Analogies and metaphor are used throughout our lives and we’re pre-disposed to using metaphors and analogies to both learn and teach, but most people aren’t even conscious they are doing it.
You know a metaphor is coming when you hear, “Just imagine…” “It’s just like…”, “It’s the same as…”, and “Think of it as…”
Metaphors not only help us to learn and understand better, but they increase the chances of you remembering what you’ve learned. Metaphors are essentially showing that something is similar to another thing. metaphors can be really simple, such as saying that Britain looks like a with wearing a hat. A more complex analogy would be comparing sound waves to ripples in a pond.
Because the images are so strong visually, it tends to stay with you for a long time. Additionally, comparing two separate ideas, creates a neural link between them which will strengthen your memory of both ideas.
Metaphors are incredibly pervasive and I’ve seen countless blog posts and articles online where something mundane, like completing a degree, is likened to an exciting subject, such as climbing a mountain and fighting monsters.
They’re particularly useful when trying to understand a difficult concept that you just can’t wrap your head around.
Metaphors work…but why?
Each piece of knowledge or skill we learn is essentially a network or neurons in our brain. Certain ideas and concepts develops into patterns that are easy to follow and we fall into naturally.
Likening a new idea to one you already understand allow you to link your existing ideas and thought patterns to new ones. They provide a context for the new idea that makes it easier to understand and relate to. As you learn more about a topic, you’ll begin to revise your own metaphors to become more accurate.
A metaphor works like tracing paper, giving us a scaffold on which to attach our ideas. We can then adjust and adapt our understanding of the concept until the scaffolding is no longer needed.
Many breakthroughs have been made by realising that one concept is similar to another.
One of the reasons that some concepts in STEM fields are so hard to learn is that they’re so abstract that there’s no analogy or metaphor than can accurately represent it.
Good teachers understand the value of metaphor and use it daily to make new and foreign concepts more familiar, relatable and meaningful by connecting the new ideas to something the students already understand.