September 27, 2011
Decoding the disciplines: Identifying metaphors to communicate and teach disciplinary strategies for thinking
Metaphors are powerful teaching strategies because they can connect an unfamiliar concept with existing knowledge in a way that students will understand and remember. A good metaphor can help students master difficult concepts that create bottlenecks and obstacles to their learning.
The best metaphors are based on vivid and concrete phenomena that are already familiar to the student. How do you create an effective metaphor? Once you have identified a bottleneck to learning, ask yourself what is the desired thinking like? For example, a fine arts instructor might want to model the thinking process used when an artist creates a self-portrait. What is this process like? Is the artist trying to picture the pattern of light and dark colors, like a kaleidoscope? Is the artist creating a message about herself, like describing what items to bring along on a canoe trip to make it a memorable experience? A good metaphor will help students understand the kind of thinking they should use.
Metaphors can also help students overcome the persistent misconceptions that can be problematic in science teaching. For example, a misconception from meteorology is that weather on earth is caused by the seasons, when weather is actually caused by the transfer of heat and cold between the equator and the poles. A metaphor that compares weather to a pot of boiling water in which weather is like the movement of the water in the pot that moves heat from the bottom of the pot (the equator) to the top (the poles) will help students understand how the earth, which gets super heated at the equator, transmits that heat to the cold poles through the process we know as weather.
Because students learn more from a metaphor that is based on familiar processes or phenomena, select metaphors based on things that students are already likely to know and understand. The videos described below provide examples of two professors describing metaphors that will help their students make the conceptual leaps needed to master disciplinary knowledge and thought.
Braasch, J. & Goldman, S. (2010). The Role of Prior Knowledge in Learning from Analogies in Science Texts. Discourse Processes: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 47, 447-479.
Pace, D. & Middendorf, J. (Eds.). (2004). Decoding the disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Savion, L. & Middendorf, J. (1994). Enhancing Concept Comprehension and Retention. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 3, 6-8.
Updated 09/27/11 cdw
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