‘Imagine it as a pizza…’ and other dodgy analogies!

I was talking to a scientist this week who told me a great story about Isidor Rabi who is a Nobel Prize winner for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance.  Apparently, when Rabi was working on a device that created microwaves specifically for use with radar, someone in the group asked the pertinent question: How does it work? After much scratching of heads one member of the group replied: ‘Just like a whistle’. At this point Rabi was brave enough to ask: ‘So how does a whistle work?’

The story made me think about my own teacher talk, where I frequently use analogy and extended metaphor to explain difficult concepts to my students.

Over the years, I have described the League of Nations as a toothless guard dog (complete with pictures on the board), the Reichstag system of proportional representation as slices of a pizza, the Houses of Parliament as a Twix (where you are only allowed to eat one finger-obviously.) You get the idea. But how much do these off-the -cuff musings actually help my students understand the tricky substantive concepts in history? Analogy and extended metaphor only work by applying new learning to a previously understood concept. If your students don’t understand that concept – e.g. they don’t know how a whistle works, it is going to make the analogy less than helpful. Analogy is most successful when the listener has the same cultural or mental framework as ourselves.

So what can we do instead? Using an analogy from school experience is always a winner. We can be fairly sure students know how this hierarchical structure functions. Explaining the alliance systems of the First World War using the friendship groups in the class in front of you always seems to create a memorable teaching moment that can be drawn on again and again.

However, I would suggest that drawing analogy is also an important process in students’ conceptualising of a historical idea and that this process is entirely personal to that student. Analogy is a vital tool for revealing misconceptions in student understanding. It also provokes debate. I often find that discussing why the analogy is not true is a more fruitful area of discussion – i.e. how fair is the toothless guard dog as a representation of the collective security of the League of Nations in the 1920s and 30s. Are we missing a trick in not allowing our students to create their own analogies by forcing ours upon them? How often are you drawing on analogy in your teaching? How often are you allowing time to let your students create their own analogies?

If you would like to read more:

Mary Brown takes this idea even further in Teaching History 150 when she explicitly uses an extended metaphor to push her students into linking their ideas.  Students move from Muddleton Manor to Clarity Cathedral by way of clear signposting. You can find her article at www.history.org.uk

If this has inspired you to want to read further into how the process of using analogy works, try looking at this: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-analogy/

Do share your ideas with us via the Historical Association on Facebook or @histassoc.

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