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The power of analogy

By Tom O'Donahoo on 31 January 2016StrategyNSWstaffroom

It’s no secret that analogy is powerful.

Many students balance onslaughts of complicated concepts spread out over 4-6 subjects a day, every day. Unfortunately this puts their ability to process and remember lessons and ideas at a severe disadvantage. So how do teachers combat this struggle to engage the attention and memory of students?

Yup - Analogy.

If you'd like to get technical, Dr Shawn Glynn, an educational psychologist and professor at the University of Georgia believes that creating meaningful learning means to harmoniously integrate new concepts with existing knowledge. This allows students to form cognitive links between what they’re learning and what they already know.

In other words - by doling out well sculpted analogies in the classroom, your students are able to connect your lesson with their own context, which makes ideas very sticky. This is particularly true for concepts that are complex and abstract.

But as Dr Glynn highlights in his Teaching-with-Analogies Model, misguided use of analogy can sometimes promote misconceptions in students.

…the best analogies are ones that are well thought through, explained both linguistically and visually and that directly connect to the student’s context.

Ok, so analogy is a good idea, but it takes a bit of time and thought to get it right. So from our experience we though we’d share our hot tips for using analogy in the classroom:

1. Always Review

If you’re using a major analogy to introduce or contextualise a concept, you want to make sure it, well... works. A good analogy is well articulated, has a high degree of accuracy, is relevant and easy to absorb for students. If you're ticking those boxes you're off to a flying start, but to make sure you're actually pulling this off, you'll probably need a human guinea pig to test it. We'd recommend a colleague or your Department Head.

The reason for this is, although the analogy might make perfect sense in your mind, you’ve got a bit of a head start. The relationship between concept A and concept B is already wired up in your brain – after all, you’re the architect of this little memory hack. However analogies are designed to reduce cognitive load, so if you’ve got to go back and explain it, it largely defeats the point.

Checking your work ahead of time you can avoid any potential confusion and make sure you’re hitting home.

2. Make it Visual

Although we all have trouble remembering abstract names and dates, I can bet that if you close your eyes you’d be able to conjure a surprisingly accurate image of the inside of your house. Seriously, try it. Our eyes use a big chunk of our brain's processing power, so it should come as no great surprise that most people are strong visual learners.

So with your analogies, why not take advantage. We’d recommend you muster up your artistic courage and bring your analogy to life with relevant pictures, diagrams or whatever best describes what you’re getting at.

3. Be Relatable

Although your Magnum-PI references might be just as outstanding as an 80’s moustache, they’re probably not going to fly with Gen-Z. It takes a bit of work, but it’s important to put in the hard yards and create analogies that are relevant to your student’s social context.

Mentally prepare yourself to use Cleopatra and Kardashian in the same sentence.

All this background work takes the weight off developing complicated analogies on the fly, which will ultimately help you keep your class engaged and, if you get it right, maybe even a little entertained.

If all else fails, feel free to draw some inspiration from the work we do to make our video lessons engaging and analogy rich here at Atomi.


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