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    The Case for Informal Language in Teaching and Learning

    Far too many students find schoolwork to be boring. There are multiple reasons, but a main one is that academic instruction is typically framed in plain-vanilla, academic language and style. In the teaching of science, this is the dominant style of teaching. Knowledge is packaged like Wikipedia posts.  Informal and picturesque language is typically verboten. Science instruction dumps information on students with the implicit statement, “Here, you must learn this.” Science teachers tend to talk atstudents; they do not converse withstudents. Academic language does not sparkle; it dulls the finish of ideas.

    The high priests of education promote formalism because it seems more impressive and more authoritative. Students, however, live in their own world of distinctively informal language, and teenagers are notoriously resistant to authority. They certainly do not find it appealing to read or listen to instruction expressed in rigid academic style.
    Most teachers teach the way they were taught. They were taught what and how to teach by academics, who inevitably communicate in academic style, because that is the way they too were taught. You would readily understand that if you have read as many education doctorate theses as I have.

    Every-day language includes informal and picturesque literary devices that make communication more entertaining and engaging. The most common device is the use of metaphors. While a traditional view of the purpose of metaphors is to decorate and embellish language aesthetically, and therefore superfluous to instructivist  modes of teaching, it is clear that metaphors serve useful functions in aiding motivation, understanding, reasoning, creative imagining,  and persuasion. Good metaphors make instructional content vivid and relatable to what students already know. As with all forms of instruction, the metaphors should resonate with the existing culture and experience of the learners.

    Metaphors help students verbalize abstract concepts that would otherwise be too complicated for the learner’s current state of competency.  Metaphors teach what it means to be fully literate. Good metaphors stir positive emotions, and such emotions powerfully motivate students. Critical and creative thinking often depend on analogical reasoning. It is not particularly useful to quibble over the technical difference between analogies and metaphors. We can legitimately think of all metaphors as analogies.

    Metaphors help students leap across the chasm of ignorance from what they know to what they do not yet know. Metaphors can help students feel more at home with new ideas, especially abstract ones that seem strange and alien to them. A special advantage of metaphors is that they provoke reflection while at the same time making memorization easier. Metaphors help students see relationships of concepts, while at the same time stretching their thinking to discern where metaphors break down. In line with constructivist pedagogy, metaphors acquire special power when teachers ask students to construct their own metaphors for new learning material. Constructing metaphors is a creative process; requiring it of students teaches them how to be more creative.

    All of the properties of metaphors just described have obvious importance for making teaching more effective. Some teachers may resist the use of metaphors, because they assume that children do not have the mental capacity to appreciate and understand them. While it is perhaps true that understanding metaphors requires intellectual development, that alone is reason enough to use metaphors to help children develop their intellectual capacity. Besides, children are naturally attracted to metaphors, as evidenced by their strong interest in stories, fables, fairy tales, and the like. What greater evidence of this point can there be than the common observation that children who don’t like to read will spend hours devouring Harry Potter books?

    We associate the use of metaphors with great literature. But metaphors are clearly useful in science. The beneficial effect of using metaphors to teach science is well established. Metaphors can be central to scientific discovery. The most famous examples of how metaphors stimulate discovery are found in such examples as the continual use of metaphors by Kepler in his various astronomical discoveries. Then there is Harvey’s comparing the heart to a pump; Huygens’ discovery of the wave-like nature of light; Einstein’s understanding of relativity in terms of riding on a beam of light; Kekule’s discovery of the benzene ring; and Darwin’s ideas of phylogenetic trees (which he more appropriately thought of as bushes). Today, we think in such terms as ribosomes as protein factories; mitochrondria as the cell’s powerhouse; the eye as a camera; the immune system as bodily defense; the genetic code as editable; the brain as a computer; the brain’s limbic system as reptilian brain; nerve impulses as trains of impulses; short-term memory as working memory; thought as movie-frame streams of consciousness; and so on.

    In his book on using metaphors in teaching, Rick Wormeli explains to teachers that metaphors can help them walk in their student’s shoes. He gives advice on how to develop new metaphors related to instructional content and to teaching students how their understanding benefits from recognizing the literal limits of metaphors. He has found that metaphors greatly assist in generating those magic eureka moments when students say, “Oh, I get it now!”

    A group in Spain uses metaphors in the teaching of English as a second language. They teach metaphoric awareness in a business course as a useful device to raise awareness of key concepts, models and issues and to improve their reading and translating skills. They introduce students to a series of specific metaphor examples as they relate to the conduct of business. They teach that metaphors have a “source” and a “target,” with a direction of the connection between them. They base learning exercises on questions in a variety of formats.

    Another teaching approach with metaphors is used in life-enhancement coaching. One coach claims that his clients not only help clients grasp the meaning of his advice, but also help them shift perspectives, gain insight, and solve problems. His clients often use metaphorical language to describe their issues and problems, but need help in probing the usefulness of their own metaphors. For example, he begins by asking clients what they think their metaphor means. Then he shows them how to probe and develop it with the objective of helping them move forward to a new way of thinking about dealing with their issue or problem. This coach studiously tries to avoid misuse of metaphors, such as using metaphors that are mixed, clichéd, ambiguous, unfamiliar, over-extended, or near-literal.

    A case study on the use of metaphors in formal teaching examined the impact of observing classes and interviewing both teacher and students. Teachers used metaphors based on common sense and the culture and language of the students. All parties valued the use of metaphor.

    Another case study revealed that creating visual metaphors had a unique potential for improving recall of information. This finding surprised the authors. They should not have been surprised. Scholars of mnemonics have long known that creating visual image metaphors is the most powerful way to memorize.

    One group of schoolteachers teaches about microbes by constructing a Sherlock Holmes detective scenario. Another group of teachers has even constructed a web-site library of lesson plans based on metaphors and similes. Educational games are often metaphors.

    These multiple examples and studies provide strong evidence that the use of informal language and metaphors motivates learners, and improves their engagement, understanding, memory, and creative abilities.

    To learn more about Dr. Klemm's ideas and activities, check his web site at http://thankyoubrain.com.

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