Reflections on a Semester Well Spent: Embracing Metaphor


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Different Routes. Reading so much material on the subject matter of excellent instruction has led me to think deeply about the different routes we all take to understanding. For some it’s visual, while others might fare better through audio or tactile stimulants.  Of course, I do not have that many resources available to me in but a brief hour or half hour tutoring session.  However, I have tried to help students through creating parallel situations or metaphors.

What does this look like in action? Well, it often takes the form of a nonsensical thesis on my part.  I think up an imaginary paper with a thesis arguing that Macs are superior to  Dells or that light bulbs have greatly impacted the American way of life. Although these are laughable claims for a paper, when I articulate these very culturally relevant claims and the reasons I will use to support such a claim, usually students quickly understand what their own thesis should look like.

Being Concrete. Unfortunately this method does not hit all the different learning types, but I think it certainly hits a few. Recognition comes because these theses are generally easy to visualize and the concepts are easy to grasp.  They are not abstract topics like romanticism in literature, but basic ideas about concrete, identifiable materials in their everyday lives. Everyone can picture a Macbook or a light bulb. The same can’t be said of complex, intangible ideas like romanticism or nationalism.

The thesis frequently concludes with something like the following: “Through examining customer survey polls, overall sales, and popular software application use between Macs and Dells, one can easily infer that at this current time that Mac computers are more widely used than Dell’s and thus arguably superior.”  Students then can see how listing tools to examine or analyze will help them reach some sort of conclusion.

Modeling Imaginary Theses – Why it Works. How does this all connect back to CEI? I have been modeling imaginary theses for some time as a tutor. Up until now I had never thought about the reason his type of approach is helpful for students. Nor had I considered the usefulness of starting from the student’s perspective.  I choose Macs and light bulbs as faux topics because I assume these are items my student would recognize. But what if they hadn’t, what would I do?

Creating Bridges. Imagine, for example, tutoring a foreign student with a smaller range of vocabulary. I would have to adjust to find something else to create this bridge of understanding.

It is incredibly important when teaching that we don’t just create examples that only we understand.  That impedes the transfer of knowledge. Our starting point must be the students and thinking about their knowledge and needs, and how we as teachers can shape our ideas into figures they can identify and comprehend. Sometimes we will want to challenge students by presenting more complex metaphors and at other times or for other students we will want to use examples that will lead to a  more direct road to understanding. The imagery we use can help or impede this process.