The Role of Analogy in Learning

How does the brain learn? The question might seem too broad, and the answers might seem complex. But if we were to state it in a word, the answer would be Analogy.Analogy, defined as “Similarity ... between things that are otherwise dissimilar," and “comparison based on ... similarity”, is the basis for much of learning and understanding. This occurs at a fundamental level. 

Here’s an example. When you’re learning about how a computer works, you might hear:

  • A computer has an input/output system. The input is via the keyboard, and the output is via the monitor.
  • A computer has a processor. This is what does most of the calculations.

How can we understand this? If the words “input/output,” “keyboard,” “monitor,” etc. do not make sense, we map them to something that we know:

  • “Input/output” means: “I tell it something, and the computer shows me something.”
  • “Keyboard” means: Something that, like a piano, has keys.

That mapping is simple. We do it many times (possibly many hundreds of times) a day. The interesting thing is that this is fundamental: There is no other way in which the brain learns! It learns by association; by mapping a new idea to an existing idea. The existing ideas all come from what we learn as children.

Douglas Hofstadter, a pioneering cognitive scientist, emphasised the role of analogy in all his works — most especially in Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. Ann Speed of Sandia National Laboratories says about analogy that it is a “Foundational characteristic of cognition.” We might go so far as to say that it is the foundational characteristic.

Put differently: We understand that one plus one equals two only because our primary school teacher told us so. But we understand that two plus two equals four because of the former fact.

What does this mean? Why is this important at all? It has implications for teachers and for instructional designers: If analogy is central to the way we think and understand, we can capitalise on it by...

Providing good examples. When we give an example, it doesn’t just help the learner. It resonates with him/her at a basic level.

Not avoiding analogies. In recent years, it has become fashionable to criticise analogies and those who make them up. The fact is that it is the means to learning and understanding (at least according to cognitive scientists!)

Being careful with examples. An example can make or break your learner’s understanding. Provide a good one and he/she might learn a concept for life — without needing memory aids. Provide a bad one and you could damage that understanding at the outset, to an irreparable extent.

Finally, think of all the devices we use as instructors:

  • Pictures, because they convey more than words can.
  • Flowcharts; they are crisper than words when the subject is about how something works.
  • References to further material; we cannot say everything there is to be said about a topic.
  • Verbal explanations, which use words to construct the material to be learnt.
  • Syntactic and semantic structuring of words, so that the intent is conveyed more accurately.

Of all such fundamental devices, the analogy is the most powerful because it most closely matches the way our brain works. It is the teaching technique we need to be most discerning with.