Browsing The Third Degree blog, it is easy to detect my predilection for analogy. Previous posts have been loaded with analogies aimed at making the subject matter more palatable – more interesting, more entertaining, more relatable, and more memorable.
Analogies and other literary devices are useful aids to learning. For example, an understanding of hydraulic systems can be applied to troubleshooting an electrical circuit, or vice versa, through analogy: pressure ≈ voltage, flow ≈ current, pump ≈ battery, valve ≈ switch, and so on. While not always perfect, analogies can provide foundational understanding of a topic, or help clear a mental block occurring in a specific area. Once the subject matter can be grasped at a fundamental level, a student can begin to build on this knowledge base, pursuing more advanced material.
Examples from previous posts include Lean Lessons are Everywhere, Building Bridges, and Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management. The most prolific entries – Market Introduction is a Drag... Race and its follow-up Market Introduction: Still a Drag – used a series of analogies to explain in detail the overarching analogy.
A new one that I have recently encountered relates electrical safety to railroad crossings. Anyone that can visualize the carnage resulting from a collision between a freight train and a school bus develops an immediate appreciation for the level of caution that must be exercised to mitigate electrical hazards. Though I was familiar with the LOTO procedures described, the analogy reinforced the process and its importance to safety.
When appropriate analogies can be developed to reinforce learning, I recommend doing so. However, a couple of caveats are in order:
Coming full-circle, I offer an analogy for understanding: Learning something new is like getting your car stuck in snow. (Those fortunate enough to have never experienced this should probably start here.)
Normal driving conditions represent your existing knowledge base. Applying known facts to familiar problems. Smooth sailing. Then the car starts to slide a little, not responding to inputs as expected. You have encountered new information!
New information quickly overtakes the existing and your car does not respond at all. You’re stuck. Simply applying previously held information – turn the steering wheel in the direction you want to go and press the gas pedal – yields no progress. A new approach is needed; this begins with processing the new information – depth of snow, presence of ice, condition of tires, etc.
Next, the information is broken into smaller, more easily processed chunks. Rocking the car allows you to further process this information and test your understanding of each piece before attempting to apply the whole. Once the rocking shows promise, an attempt can be made to extricate the car from its snow trap. More than one attempt may be required to succeed; revisit the pieces of information (rock the car) and make adjustments (reprocess information) until confidence is once again developed. Then attempt the whole (extricate the car) once again.
Throughout this ordeal, your instructor is your passenger, offering suggestions and assistance. “Perhaps you should shovel some snow away from the tires.” “I’ll push while you rock the car.” “Almost there!”
Extricating your car from snow with the aid of an instructor/passenger demonstrates a certain level of proficiency. True understanding is demonstrated when you successfully extricate your car – solve a problem – unassisted.
Knowledge transfer can be a creative endeavor, so long as creativity does not supplant accuracy or utility. If you’d like to improve your analogy development, you could start by reading this article or reaching out to me.
See what I did there?
[Link] “Perfect Analogy for Electrical Safety Principals,” Manufacturing Engineering, Spring 2018.
[Link] “Snow,” Wikipedia
[Link] “How Steve Jobs’s Mastery Of Analogies Sent Apple Skyrocketing,” Fast Company, October, 2014
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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