Deirdre Moore | April 2014
Understanding and Innovation Through Analogy
I have written about metaphorical thinking and creating analogies before but after reading a recent article
about how important analogies are to helping scientists create new theories to test and helping them to make sense of unanticipated results, I thought I’d write about them again. Reading that article I was reminded of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a situation comedy about a group of friends (who happen to be scientists) and the other people in their lives. In this particular episode (Season 3, Episode 14, “The Einstein Approximation” for those of you who might be fans!) Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist, is trying to understand the movement of electrons traveling through a graphene sheet (a strong substance created by a particular arrangement of carbon atoms).
Throughout the entire episode Sheldon is trying to create an analogous situation that will help him understand the electron movements. First he tries arranging lima beans and peas, then he moves on to marbles and eventually ends up in a ball pit trying to configure the balls into arrangements of carbon atoms. When he decides to take up what he calls a “menial” job as a waiter to free up his mind, he drops a pile of plates and has an “a-ha!” moment. It dawns on him that he had been coming at the problem all wrong and that the electrons travel in waves.
Throughout the episode, Sheldon is driven to find just the right analogy. With each failed analogy, Sheldon is learning more about what is not happening with the movement of the electrons. The joy he feels when he has finally found an analogy that illustrates to him how the electrons move is clear as he tears off his waiter’s apron to run back to his work with this new understanding. This is the kind of joy we want to see in our students as they build new understanding for themselves. I mention all of this to stress the importance of helping our students develop a facility in creating analogies, in analyzing the analogies to find where there are true commonalities and where the comparison breaks down, and then taking what is useful from the analogies to move on to higher understanding and innovative thinking.
By helping our students take two seemingly unrelated things (like electron movement through a sheet of graphene and plates breaking or subjects like dance and science) and find ways in which the two things are similar and ways in which they are different we empower our students to be able to analyze things on a deeper level and to start to build understanding independently or take leaps to new understanding. Because artists live in metaphor, integrating art into teaching other content can help our students achieve that objective and become not just more confident independent learners but innovators as well.