Teaching and Learning Explained via Metaphors
Learning is a complex process that takes much time and effort, but its positive outcomes are worth the investment. Although it remains impossible to determine how our neurons create the picture of the world we get, we already have some hints regarding the process of attaining new knowledge. For instance, it is clear that any new information one gets needs to be tied to the already existing knowledge or experience; otherwise, it would be just alien nonsense to the learner. This process can quite precisely be described by a metaphor of sorting a pile of stuff onto shelves where it belongs. On the other hand, teaching can be compared to helping the students solve a puzzle. These two metaphors turn out to be rather complementary if we consider them carefully.
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Teaching, as we mentioned, can be compared to helping a student build a puzzle picture. The students already possess some general framework that the teacher is going to use to give the learners new information, assist them with understanding it, and help them built the new data into the already existent structure of knowledge. This is similar to helping to solve a puzzle, one that already has a few pieces attached. A teacher needs to give students matching pieces so that they can attach them to the existing pattern, and help them identify these pieces and see where they would fit best. The teacher does not just transfer knowledge to their students but helps them build the knowledge and make it their own instead.
On the other hand, learning can be compared to approaching a big, often shapeless pile of stuff and starting to sort this stuff out and put it into labeled drawers or shelves of your brain. When you approach some data that is to a certain degree unfamiliar to you, it can be at first hard to understand what it is all about. (This is especially clear when you see a new, unfamiliar mathematical formula). But then you start to recover familiar pieces of the “stuff”, identify them, and put them into the proper “drawers” or on the right “shelves” of your mind.
You can only make use of the data that you can attach to your already existing knowledge in some way; 100% new information would look like nonsense to you. This is why you always have at least some sort of shelves you can put the “stuff” onto, otherwise, you can’t learn it; it will be leftover in the “pile” until you are ready.
These two metaphors fit together rather well. Indeed, when a teacher explains new materials, they offer some knowledge that would look like a big formless pile to a student, but then the teacher begins to drawing some puzzles from the pile and give them to the student in the proper order so that the learner could identify them and attach them to the attached pieces which the student already has in their possession. Matching the new pieces of the puzzle to the already existing ones is similar to sorting out the “stuff” and putting it onto proper labeled “shelves” that the learner already has in their head.
As we have seen, the process of teaching can be described by a metaphor of helping build a puzzle; the teacher gives students pieces and helps them see where they fit. On the other hand, a good metaphor for the process of learning is sorting out a big pile of stuff and putting it onto properly labeled shelves (or into properly labeled drawers). The two metaphors fit each other well, for the “pile of stuff” can be compared to the “set of puzzles”, and the teacher helps learners draw the proper piece of “stuff” / “puzzle” and put it into the proper “drawer” / “place in the puzzle” to attach this piece of data to the already existing knowledge.