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Metaphors and learning: Why instructional designers should use metaphors in L&D content

The human brain is an amazing contraption that we have yet to figure out completely. Its complexity is astounding and neuroscientists are sure not to be out of a job for a very long time. For instructional designers, all the new findings in the field of neuroscience pose both great opportunities and big challenges.

A better understanding of mechanisms that lead to memory formation and ultimately learning means that training programs can be a lot more effective but also that authoring tools and course design have to be permanently tested and improved.

Some of the most recent research that produced interesting results has been dwelling into the intricate ways our mind encodes metaphor. Understanding this process and applying the information to adult learning programs can greatly increase engagement and information retention.

What is a metaphor?

At a first glance, metaphors may seem the stuff of dreamers and poets. Children learn about them in literature classes where teachers have to put in quite a bit of effort to help differentiate between this figure of speech and its very similar cousin – the simile. But metaphors are a lot more that artistic linguistic tricks that bring a smile on people’s lips.

Although well-chosen metaphors can prove to be very witty and entertaining, they actually have the power to influence human behavior. Cognitive scientists have found that metaphors possess the ability to alter how people think and the way in which they respond. These concentrated figures of speech allow learners to understand new and intricate information more quickly and easily.

What they essentially do is simplify new concepts by associating them with an object or image the learners already know. Employing metaphors can help instructional designers avoid just dumping large amounts of information into training modules. Metaphors help weed out overly-technical, complicated terms.

Using a good metaphor, however, requires going through a prioritization process in order to determine what is essential for learners to grasp right away.

How does the brain ‘get’ metaphors?

Even though it may seem like metaphors are made up constructs meant to beautify ordinary semantics, back in 1980 in a book called Metaphors We Live By, the linguist George Lakoff (from the University of California at Berkeley) and the philosopher Mark Johnson (teaching at the University of Oregon) revolutionized linguistics by proving that a metaphor is actually a fundamental constituent of language.

For example, they demonstrated that in the apparently literal statement "He’s out of sight," the visual field is metaphorized as a container able to hold things. The visual field isn’t a physical container in reality; one simply sees objects or not. But this particular metaphor is so ubiquitous that it wasn’t even recognized as one until Lakoff and Johnson made their demonstration.

Starting from such examples they argued that ordinary language is actually saturated with metaphors. Our eyes point in the direction we’re going in, so we tend to speak about the future time as being "ahead" of us.

"Our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature," they wrote.

This research opened a new chapter not only in linguistics but also gave way to a new theory of consciousness – the field of neuroscientists. Since language is the product of the human brain, its primary way of understanding and labeling the world and metaphors are such a big part of language, using them to enhance learning is only logical.

How can instructional designers know what metaphor works?

Science aside, there is still the question of what metaphors are most appropriate and effective when the subject is instructional design. L&D professionals should not worry if they don’t have a degree in world literature or extensive neuroscience studies. The important thing is to be connected to the corporate reality and pay attention to what metaphors are already being used in that environment. In order for them to make their mark, they need to be easy to grasp by the target audience.

Organizational culture should also be taken into consideration when choosing the right metaphor to illustrate a certain concept. Sports metaphors might have a great impact in companies where the focus is on competition and being ahead while technological ones may make a lot more sense where innovation is the key to progress and success. The key is not to try too hard.

Sure, it may take some time, a little bit of brainstorming and even the aid of a Subject Matter Expert to come up with the most appropriate way to describe a certain concept or process with the use of this very versatile figure of speech but in the end it will always be the simplest one that fits. The whole point of using metaphors in learning is to simplify content and help the brain store and be able to easily recall and apply certain information. An effective, engaging metaphor will always be a simple one.

All in all

Good metaphors will bring a lot of added value to e-learning modules. They greatly facilitate the process of integration of complex processes and concepts into the real-life work situations of employees. Furthermore, they are a big help for instructional designers who can use them to avoid information dumping and make learning more time effective.

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