Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cry Me A River

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Crimea River - artist Ken Allan
A lot has been discussed recently in the blogosphere on so-called metaphors for learning. There’s been everything from the idea of neural connections - thinking in terms of models - to what I’d call analogies, where learning is described as building on established structures, the growth of a tree-like organism, or the flow of a stream or river over a terrain.

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.

Neural connections:

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.

( 10 ) ( 9 ) ( 8 ) ( 7 ) ( 6 ) ( 5 ) ( 4 ) << - related posts - >> ( 2 ) ( 1 )

Ngā mihi nui


V Yonkers said...

I loved the title of this piece! I'd like to say that my "river" description is an analogy (and not just because it makes me seem smarter!). I find most people don't follow my train of thought, so I need to find ways to make my thinking more concrete. While intellectually I see the difference between metaphor and analogy, I think there are many times when the line is too blurred (when does it cross over to be an analogy?).

Tom Haskins said...

Ken: Thanks for provoking me to consider the differences between models, metaphors and analogies. My design background instilled my use of all three in ways I had not focused on consciously until now. Besides identifying and explaining models, designers utilize models and apply them to the new models they are creating. Existing models breed more effective, valuable or efficient models.

Realizing better models is a process (like learning is a process, river, etc. ) that uses metaphors and analogies. Metaphors get used to redefine the problem to be solved, or to solve an entirely different problem. The metaphoric process of making something into another avoids solving the obvious problem, merely treating symptoms, or perpetuating the problem inside a vicious cycle. Metaphors show different ways to see the familiar evidence in an unfamiliar way. Metaphors introduce other frames of reference for generating possible solutions and more criteria for evaluating design schemes.

Drawing an analogy between models reveals subtleties that are not immediately apparent. Mapping one model onto another shows up differences that can be considered in formulating a new model. Poorly drawn analogies make comparisons that yield few insights about functionality, fit into the context, or efficient combinations of components. Mapping two models also reveals hidden assumptions, overlooked alternatives and opportunities to design multi-functioning components (killing two birds with one stone).

Better models result from these uses of metaphors, analogies and other models.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā korua Virginia and Tom!

Virginia, your 'river' is a wonderful analogy - it is among the best I've learnt that explains the transient capriciousness and time dependent properties of learning. I'm aware that, for many who use metaphors and analogies (and models) there are too vague distinctions between each of these entities.

This is why I think in terms of a mapping, when I focus on an analogy. It anticipates something far more intricate than what is to be found in a metaphor, for it has a complexity of components and properties.

Tom, as you know, Science has a history of evolving its models. This continuous evolution of models is really what a large part of Science is about.

The metaphor is easily carried in the mind. This is its strength. Models can be elaborate - too much so for them to work as metaphors.

In many ways, I see analogies as being closer to models than metaphors. The model is explicit. It leaves little to imagine. For those of us who don't mind using our imagination, the analogy is in some ways richer, more tangible, in a paradoxical way, even more realistic than some well defined models. Analogies can be shaped, whereas fixed models cannot. It may be for this reason that a model tends to have a short half-life. Analogies tend to be resilient and tolerant of rigorous use over time.

I tend to stride out on a limb with some ideas - a bit like you do Virginia. It is really heartening to find people whose thinking empathises, rather than aligns with my own.

Thanks for your support.

Ka kite