Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk


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 confound understanding even more. Knowing what our students know and understand is important here.

Thinking up analogies, both in advance and on-the-spot, is one of the joys of teaching. Below is an attempt to categorise some of my favourite strategies using examples from my English teaching.

The everyday life analogy. The computer example above is a classic version of this. Take an unremarkable, well-know object, process or scenario to help exemplify a less familiar or more abstract idea:

 “Using the same sentence structure repetitively is the writing equivalent of munching on boiled cauliflower, and nothing else, for the rest of your life.”

The prior learning analogy. This is so useful because not only does it ‘pin’ the new knowledge to something that we can cautiously trust they already know, but it consolidates learning from previous lessons. On a simple level it might be, “A verse is a paragraph in poetry.” However, comparisons across texts can be very fruitful: “Eva Smith is the Curley’s Wife of An Inspector Calls: a woman destroyed, objectified and marginalised by a patriarchal world.” It kills two birds with one stone.

The analogous story. It always fascinates me the way students respond to stories about my life, even if the truth is often contorted in the interests of learning! A sudden alertness becomes almost palpable as soon as I begin. One of my favourites is used in my teaching of The Merchant of Venice. To emphasise the cruelty of Shylock’s courtroom humiliation, I tell my students about my mate Dave. “When Dave was a teenager he carried a torch for a girl at school. One day, with this girl looking on, Dave played the most exquisite pool shot I have ever witnessed, deliberately sinking two balls in one go. His bubble was quickly burst, however, when it was pointed out that his jumper, emblazoned with a huge logo, was on back-to-front. Humiliation is all the more cruel when we believe we have finally triumphed.” The story may sound insignificant, yet teenagers seem to tap into Dave’s shame remarkably easily.

The immediate environment analogy. It’s difficult to misunderstand a concept if it can be likened to something immediately visible or tangible. Such analogies can be prepared for by bringing in an unexpected object or using an image; however there’s something magical about transforming a students’ perception of where they are through words. “Imagine the windows of this room were bricked over and all we had left were the tiny square ones up there,” I use to emphasise the claustrophobic bunkhouse of Of Mice and Men. This week when teaching the poem ‘Mametz Wood’, which features the unearthing of the skeletons of forgotten First World War soldiers, I asked my students to imagine what voices of the past might be lurking unheard a mere couple of metres under the classroom carpet…

The extended metaphor. My friend Gavin McCusker makes a link between writing and painting, describing the writer’s box of tricks as the ‘writer’s palette’. The process of redrafting work becomes like adding extra layers of detail to artwork. I often describe writing an essay like building a house: the introduction the foundations, the paragraphs the rooms, the doorways the links between paragraphs, the roof the conclusion…

The celebrity analogy. The efforts of sports stars are ripe pickings for emphasising an ethic of effort, practise and resilience. To the student who grumbles because you ask them to write for a decent period of time most lessons: “Do you think Gareth Bale could score a goal like he did last weekend by sitting down and listening to his coach or watching videos of others taking free kicks? He needs to practise every day to become that good.” I find the more relevant and recent the analogy, the more effective it is. Any reference to Pele tends to leave my class scratching their heads.

The spontaneous analogy.

Segue to a secondary classroom. The male teacher is taking the register.

Teacher: Smith?

Smith: Yes, miss. (Smith blushes beetroot.)

Teacher: Not to worry, Smith. Jones?

Jones: Yes… miss. (Jones is attempting to stifle a giggle.)

Teacher: (raising eyebrows, glancing disparagingly at Jones and speaking in withering tone) Even more inevitable than the death of Lennie in the final chapter of Of Mice and Men, Jones…

If we keep on the lookout for opportunities to drop in a useful analogy, we will find them. Even better if our students learn to do so too.

Analogy as a question. Sometimes it’s useful to hang an analogy in the air to help students solve a problem; it seems to spur curiosity. When teaching the Ted Hughes’ poem Hawk Roosting, we discuss the traits of dictators and despots – Hitler and Pol Pot, for instance. I then ask the question: “How does the hawk in the poem embody the characteristics of this kind of leadership?” When they read the poem, they have a reference point to build their understanding around.

The risqué analogy. Let’s face it, there are certain topics of conversation that teenagers find extremely memorable (and adults too!). Although potentially hazardous, this strategy offers rich spoils for learning. It goes without saying that one needs to tread carefully with the risque analogy. Here’s one – not a great example to be fair – that is repeatable. When recently studying war poetry, I asked Y10 students to consider the single sperm that produced each of us. “Beating millions to the prize, this sperm was insanely fortunate. In an opposing way, the soldier on the battlefield, one man picked from the millions, is disposable cannon fodder, just like those other sperms that were wasted along the way to your birth.”

*                                                             *                                                        *

I find inventing analogies to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. It helps me to model an inventive approach to language as well as adding to the richness of classroom dialogue. One of the ultimate goals of teaching, I think, is to get students to make the connections for themselves.

Further reading:

I really enjoyed this post by Mark Miller about how understanding metaphor is a threshold concept in English.

This by Chip & Dan Heath on ‘sticky’ ideas is a must read.


7 thoughts on “Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk

  1. Pingback: English teaching and the problem with knowledge | Reflecting English

  2. Pingback: 10 strategies for ‘talk-better’ teaching | Reflecting English

  3. Pingback: What Makes Great Teaching? 6 Lessons from Learners by @Powley_R | UKEdChat - Supporting the Education Community

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