Quick Tip Tuesday: Metaphors & Analogies

October 13th, 2009

This week’s tip comes from a new book by Rick Wormeli: Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject. In this provocative book, Rick argues that metaphors show students how to make connections between the concrete and the abstract, prior knowledge and unfamiliar concepts, and language and image. His book is filled with illustrations of metaphors in action and practical tips about using metaphors to improve assessment, professional development, and symbolic sensing.

Read a portion of the Introduction here and then visit our website to preview the entire book online!

From a high school teacher:
I asked my ninth-grade class to deconstruct a metaphor in their reading. They were stumped and silent. Thinking to myself, what’s the difference between a metaphor and a simile, I backtracked a bit. I asked the class if the United States were an animal, what animal would it be
and why? Total uncomfortable silence. We all squirmed while I looked at the board and thought: Okay, what animal am I going to pick? What comparisons am I going to make?

As I turned back to the class, Pete, a special education student, had his hand waving in the air.
“If the U.S.A. were an animal,” he said, “it would be a big dog that likes to be on the porch. But once that dog gets riled, look out—it will come off that porch looking for a fight. But most of the time it likes to take it easy, it likes being on that porch with all the other dogs looking at it.”

Pete was known for being a goof in class, so several kids started to laugh. But he continued quickly and confidently: “No, no, really you guys; look at us. Look at what we’ve been studying this year. The U.S. didn’t want to get involved in World War I or World War II. We wanted
to stay home. We’re the richest country; we get to stay on the porch, no rain on us, no snow.”
I looked at the class. Students were nodding their heads. Everybody was looking at Pete.
“Look at what we’re doing in Kosovo,” he continued. “We like being the boss, but we don’t want to get off the porch to do it.”

After class, I told Pete what a nice job he had done explaining his metaphor. I said I thought most students got the comparisons he made, but most of them found it really hard to construct metaphors on their own. “Hard?” he said. “Hell! That was about the easiest thing you’ve had
me do all year. Any time you want me to compare stuff like that, I’m your guy.”

So there I was with this totally new insight into Pete, a boy who struggled to read and write but made comparisons far more sophisticated and concise than students who read and wrote with far more facility than he ever would.

As teachers, we live for such aha! moments: those times when our lessons evoke an “Oh, I get it now!” euphoria in students. It might be a lab demonstration, a successfully completed math problem, or a series of guiding questions that eventually lead to understanding and make a lasting connection.

What was the difference? How did we get their mental gears in sync? When we look back over our most successful lessons, we realize that these mini-epiphanies often occur in the presence of metaphors and analogies:
* “In this situation, Prussia was a cornered mountain lion.”
* “This molecule is trying to flirt with that other molecule.”
* “What does irrational mean when it is used to describe human behavior? Let’s see if that description applies to irrational numbers in math.”

On other occasions, students fail to thrive because they cannot grasp the metaphor we have chosen, or because we let an opportunity to build a bridge to understanding slip away. “If only I had a good analogy that would have cleared this up for these students,” we lament as we grade their less-than successful papers. “What do you mean that you don’t see how a Mercator
projection is like a peeled orange—Didn’t I explain it well enough?” Little in education has as much influence on students’ academic and personal success as the metaphors and analogies teachers use to make unfamiliar concepts clear. Given their significance, metaphors and analogies should be one of the primary considerations in lesson design.

Today’s classrooms are fertile ground for constructive use of comparisons. Metaphors and analogies can be used to shape our thinking, and thereby our actions, but they can also open our minds to new ideas unattainable through other means:

*In music class, students perceive the intricate melody of a new piece of music as someone running up stairs, stumbling down a few steps then leaping forward to an airy emancipation from gravity.
* In algebra class, students finally understand equations because they see either side of the equal sign as extended bars on balance.
* In biology class, the complexity of the Krebs cycle gets simplified when someone explains it as an energy processing factory for Citric Acid, made of six smaller interactions working together that create ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

For more examples of metaphors from successful classroom teachers, see Appendix B in the back of this book.

Purposefully Teaching with Metaphors
Mathematics is not a way of hanging numbers on things so that quantitative answers to ordinary questions can be obtained. It is a language that allows one to think about extraordinary questions . . . getting the picture does not mean writing out the formula or crunching the numbers, it means grasping the mathematical metaphor.
—James Bullock, 1994

Formally teaching through metaphors and their main subset, analogies, represents a different way of teaching for many. Some of us make good comparisons routinely and naturally: When a student seems confused, we think of something related to their personal lives. “T.J., you like working on cars, so let’s compare how a car’s engine regulates internal temperature with the way mammals regulate internal temperature. Then we’ll compare it with how reptiles do it, which is very different.” The student says, or at least thinks, “Now, I get it,” and we move on—though we stop periodically and make sure that he really does.

For others, learning how to use appropriate metaphors or how to guide students to create their own unique metaphors will require adjustments in thinking and curricular planning. How do we frame meaning? That’s a much different question than, Will we get through Chapter 10 by the
midterm exam?

What may need to change in many of our classrooms is the purposeful pursuit of metaphors and analogies in our teaching instead of the momentary inspirations that may or may not be helpful to students’ learning. We don’t want to leave such effective strategies to chance.

Teaching through metaphors and analogies isn’t just about building personal background knowledge so students have a context for understanding new concepts. Nor is it just about giving students templates to complete
(________ is to ________ as ________ is to ________) or assigning students to compare and contrast two periods of history or pieces of literature. It’s also a conscious choice to scaffold learning by making meaningful connections among topics. By giving students specific tools to think critically, such as making the invisible visible through explicit comparisons or applying knowledge from one discipline to another, we help students move beyond memorization to deeper learning that lasts.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Quick Tip Tuesday

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