How learners can use analogies to help them learn abstract science concepts

This month we feature a research paper by Kirk Dorion (University of Cambridge) exploring how learners can use analogies to help them learn abstract science concepts.

When learners try to explain difficult concepts – perhaps in relation to materials or systems –  they often ascribe human motivations and characteristics to those phenomena. In science, for example, students talk of particles ‘dancing’, ‘jumping’, or ‘battling’.

The idea that nuclei are the ‘brains’ of an atom, or particles ‘want’ to move around, are examples ofanthropomorphic analogies. But despite a tendency for educators to avoid encouragement of anthropomorphic thinking, evidence suggests that such thinking is useful.

Summary of the research

The trend in education has been to caution against teaching that promotes anthropomorphic thinking because it has been considered indicative of immature thinking in learners.

Recent research suggests, however, that it is degree of knowledge – not age – that is linked to learners’ tendencies to use anthropomorphism.

An expansive view of education would believe that:

·         Our focus is on enhancing learning.

·         Anthropomorphic thinking can help learners when they are faced with lack of understanding or inability to recall prior knowledge.

·         Encouraging its use is, therefore, a positive step teachers can take.

·         Rather than avoiding using anthropomorphic causal explanations through fear that students may embrace errant anthropomorphic thinking rather than scientific reasoning, anthropomorphic models should be embraced as valuable tools for helping learners.
This study – focusing on 11-15 year old chemistry students in the UK – found that students used anthropomorphism in the initial stages of learning about a concept. Rather than being a cause for concern, this type of thinking then reduced naturally as students’ understanding of a science topic improved.

Carefully considered anthropomorphic thinking may help:

  • promote conceptual development in secondary students.
  • engage girls in ccience by humanising approaches to scientific reasoning.
  • when availability or accessibility of knowledge is limited – such as when students have less time to think and give more scientific explanations.
  • as an initial explanation (‘first heuristic’).
  • learning of abstract concepts.
  • as a ‘placeholder’ expression for a gap in understanding. Rather than stumbling over aspects of a concept that they don’t fully understand, it allows students to ‘live with’ gaps in their knowledge by allowing their own narratives of a process to flow until they were able to piece together the entire concept.

In practice:

·         some teachers use drama, mime, imagination, or role-play simulations to create dynamic models of such phenomena as electric   circuits or neurons.

·         This approach, and others, that allow students to draw on their own personal experience is beneficial because it enables students to co-construct their own initial scientific models.
Read the full paper
The full paper “A learner’s tactic: how secondary students’ anthropomorphic language may support learning of abstract science concepts” is available to read on