Analogies Help Us Learn!
October 26, 2020 / 5 minute read
I love analogies. Perhaps that is easy to guess based on the name of the website. Why? Well, I'll tell you.
What is an analogy?
Perhaps you recall something like this from primary or secondary school:
If that use of analogies brings back painful memories (like the SAT), then rest assured, that is not how I like to think of analogies. The definition of an analogy is:
analogy: noun. a comparison between two things. typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification
Note that some definitions explicitly note that analogies are a comparison of two "unalike" things, thereby highlighting their similarities in a certain sense.
Why analogies are great
Learning is defined as "the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught." We have all learned many things in our lives, and they are typically in areas that we have spent the most time or have gained the most hands-on experience.
However, learning is sometimes hard to "transfer" into new areas. Related areas come easily (i.e. good soccer players tend to be good at futsal, because the two are very closely related), but unrelated areas, not so much. Being good at basketball does not necessarily transfer well to rocket science, for instance.
Enter analogies! Analogies help us take experience or learning from one unrelated area to another, and thereby allow us to jump from basketball to rocket science! We cannot expect to become experts purely by way of analogies, but it is a great way to soften learning curves, simplify topics, and transfer our experience!!
Plus, they're fun!
I love math and technology, and am a bit of a nerd. Many of the people I care about are either not nerds or are not nerds about math and technology. As a result, I use analogies to help explain my world to them without requiring them to become math/programming nerds.
For instance, I might explain that "Calculus is like Driving a Car." This is a useful analogy I used when I was teaching calculus. To help give newcomers an intuition about calculus, I would draw upon their experience driving cars! Need help understanding derivatives? Think about the spedometer! Need help understanding integrals? Think about the odometer!
None of us is capable of really understanding things for which we have no context, background, or logical foundation for. Analogies help us bridge that gap and provide an easier entry-point based on similarities of otherwise unlike things.
How we use them here
On this site, we love to use analogies to explain tech topics and things that are otherwise complex or tricky to understand. As a result, when sharing an analogy, we will generally shoot for a few highlights:
- The analogy
- The high points
- The breakdown
We begin with an analogy! Most analogies will require a bit of elaboration and qualification. At first glance, perhaps it seems strange to relate calculus to driving a car.
The High Points
If the analogy is good, there are some very clear points of similarity that will help explain the "less accessible" topic. The high points of an analogy are its focus and primary value, so this is where you should spend the bulk of your time when learning.
Every analogy "breaks down" somewhere. We should always acknowledge the limits of our tools, and every analogy has its limits. Generally, it is best to focus on the high points of an analogy, lest we confuse newcomers with our qualifications. However, in this context we will briefly mention our shortcomings as a highlight for where you can dig deeper. Further, our shortcomings can help us understand the desired topic by establishing guard-rails.
To take our example, while driving a car gives you an entry point into calculus, it will not make you an expert. At some point, you do have to master the definitions and mechanics of derivatives and integrals. Also, I can't think of any way relate an oil change to calculus, so let's not get too literal.
It is worth noting that this site is named for analogies. Coincidentally, I will often focus on them. However, I'm not very creative. As a result, many posts on the site will not be about analogies at all. However, my aim is that the theme of explaining topics in an accessible way will remain.
Next time you are trying to explain something complex, do some thinking to see if an analogy will help you out! A well-thought-out analogy can be very useful and a lot of fun! Of course, others fall completely flat, but that's fun in its own way.
Finally, if analogies are ever actively hindering your understanding or just making you more confused, please drop them. If an analogy is relating to something you have no context for, it may be better to try another or to just ignore the analogy altogether. After all, the focus is learning!