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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen

The importance of simulations, metaphors, and similes for Learning Processes and SciCom

Although my aim is to write a light-hearted essay on how learning processes can be improved for teaching in meaningful ways, this will probably be a long text. I will ask you to bear a bit with the length of the text, and in return I promise you a handful of examples and anecdotes to help you go through it.

I came to the idea of this text as a combination of a talk I gave in 2006 at the First Congress of Cognitive Sciences celebrated in Colombia, some of the experience and knowledge I got during my Psychological practices at the Centre of Psychology, Cognition, and Culture in Cali, and my Ph.D. in Learning Sciences.

Being totally honest, Learning has been a process of filling empty brains. Since the creation of the current schooling system, it is believed that children are some sort of tabula rasa that, in order to grow and understand the world, needs to be filled with information.

Although some other models such as Waldorf and Montessori have been developed, these models are not standard, and only a small privileged part of the people get to try these wonderful ways of teaching. The standard model is the tabula rasa model, where you are put into a classroom with other people, sit on a chair for around six hours a day, and try to keep awake while teachers of different assignments try to fill your brain with 'facts' and 'knowledge'. If you are successful, by the end of your studies you would have achieved the goal of passing every test and not remembering a thing of what was put into your brain during the time it took you to finish your studies.

The problem here is not only that the system is designed in a standard way and does not pursue to help the limitations of students or to help them exploit their strengths, but it is also designed based on a mnemonic method. Assignments such as history and natural sciences are almost limited to memorising a bunch of things you must repeat on a piece of paper later on. Assignments such as maths are more practical as you need to do 'exercises', but they are rather pointless as we are not taught the uses of math in the real world, and only later in life (if you pursue a career that uses maths for whatever reason) you can see a use for it.

As my psychology professors used to say, memory IS PART of the intelligence, but memory IS NOT intelligence. This is where the current reflection starts.

There are two ways of learning things, forceful learning and meaningful learning. Forceful learning is putting something in your head, or developing a skill forcefully so you can reach a specific goal or standard given by the society. This is how our current system works. You memorise all the periodic table of elements with their types, symbols, weight, and energy levels; then you throw it all into a paper and forget it exists, but hey! You got A+! good for you!

Meaningful learning, on the other hand, aims to attach a meaning to the facts that you learn. This makes it relevant and interesting for your life. This means that either you do not forget it that easy, or you will recall this information when you need it. This is what intelligence is made of! (remember that current definitions of intelligence link it more to adaptability and understanding than to meaningless memorisation).

But what do we need to create meaningful learning? We need one thing: Representational development. Representational development is our capacity to represent information in one or several ways, to attach meanings to information, and experiences to knowledge. As an example, I never understood mathematics during my high school, never! I started understanding mathematics when I started studying physics, because I could see it! it was useful, I could see numbers in graphs, and that formula that once was incomprehensible now was a graph, and then all of a sudden I understood that any graph like that had an underlying formula like the one I could not understand before, and that X here meant that the graph will look different in Y way, and that meant that the object was, for instance, being subject of friction.

So my representation of maths as a mass of incomprehensible gibberish was attached both to a use (physical calculations) and to a visual representation (graph), and it was only then that I started doing good at math.

So, a good way for us to create meaningful learning is to help the learner create multiple representations of the knowledge, and allow them to attach their meaning to different objects, subjects, and experience.

There's a movie that although looks banal I think it's brilliant, and that is Legally Blonde. The magic of this film lies in the way the protagonist goes through school. In the beginning she is at the Uni for the wrong reasons, and she does poorly, she does not understand a thing and tries (as we all do by our standard schooling system) to memorise everything without having a clue what she is putting into her head. However, there comes a time, a realisation, where she starts connecting all she reads with her everyday life. She reads law in terms of fashion and celebrities, so all the knowledge comes easily to her mind when she needs it. She makes this important connection between knowledge and representations we need for learning (but we were not told or taught how to). She does meaningful learning!

And what do we need to create meaningful learning? You might have guess it, it is when Simulations, Metaphors, and Similes come into play. Let's start by defining them.

Simulations are when we are presented with an extremely faithful representation of the world. Maybe this representation is not 100% the same as the real world one, but it tries to be as realistic as possible. Simulations always attempt to be as faithful to the real world as possible, and will always progress in that direction.

An example of this is a simulation cabin used for pilots to train difficult situations when flying. These simulations portray not only an accurate representation of the landscape and weather, but also of the feeling inside a cabin, the position of the controllers, the way they are used, amongst others.

Simulations are excellent to link our knowledge with hands-on experience, and to transform declarative knowledge (knowledge of what) into procedural knowledge (knowledge of how). They are also excellent to represent concepts difficult to grasp, so people can relate to them. A very good example of the last one is the 'game' A slower Speed of Light, where Gerd Kortemeyer aims to mathematically simulate how the universe will look if the speed of light were slower, and the player can experiment physical phenomena such as visual Doppler effect and time dilation. Concepts that are not easy to grasp from a theoretical perspective, but when simulated become much clearer.

Metaphors are when we compare two things (suppose A and B) that are different but have something in common. Metaphors also work in a way that one thing replaces the other in a direct way, to fill in for this commonality. Metaphors do not have to be accurate with reality, but the link between the objects should be clear, either in an intrapersonal way (if creating meanings for yourself) or interpersonal way (if communicating the meanings).

Metaphors are important for creating meaningful learning as they help us link concepts that seem unrelated, it helps us create a visualisation of abstract concepts, and to tie abstract knowledge to our experience. As an example: when we say 'I am going through a rollercoaster in my life', first you have a visual image of a rollercoaster, which is extremely convoluted; you also know they are vertiginous and stressful. So in the end you can, by means of the visual image and your experience, infer that I am going through turbulent periods and therefore not feeling very well.

But metaphors can also be used in other ways for learning. A very good example is the game CellCraft. This game portraits the cellular system as a tower defence game. The metaphor here is that our cells are a castle that defends itself with towers. There are engines that gather resources, transform them into energy, and this energy powers the towers that fight against invaders trying to take over the cell. There is a functionality link here for which the metaphor works, and it is there precisely where we start representing the cells more with our everyday knowledge than in the abstract world of the microscopic that we cannot really access.

Finally, there is the Simile. A simile is the direct comparison of two things based on one attribute. They are very similar to metaphors, but instead of replacing A for B, A and B are compared in a direct way using words such as 'like' or 'as'. So, when I say 'she was screaming like a coyote' I am relating the howl of the coyote with the way she is screaming, probably meaning loudly and in a high pitch. Just like metaphors, similes do not have to be 100% accurate with the real world, and can perfectly work with abstract concepts.

We can also use similes as a way to approach two concepts in order to exemplify their relation to our everyday life, or simplify it when it gets too difficult to represent. For example, when we say that the atom looks like the solar system, this is not the real representation of the atom, it is not accurate with reality. However, it allows our limited mind to form a representation of something we will never be able to see; it brings us closer to an intangible concept, and make it tangible by means of a representation.

It is only after we appropriate these concepts that we can understand and use them. It is only then that we are not memorising meaningless gibberish to spill on a piece of paper, but relating this information to our life. Only then we can make use of information, allowing it to come when we need it, and make links with other information creating new knowledge and networks of associations.

Now, it is good to clarify that I find a division here as some scientists and scientific communicators value more simulations over metaphors. I need to address this before proceeding. Scientists and communicators valuing more simulation stand on the ground that everyone, since children-age, should learn exactly how the world is despite its complexity. For these scientists metaphors are not teaching the reality of the world, but just a fake model.

Scientists and communicators valuing more metaphors and similes are of the idea that what is important in life and society is that we can grasp and understand different terms and theories, and can use them in everyday life. They normally also know that not all people can grasp the complexity of a simulation or a real-life model. In this case, it is better that people understand a concept from a basic point of view, than not understanding it at all and stop caring.

This last part is particularly important for scientific communication. Suppose that we have to explain atomic physics to everyone in order to make them evacuate a place where a nuclear leakage occurred. How many people will understand? How many would not care? How many will think it is a conspiracy to take their houses and land? Now, ask the same questions, but after providing an explanation such as 'the radiation is like an infection and will slowly kill you' (a simile, in this case).

From my perspective, I think there are situations and populations where one or another is better, so I am not in favour of any; or rather, I am in favour of both perspectives, but used correctly. This is covered in the following paragraphs.

The way we build representations is very personal. I might, for instance, have the representation of the element 'Helium' as a white He written in a red balloon floating up the sky. For you might be an orbital atom with He written on it. What is important is not really the way we represent it, but that the representation is somehow accurate to what it describes (He written in a piece of rock will not be very helpful, for instance) and that it can be used when you need it. So, when aiming to create representations for meaningful learning, we would like to ensure that the representations are right, and that we are not creating misrepresentations.

The way we build representations is also very personal. For some people metaphors work pretty good, others require everyday-life examples they can tie the knowledge with, others will try linking the information with their favourite subjects, while others prefer hands-on experience (which for the simplicity of this essay we can as well count it as a type of simulation). Some of these work better than others, and as a general rule of thumb, people with a higher IQ can access higher levels of abstraction in metaphors, while people with lower IQ will require more literal links to the concepts. This also means that we should use these tools according to the developmental phase of the students; with children being more literal and teenagers being able to process more metaphoric thinking.

There are many ways we can help the students to build links between what they learn and their everyday life. The first and most important step is to make them aware that real learning is meaningful, it constitutes a great effort as it means they need to create meaningful links between what they study and their experience or previous knowledge, but it pays off. Indeed, it pays off more than memorising gibberish and regurgitating it on a piece of paper, just to forget everything the day after.

We can also teach the students how they can build these representations, we can make activities (e.g. problem-based learning, discussions, exemplifications, association networks, etc.) to help them build them, and we can use tools (such as movies or games) which foster reflection.

I want to finish this essay with a special emphasis on this last point. As a Media Psychologists and Learning Scientist, I find storytelling, games, and films to be powerful tools to do this.

Storytelling and narratives allow us to understand concepts from different points of view. In the particular case of anecdotal experiences it allows us to link knowledge to our experience; and allows us to re-construct, re-shape, and re-signify concepts.

Videogames can work as simulations, or metaphors or similes, as I pointed out for the cases of A slower speed of light it is a simulation, for CellCraft it is a metaphor. Both allow us to grasp the concepts, to establish a discussion, to ask questions, to scrutinise, to make hypotheses and test them, in short, to manipulate the information and create meaningful learning.

Films can help us reflect on topics, create discussions, and link concepts to stories, characters, and situations. Just as it happened when I saw Legally Blonde and realised the wonderful insight she did, which ended up in this essay.

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