Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk

Reflecting English


Analogy is the bread and butter of teacher explanation. How better to clarify a new and abstract concept than by comparing it to an idea already (you hope) securely fastened in your listeners’ knowledge?

The analogy, however, is not just a linguistic trick; it is built upon sound cognitive principles too. Take cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, for instance:

“We understand new things in the context of what we know, and most of what we know is concrete.”

Inference is the bedfellow of analogy. If I described, say, the human long-term memory as being the brain’s internal hard-drive, you would I hope infer that this is the place we store hard-and-fast memories. For an analogy to work, such inferential links must be made. However, we have to proceed with caution. If our listener has no notion of the inner workings of a computer then our analogy will not only fail, but will also…

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