The use of metaphors in teaching and learning

Our next post is by guest contributor, Rod Pitcher, a PhD student at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Rod’s PhD focus is the metaphors that people use to explain their conceptions.

Image by: by justjk accessed through flikr

Metaphors are very useful in teaching and learning because they use already held knowledge as a scaffold upon which to build new knowledge or to illustrate some property of the new concept to be learned. Metaphors are of use to both the teacher and the learner and they help in the process of both teaching and learning. It’s helpful to think about this as we design the learning for our students.

Here are a few examples that illustrate how and why they are useful:

Metaphors in teaching electronics
Metaphors are common in teaching electronics. Radio waves are compared to ripples in the surface of water, electricity flowing in a wire is compared to water flowing in a pipe, spider webs are compared to communication networks. Each of these metaphorical objects has some property which casts light on the relevant area of electronics.

Although the metaphors aren’t perfect they help the learner to come to terms with the new concepts. The metaphors use knowledge that the learner already has of the surrounding world to illustrate some property of the unfamiliar topic. Thus learning takes place by building on that previously held knowledge

Metaphors in teaching writing
A thesis or academic paper can be compared to a number of things when teaching writing.

One of the most useful is that of weaving cloth on a loom. Like the cloth, the paper has to be constructed properly, the individual strands have to be placed in the right places to do their jobs. When the cloth is finally produced it has to be trimmed and cut to suit the purpose to which it will be applied. Similarly the finished paper will have to be revised and cut if necessary to suit the audience to whom it will be presented.

A thesis might also be related as the story of a journey, showing the researcher’s development as a researcher, the problems overcome in the progress of it and the thoughts of the person as they progressed. Like a journey the paper will have tough and easy stages, interesting byways and some entertaining digressions from the most direct path but will eventually reached the required destination.

Metaphors in teaching and learning
The type of metaphor used in teaching and learning depends on what is to be taught and learned. The metaphor must be chosen to illustrate the required concept. Choosing the wrong one would be disastrous for the teacher and misleading for the learner.

Metaphors have a great place in teaching and learning. They should be used more as they ease the path of both. However, they should be used with care and discarded when they have served their purpose. If the use of a particular metaphor is prolonged past its useful time it may become misleading or confusing to the learner.

Use them with care, but use them all the same.

What metaphors do you use in your teaching?  Do you have a cunning way of illustrating a concept that helps enhance your students’ understanding?