Research shows that analogizing helps exercise our imagination, key component of creative thinking. What is intrinsic to creative thinking is our ability to articulate what we don’t know or doesn’t exist by means of analogies to what we do know or is familiar. In Sparks of Genius, Root-Berstein & Root-Berstein define an analogy as a functional similarity between things (processes, phenomena, etc.) that are otherwise dissimilar. This similarity isn’t related to observed characteristics like color or form (this would be a metaphor), but to similar functions or inner relationships. A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses one thing to mean another and makes a comparison between the two. An analogy also shows how two different things are similar, but it also presents an elaborated, rational argument. The ability to apply what we know to new contexts is also called adaptive expertise by psychologists.
While most students have learned what analogies are and most likely use them pretty often, analogizing turned out to be an even more challenging exercise than I imagined.
Exercise 1: The Challenge
Students practiced analogizing in the very first day of class during a warm-up activity and then in week 5. This activity was called Find New Ways, and students had to:
- Identify something they knew a lot about or were highly familiar with (e.g. chemistry, dancing, music, tennis, cooking).
- Use that knowledge to address three widely different situations: (1) solve this week’s assignment for another class, (2) find a new way to make more personal connections and friends, and (3) choose your outfit.
The challenge to complete this activity was that students had to think about something very familiar in a very different way or from a new perspective. For example, for that they could break it apart and identify key component parts, functions, and parties involved. Then, they had to conceptualize and abstract that knowledge so it could be used in a different context. Results from this activity indicated confusion and incorrect use of analogies as only half the class did the activity correctly. This also demonstrated how hard it is to look at something that you know a lot about from a new lens.
Exercise 2: The Breakthrough
Interestingly, the next time we worked with analogies (four weeks after Exercise 1), results were truly invigorating. This time the exercise had two clear parts:
- Analogizing: For this first part, students followed a structure to help articulate their ideas, and wrote their analogies on an index card.
- Napkin sketches: Then, they passed the index card to the person on the right. Each student translated someone else’s analogy into tangible form.
This time analogizing was a success! The exercise helped students move away from rational thoughts: each of them started thinking in less literal, practical and conventional ways, and more about conceptual, abstract and imaginative ideas.
Learning how to analogize, and gaining confidence in using this skill for problem solving can open the door to countless possibilities and dimensions that it would be extremely hard to consider otherwise. Thinking conceptually is a key creativity skill.