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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Analogies are to teaching as...

My boyfriend's daughter is applying to colleges so there has been a whole lot of SAT and ACT talk going on lately. She's actually focusing more on the ACT, which I know nothing about since I only took the SAT, so we've talked a little about the differences. In general when interacting with this young lady, I have tried very hard to avoid using the phrase "When I was younger..." (since apparently nothing makes you sound older to a teenager than referring to your own childhood) but when I found out that the SAT no longer has analogy questions, I couldn't stop myself. When did the analogies get dropped?!?* Of course, back in high school, I had no idea why the analogy questions were even on the test (not that I spent a lot of time thinking about it back then either but I do remember thinking that they were sort of weird). But as a teacher, I've found that a well-constructed analogy can often make a world of difference in my students' understanding. I was reminded of this the other day by Dr. Goose who uses what struck me as an awesome analogy related to the standard conservative argument for cutting taxes:
"Writing in the Wall Street Journal on the "Three Policies That Gave Us the [Steve] Jobs Economy," Amity Shlaes cites the slashing of the capital gains rate from a confiscatory 49% to 25% in 1978. Building on this evidence, she reaches the silly conclusion that "taxes on capital should always be lowered, and dramatically." One might just as easily conclude that, because a diet improved one's physique, that mealtime portions should always be dramatically lowered, too."
On the other hand, a poorly-constructed analogy can create even more confusion than you started with. Case in point: I had read about Herman Cain's 'apples and oranges' comments during the Republican debate the other night and like a lot of people, I thought he was making no sense (if you didn't hear about it, you can read the transcript and see the clip here). But somewhere in the third time I watched/read Cain's exchange with Romney, I finally realized that Cain's point is that his plan is intended to replace the federal tax structure (that's the oranges) and regardless of what one thinks we should do about that federal structure, no one is talking about any changes to state tax structures (that's the apples). The problem is that because his plan includes a sales tax, which everyone associates with state tax structures, it's not unreasonable for people to wonder how his plan would interact with the state taxes. So Cain's oranges and apples analogy was referring to who collects the tax (which is different: federal or state) but everyone else was talking about the type of tax (which is the same: sales) so his analogy seemed to make no sense.

One of the principles in How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching is about how students' prior knowledge can help (or hinder) their learning. Analogies in teaching are all about connecting new ideas to other ideas that students already understand. Do you have favorite analogies you use when teaching?

* If anyone reading this doesn't know what I'm talking about when I refer to the SAT analogy questions, well, go ask your parents...


  1. Economics: Economy as Physician:
    (a) Patient
    (b) Medicine
    (c) Scalpel
    (d) Money
    (e) Laboratory

  2. Thank you for the kind words regarding my tax-cutting analogy. I was floored to learn that analogies have disappeared from the SAT; I would draw an analogy about this development, but then your younger readers might not get it, evidently.


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