A Guide For Teaching With Analogies
by Terry Heick
Analogies are one of the best-kept secrets in education.
Often used as multiple choice question items or as warm-ups to begin a lesson, analogies are useful teaching and learning strategies because of their flexibility, ease of use, and tendency to force cognitive load on students.
I use them constantly in my classroom, primarily due to their grab-and-go format. Any place, any time–verbal, drawing, exit slip, discussion, one-on-one, whole class, group work, begin class, end class, abstract or concrete thinking, analogies are imminently useful. They’re also everywhere–debates, commercials, sitcoms, poetry, hip-hop, video games.
What’s not to love?
An analogy is simply a comparison between two things. In this way, it is similar to the simile and metaphor. We use analogies all the time informally. In conversation, when you compare one situation to another, you’re using an analogy. ‘Life is like a box of chocolates’ is a simile that also compares analogous ideas–the uncertainty and variety in life experiences with the same in a box of chocolates.
In addition to conversational analogies, there are formal academic analogies.
Academic analogies are useful for teaching and learning because they require students to analyze a thing (or things), and then transfer that analysis to another thing. This kind of transfer requires at least some kind of conceptual grasp–understanding.
This makes them useful for assessment, but they can also be used as an effective learning strategy as well. As students create incorrect analogies, analyze the relationships their analogies are suggesting, and then correct them accordingly, students are grappling with ideas, monitoring and revising their thinking, and otherwise actively consider the often complex relationships between disparate things.
Starting with an open right side, where items C & D are open is not a bad way to start, as it allows students to make mistakes. Which is good–their mistakes are illuminating. They tell you what the student thinks but do so in a way that doesn’t require the writing process, verbal articulation, or some in-depth and long-term project that taxes their ability to manage their time and be organized as much as it does their understanding of ideas.
Imagine asking a student to complete the following analogy.
Laws : Constitution :: ______ : _______
So in the journal, for example, a student writes, Laws:Constitution::Weapon:Video Game. This was useful for the student as a learning strategy, as the student had to ‘think’ about what laws ‘do’ and do so while really, truly internalizing it all. The above ‘weapon : video game’ response tells you the student thinks that laws function like weapons–destroying enemies, defending the protagonist, doing damage, etc.
You may not, at a glance, be sure which–you can ask if you have time–but you can tell here that the student’s on the right track. So maybe you suggest a mild revision–Laws : Constitution: Code: Video Game. You may not be sure yourself if this is true–maybe you’re only vaguely familiar with how video games work–but you suggest it anyway.
Next, you ask the student to critique your answer–say how it is and isn’t true. This requires the student to carefully scrutinize–with whatever knowledge they do have–to come up with something. Who doesn’t want to point out a teacher’s error?
And isn’t thoughtful scrutiny of ideas what we’re after as teachers?
In maybe their best trick, analogies make differentiation and personalization dead simple. Struggling reader? Use monosyllabic terms. Non-reader? Well, that’s a huge problem, but try symbols. Hesitant learner? Use pop culture items that make it seem less like ‘school.’
Abstract thinker? Use equally abstract and theoretical terms. Well-read? Use literary ideas, figures, etc. Tech-addict? Social butterfly? Introvert? Use that!
Analogies function by providing a framework for comparison across four concepts. Two items are compared to determine a relationship, and that relationship is then reproduced between two other ideas.
In a formal academic analogy, four Items are separated by a series of colons, as in the formula shown below.
A : B :: C : D
The two items on the left (items A & B) describe a relationship and are separated by a single colon. The two items on the right (items C & D) are shown on the right and are also separated by a colon. Together, both sides are then separated by two colons in the middle, as demonstrated here: Hot : Cold :: Wet : Dry
To complete these, students have to identify, analyze, evaluate, and transfer. Consider the following analogy: Fish : River :: Bird : _____
Even in this very simple analogy, students might identify a half-dozen characteristics of the relationship between fish and river, their mind scrambling to find relationships. They then analyze that relationship and come up with those most obvious. Fish live in a river, are sometimes found in a river, are caught in a river, love the river, are smaller than a river, etc.
With this list, they then have to scrutinize more carefully, evaluating each item accordingly until they can name the relationship in the second part of the analogy that best describes that established in the first. That last part requires some patience–students love to shout out answers (identify and analyze), but the evaluate part takes more effort, so they try to skip it. Don’t let them! (See below.)
Tips For Teaching With Analogies
1. The more consistently you use analogies, the more comfortable students will become with their simple but highly ‘academic’ format. Let’s face it–analogies look intimidating and dry. Once they get past that initial impression, they’ll be more useful as a teaching and learning tool.
2. Background knowledge, social and cultural contexts, socioeconomic status and more all are ‘part’ of a student’s experience–and thus their thinking.
In the ‘Fish : River’ analogy, students unfamiliar with rivers–those that have always seen fish caught in the ocean, for example–may be confused by this. The same is true using any concept that is less than universal–snow, traffic lights, skyscrapers, apps, etc.
3. Subjectivity always plays a role.
Even ideas that every student understands can be problematic if they see the relationship differently than you do. Is baseball ‘America’s pastime’ or ‘boring’? Was Malcolm X heroic or defiant–or heroic because he was defiant?
That doesn’t mean you can’t use these items, but be prepared to adjust on the fly if students are having trouble. As with any assessment, don’t let the form obscure students showing you what they do and don’t understand.
Rules for Completing Analogy
Students love to play fill-in-the-blank with analogies. Nature hates a void, and even confusing analogies can usually get a mildly-engaged student guessing. When going over analogies whole-class, don’t let the students shout out answers, or guess. Make them first complete a sentence that best describes the relation between items A & B, and don’t let them go any further until they do.
In the following analogy, Soap : Germs ::______:Conflict, requires students to first come up with a sentence for items A & B–and not just any true sentence, but once that best describes the relationship between the items.
Soap kills germs (or at least washes them away–depends on how carefully students are thinking!) works. So soap kills germs as tolerance kills conflict.
That one was easy enough. But when you consider Emily Dickinson : Em-Dash : Carpenter : ______, the answer is less obvious. Dickinson made extensive use of the Em-Dash as a carpenter makes extensive use of a hammer–or saw, or whatever. But blueprints or concrete wouldn’t work so well, as carpenters don’t (usually) make extensive use of each.
14 Types Of Analogies To Promote Thinking
Rise of Social Messaging:Demise of Email::__________:French Revolution
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream”:Civil Rights::________:LBGTQ Rights
Emily Dickson’s Poetry:Pious::Robert Frost’s Poetry:_________
Field: Farm:: Audience
Porsche 911: Sports Car:: Alligator: Reptile
Degree of Difference
“It’s 93 degrees”:”It’s Hot”::________:”Freedom isn’t free”
Revision:Writing Process::______Sentence Diagramming
Swastika:Nazi Germany::Faulkner’s use of setting in “A Rose for Emily”:________