not approving their raw material requisitions in a timely manner a log jam is created. The upstream impact is that raw materials can run out and production slows or stops, while downstream suddenly sales orders can’t be filled and customers are left with a finished product shortage.

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.


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