It’s like a magic wand: Metaphor and analogy can improve learning

So here’s quite a bold claim from the wonderful article Humor, Analogy, and Metaphor: H.A.M. it up in Teaching:

…use of metaphors and other strategies can “increase retention by as much as 40%”.

Randy Garner’s wonderful article cites a number of papers that all show that use of humour, metaphor and analogy in the classroom can improve learning, increase retention, and give students a more positive view of the subject matter. I dealt with humour in my last post, but I think the other two are just as important.

What’s going on here? The educational psychology papers cited by Garner take a top-down approach, with some important caveats about using this method (including avoiding over-complexity, and being culturally sensitive). Excitingly (for me at least), there is similarly significant evidence in the bottom-up approach of neuroscience. There’s a wonderful quote from the Royal Society‘s fascinating Brainwaves 2 report on Neuroscience and Education:

When we sleep, walk, talk, observe, introspect, interact, attend, and learn, neurons fire. The brain has extraordinary adaptability, sometimes referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’. This is due to the process by which connections between neurons are strengthened when they are simultaneously activated; often summarised as, ‘neurons that fire together
wire together’

I believe this is also known as Hebbian Theory. Essentially by expressing a new idea in terms of existing mental scaffolding and well-understood vocabulary you associate the new concept with existing knowledge. By talking about the new idea and the old at the same time you get the neurons to ‘fire together’ which gets them to ‘wire together’. This provides a great starting point for the brain to construct its own understanding.

I certainly remember university lectures where the professor would begin with a vast tranche of new vocabulary and proceed to describe new ideas with these terms and concepts with which I was completely unfamiliar. Result? Total disengagement – i.e. I fell asleep.

I remember well being shouted at in the middle of a lecture theatre of 180 students for being ‘bloody rude’ and blearily remembering where I was and noticing the incomprehensible notes on the board, while simultaneously observing how I had dribbled on the lecture notes I had taken so far. I’m sure you’ve encountered students similarly engaged when they missed out the building blocks and cannot access the higher content.

In my teaching I absolutely adore using analogy. I’ve been given quizzical looks by my students after describing particle theory and gases using the analogy of “a bunch of predictably mad 11-year olds who’ve been let out in to the playground”, or describing electronic drift and current in terms of slightly spaced-out festival goers wandering from stage to stage. It did seem to work though, and it certainly stuck.

Of course, these models, analogies and metaphors are starting points. It’s just as important to look at their shortcomings too, but if we begin our teaching of new topics using analogies then students have something to get their teeth into while they build up their mental map.

Incidentally, yes I know my title contains a simile and not a metaphor. Forgive a poor Physics/Maths teacher a minor transgression.

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