Unlocking learning with analogies and metaphors

I love a good metaphor. In fact, I find that when I’m struggling to grasp a concept, were one to use a sporting analogy or metaphor to explain it, chances are I’d understand it pretty quickly (just ask the patient Oliver Caviglioli). The thing with an analogy is that when you have a knowledge gap, it can help to bridge the gap; making the abstract more concrete. Those of you that read my blog or articles regularly will have seen the way I have tried to use analogies and metaphors to explain concepts that I would otherwise confuse people with (not always because they’re difficult to grasp, more due poor articulation).


I’m not the only one that thinks this. In his book ‘Classroom Instruction that Works‘, Marzano (2001) provides evidence that identifying similarities and differences has an average effect size of 1.61. It is worth noting that the number of effect sizes are relatively low (31) and Marzano (2001, p. 9) himself recognises that some effect sizes may be more effective in certain subject areas, at certain grade levels and vary depending on student background and aptitude. In spite of this, the sheer size of the effect leaves one to assume that it must serve some benefit in raising achievement.


Hold on, what has identifying similarities and differences got to do with analogies and metaphors I hear you ask?


Well Marzano recognises that four forms of identifying similarities and differences that are particularly effective. These include:

  • Comparing
  • Classifying
  • Creating metaphors
  • Creating analogies


Though I use comparing and classifying, I find both analogies and metaphors more effective in my own practice to support learners in grasping new knowledge. For example, whilst teaching the cardiovascular (CV) system I have always related it to something more familiar (The heart is like a pump, the valves are like gates etc), or used an analogy to explain the flow of blood (blood flows through vessels like water through pipes, the heart is the boiler where it pumps oxygenated blood (hot water) around the body (house)). These almost always help learners to understand the concept better (though I appreciate that this is purely anecdotal). Further to this, I often hand analogy creation over to the learners to reinforce their understanding – there’s been some absolute belters. You should try it!


For those more experienced in the classroom, I’m sure that you have a catalogue of analogies and metaphors to support learner understanding, but if you haven’t, perhaps try using them more and let me know how you get on.




8 thoughts on “Unlocking learning with analogies and metaphors

  1. Great post. You’d love Lakoff & Johnson’s 1980 book Metaphors We Live By. It shows that we couldn’t do any thinking without metaphors. And the most frequently used metaphors are spatial (or orientational) ones, as in:
    • Shakespeare is central to English culture
    • gather your thoughts together
    • got to get on top of this problem
    …and so on.

    It shows that we treat thoughts as if they were objects in space. This, more than the invalid VAK, explains to my satisfaction why graphic organisers are so effective at capturing concepts. Indeed it’s for this reason they are also called semantic organisers.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Oliver. I agree with your point. In fact, my plan was to follow this up with something around visual analogies and metaphors as I have found that it supports learners more. Take for instance, the flow of blood around the CV system. I can compare this to the heating system. I’d be interested in any links to relevant posts if you have any please?

      1. I used to show a ten pin bowler playing with a curtain coming down infront of the pins just as they were hit, resulting in the player not knowing his score. That was a metaphor for the absence of feedback and how it can kill learning, or rather, the interest to continue.

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