Posted by Easy Authoring Learning and Development

Learning Design Tip #7 – Choose a metaphor

Metaphor, simile, analogy, antithesis, hyperbole. Whatever you call them (and they are different), the use of them can improve the effectiveness of your learning designs. They can be used in a range of ways from simply visualising an idea to improve recall, to conceptualising content in a visual structure to enhance encoding and retention, to using phrasing that evokes an emotional response that strengthens engagement.

Metaphors draw parallels between two things (ideas, concepts, processes, systems, content) to further or enable deeper understanding or improve retention and recall. Just as the Eiffel Tower has four legs, you can think of metaphor as having four key pillars …

Pillar 1: Metaphors need to be familiar. They are useful to help anchor new information to familiar contexts, but this only works if participants are familiar with the metaphor. Unfamiliar metaphors only create cognitive load that can hinder, rather than help, learning. Keep in mind that metaphors are often culturally specific. Avoid pop culture references, and if in doubt, ask a variety of different people to check whether everyone is familiar with your chosen metaphor. We’re fairly certain that you’re familiar with the Eiffel Tower.

Pillar 2: Metaphors can be realistic, or imaginary. Metaphors can be realistic and represent real life objects or places – for example, common metaphors involve situating a learning experience within an office or workplace setting that’s familiar to participants (as familiar as say … the Eiffel Tower in France). However, metaphors can also be imaginary and involve storytelling – for example, a quest theme or treasure map learning challenge. Remember the above rule though – it needs to be familiar. Imaginary metaphors are familiar because we all have shared cultural experience.

Pillar 3: Metaphors may be chosen to stimulate emotion. Layering a metaphor over learning content can also be an effective way to stimulate an emotional engagement with new information that helps with long-term memory storage. For example, our Eiffel Tower metaphor is designed to help you remember four foundations of metaphor in learning. We chose the Eiffel Tower because, for most people, this stimulates happy memories and associations, and so, theoretically at least, will help you to remember this article!

Pillar 4: Metaphors should be fresh. Avoid tired, stale metaphors such as a ‘virtual classroom’ or ‘virtual presenters’. If your metaphor idea involves whiteboards, virtual projector screens and apples on the teachers’ desk, it’s time to have a rethink!

How to create metaphors for learning

Staring at a blank page or dry content and coming up with a cracker of a metaphor can be difficult. Here’s a couple of tips to get you started (cracker, explosive, colourful, loud, attention getting):

You don’t have to be a ‘creative’ to use metaphors. If words aren’t your forte, use a thesaurus to explore other ways that language can be used. If you’re struggling with images, search an image library (or even just a Google image search, although beware of overused concepts) to find ideas and inspiration. Add some extra search terms like ‘mind-map’ or ‘infographic’ or ‘visualisation’ to give focus to your results. (forte, the Italian musical term for strength)

Brainstorm. Find a couple of colleagues and start with your idea or central concept. Give everyone 60 seconds to write down as many ideas as they can, then start talking. Don’t judge (yet), just let things go where they will, that ridiculous idea may be the stepping stone to the idea that you’re looking for. (stepping stone, where one thing follows another)

Metaphors are everywhere – they are woven into our speech, our writing, what we see and experience. And that can be the challenge – to create metaphors that stand out, without dominating or distracting, that enhance understanding of meaning, without obfuscating or confusing, that build and strengthen knowledge, without creating cognitive overload, that add value, without being tired, or boring. (woven into, indicating the ideas are integrated, and are stronger, more useful, perhaps even more beautiful than the individual strands)

Interested in a deep dive?

What will you do?

Over the next 24 hours, see how many metaphors you can notice in your own and other’s speech. Recognising their prolific use will boost your idea generation.

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