Kayak Spoons and Apple Core Analogies

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Over the easter break I got away to idyllic Tairua with my daughter, my mum and her partner. A much-needed getaway and chance to kick back and stock up on some vitamin D as winter comes crawling in…

My daughter (7) was over the moon to go for a ride in the 3-person canoe (above) with her grandparents and did her best to join in paddling, however her paddling was marked by clashes with other paddles and little forward propulsion. She was over the moon upon returning from her first canoe ride, to discover that there was a kayak just her size and a proper kayak paddle.

As I swam around assisting her, she was having a hard time working out how to use the two-ended paddle and was getting a bit frustrated. I corrected her grip and then told her to imagine she was paddling around in a big bowl of coco pops and that the paddle was a big, double-ended spoon. As soon as she got this advice she was sorted, paddling around the estuary, digging the paddles in on just the right angle and getting the hang of how to steer by double-paddling or reverse stroking .

By the 2nd or 3rd excursion she was happily paddling wherever she wanted with good control and developing skills which made me so so proud…

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What worked here was finding the right analogy to connect something she has already mastered (eating coco pops) to the skill she was looking to develop.

This is a crucial thing for teachers to understand and develop within their practice: Using what they know about students’ existing skills, knowledge, interests and talents to build analogies with the new knowledge or skills they wish to teach.

This hour-long lecture by noted polymath and cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, covers the basis of my educational beliefs: that at the core of cognition lie analogies between things we know and new things we encounter. For instance your understanding of what I mean by the “core of cognition” is possible because of your understanding of how an apple core relates to an apple. At the centre of our ability to understand things is our ability to find similarities between new things and things we already know. To “chunk” together concepts that resonate in our minds. Concepts do not literally resonate, this is an analogy.

Many educational theories make use of this concept, whether overtly or as an underlying aspect. The reason prior learning, and strong relationships are important for teachers is that they help to inform us as to what analogies might be appropriate to communicate or teach something to a particular person.

One of my teachers at high school was infamous for his “Rugby is a metaphor for life” talks. The problem was that he consistently chose an analogy (always the same analogy) which was interesting and useful only to students with an interest in sport. For those who found rugby culture alienating, the coded message was “life is designed for those who are interested in rugby, if you’re not then you’re an outsider”. Instantly alienating.

So it’s crucial to select the analogies that will resonate with your audience, not just the ones that mean something to you. If my daughter had never used a spoon before (if she had her way she’d eat with her fingers all the time) then I would have had to find an alternative scooping-based analogy to describe how to paddle a kayak.

Want to teach effectively? Take the time to craft the right analogies…

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