Learning by analogies

I’ve been thinking about analogies. I don’t mean the kind of A : B =  C : ? analogy questions on standardized tests, which, even to folks like myself who enjoy them, don’t do much more than pass the time.

The kind of analogies I’m thinking about are critical thinking strategies that enable fast, efficient learning of processes and procedures in new situations.  They are the kinds of cognitive skills that a new hire needs to get up to speed quickly without company-provided training.

Such cognitive abilities are particularly important in this economy: when big companies retrench, one of the first budgets to be cut is training.  Small busineses—those with 10 or fewer employees who comprise the bulk of American businesses—never had a training budget: they must hire people with good skills because they haven’t time or money for training.

Faced with learning some new process or procedure, a savvy learner approaches the material to be learned as an analogy problem.

Analogies are essentially extended comparisons. Unlike similes and metaphors which compare a single feature of two elements, (“swift as a deer,” “bovine eyes”), analogies compare multiple features of two elements.  They work rather like this:

Feature 1  of item 1 ~ Feature 1 of item 2

Feature 2 of item 1 ~ Feature 2  of item 2

Feature 3 of item 1 ~ Feature 3 of item 2

Anyone who has ever used an analogy to explain a concept or process has probably uttered the cliché “every analogy breaks down at some point.”  An analogy is bound to break down unless the two items being compared are identical. That’s where the value of the analogy as a learning strategy comes into play.

Once learners identify something in their experience that’s analogous to the material to be learned, they can zero in on what’s essential to master immediately, with this kind of analysis:

Feature 1 of the process I must learn ~ Feature  of a process I already know.

Feature 2 of the process I must learn ~ Feature  of a process I already know.

Feature 3 of the process I must learn ~ Feature  of a process I already know.

Feature 4 of the process I must learn  is totally unlike any features of a process I already know.

This type of critical thinking process effectively and efficiently isolates for the learner what new processes must be mastered quickly. It also helps the learner identify how steep the learning curve will be.  Having to master a new process that requires learning to use new tools and a new vocabulary will require concentrated effort. On the other hand, for example,  someone who knows  Microsoft® Word® can figure out how to use OpenOffice™ Writer by examining how the features of Word® they are accustomed to are rendered in OpenOffice™ Writer.

It’s worth noting that even though learners see broad similarities between the processes or procedures to be learned and those they already know, they still probably will need to master specific facts. Having an analogous situation to which to compare required new learning does not eliminate the need to do new learning. Rather it changes the kind of learning required from systemic information to more discrete data bits. New hires can jot down terms or job-site specific filing procedures far more easily than they can learn, for example, what an accounting office does.

The critical thinking processes needed for this type of analysis can be taught and learned through classroom activities.  Since the learners who are best equipped to do this kind of cognitive work are those with the broadest range of experiences, schools can support their students by  integrating learning experiences across the curriculum.  That does not mean just that the English teacher allows students to write research papers about preserving the rain forests. It’s equally about the biology teacher pointing out how life science uses language to convey facts and attitudes.

Above all, however, it’s about teaching students that they need to demonstrate the ability to apply and modify their prior learning in each new situation.