Learning and unlearning can benefit from careful use of analogies

October 14, 2008

As a respected colleague of mine recently retired, she passed on some nuggets of wisdom about life-long learning, one of which was the following:

“Remember, learning often requires unlearning.”

As soon as I heard it roll off her lips, I thought of how that concept is foreign to many who attempt to teach technology, especially those younger teachers who have only had to learn the thing they’re teaching once… because to them, the thing is what the thing is — what it has always been. Have you ever wondered why young kids can learn technology so fast? They’ve never needed to know anything else, let alone figure out how it changes their experience. They’re like brand new sponges. You can pour new concepts into their brains with no mental collisions! But, for us older technology learners, it’s a little different because we often already have an existing experience to weigh new concepts against. Let’s take PCs as an example. Most tasks that one uses a PC for have existed prior to the advent of personal computing (communications, budgeting, leisure, etc.)… the PC is really is a new way to accomplish those. What’s a good way to explain the newer way? Analogies, of course!

I believe in using analogies not only based on the scholarly research, but because from personal and professional experience I’ve found learning something new often is done by comparison/linking to something already known. If two things have a commonality in concept, and one is already familiar to the learner, then it can be a great way to explain the unknown. That’s why I maximize the use of analogies in teaching technology to older computing newcomers. (In fact, one of the early chapters of The Ultimate PC Primer is exclusively dedicated to one central “backbone” analogy that helps drive the reminder of the explanations of core computing concepts.) One of the benefits of being older is that one has a vast wealth of experiences to draw on when engaging new experiences. That said…

Problems can develop when a new technology is fundamentally different from something the new user is attempting to compare against or when the new technology is a radical change from the old way of doing the same thing. In this case, a difficult thing must be done: the user has to unlearn the previous way, or at least “un-link” (conceptually differentiate) from the past experience. It can be particularly challenging to teach the concept using an analogy because that analogy must then achieve two goals: 1. convey the new concept clearly, with a easily understandable connection to the user’s past (or a universally understood concept); and 2. be readily different in concept from that which must also be “un-taught,” so as to not create a mis-association. (Have you ever learned to understand or remember something the wrong way? Ugh. You’re forever trying to remember which is the right way.)

Even with this goal in mind, not all analogies can be perfect. In fact, nit-picked too thoroughly, all analogies will break down at some point. (That’s why they’re “analogies.”) I heavily ponder analogies before using one, trying to get closest to the bull’s-eye while also trying to avoid those that will likely cause concept confusion. Here’s an actual example from a dilemma I faced while writing The Ultimate PC Primer. I was searching for a good analogy to explain the function of Caps Lock on the PC keyboard. Since Caps Lock deals with upper and lower case letters, one of my first ideas was to compare it with switching between high-beam and low-beam headlights on an automobile. But that analogy didn’t make it past the first draft. As I thought about using Caps Lock and then about switching between normal and high-beams when I drive, I realized that the headlights provide far greater visual feedback than the Caps Lock button does. Think about it. You use headlights at night, and what’s the primary way you can confirm that you’ve switched from one set of lights to the other? You look out the window. You see the actual effect of the lights. True, there is an indicator on the dashboard, but that’s not generally the first (and certainly not the only) way. Now with Caps Lock, there is only that little light on the keyboard. And that’s a big difference when you’re trying to 1. explain a new concept and 2. use an analogy that won’t confuse the concept more than clarify. Sure, headlights might explain the toggling concept, but it doesn’t help new users when they’re trying to figure out if Caps Lock is on or off.

So consider your analogies carefully, and remember that some learners are actually trying to unlearn and figure out differences while you’re teaching them. And if you’re curious what analogy I used to explain Caps Lock, you’ll just have to wait for the book to be published to find out.