These wonderfully graphic products of imagination indicate how vibrant our thinking is on something as abstract as learning.
My classical education does not permit me to see easily the bridges that may lie between things I recognise as models and metaphors or analogies, that are often used to explain how learning appears to happen. When it comes to using the terms, however, I often get them muddled.
The neural connection description for learning is what I’d call a model. At the microscopic level, it is a particle model that explains how connections are made between cells in brain tissue, and is not unlike microscopic circuit connections within a computer chip. Though it explains how the complexity is established within the intricacy of the brain, it does not explain the feature or characteristic of learning.
As a teacher/educator/assessor of student learning, I’m more used to outcomes that are as a result of meeting learning objectives. These, of course, are what we call the assessable outcomes.
On the other hand, I see the river and tree-like ‘metaphors’ more as analogies, where the analogous, known features in a river or tree are used to explain how learning can be thought of as developing or growing through time.
When I read the writing of others on these topics, I am constantly aware that some are talking about models, while some are talking in metaphors, and others are drawing analogies. I get confused. I feel that there is a need to find a distinction between what’s a model, what’s a metaphor and what’s really just an analogy. They are not all the same.
What are models?
Models are the basis for assisting a raft of scientific thinking that has a history going back several hundreds of years. A model can be a physical thing and is often thought of as such. It can be held in the hand, such as a model for a molecule of matter, defined as the smallest particle of a substance, retaining all the known microscopic characteristics of the substance it represents.
It can also be a written thing, such as a mathematical formula or expression that, according to known and understandable parameters, explains how things are seen to behave. A model for how the volume of a cube relates to the length of one of its sides can be described by the equation, v = d x d x d, or v = d3. In general, the model leaves little to the imagination.
Metaphors are different from models. They don’t necessarily need to be tangible artifacts, nor written expressions or relationships, such as equations. The word comes from its literal use, where something becomes something else.
A metaphor is thought of as having two parts, the target and source. The target is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The source is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed. “He was a lion in the fight”, is a metaphor for a warrior (target) who was not just like a lion, but became the envisioned replacement - the lion (source).
Metaphors are slick. They permit the mind to think swiftly in terms of the source rather than more cumbersomely in terms of the target.
Metaphors tend to be borrowed from other disciplines. The particle/wave model for light, for instance, has been adopted as a way of describing knowledge, thought of as a thing and a flow. In this way, the model has become a metaphor.
An archaic metaphor for learning was filling jugs. Presumably the jugs were the minds of the students that were to be filled with liquid, which was knowledge. It is a two-in-one metaphor – jugs for minds, liquid for knowledge.
Analogies are quite different from the other two. Unlike the model, an analogy is not trying to depict, in any way, how the thing or concept exists. Nor is it like the metaphor, that tries to make the thing or concept be something else. An analogy is a direct mapping between one idea and another. There is no need for there to be any physical or ethereal resemblance between the thing or concept and its parallel.
So we may well think in terms of a model when joining popper beads to represent neural connections while learning occurs in the brain. We may also think of the metaphor for knowledge as a thing and a flow when considering knowledge management. But the analogy is the most involved of the three.
The metaphor is considered the core of cognition. It calls for the most use of our imagination for it is a parallelism that’s left mainly up to the ingenuity of the thinker, who considers the behaviour of one thing when thinking of the parallel behaviour of another.