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Research School Network: By Jiminy! Making explicit the value of analogies and other learning strategies Andy Brumby looks at the role of analogy in metacognition

By Jiminy! Making explicit the value of analogies and other learning strategies

Andy Brumby looks at the role of analogy in metacognition


Pinocchio’s little pal
Yesterday I was privileged to be working with a small group of trainee teachers who are preparing for a career in the primary phase. About thirty minutes into our two-hour seminar on metacognition and self-regulation, following some direct instruction and modelling, I drew upon a strategy that I frequently used as a classroom practitioner – analogy. Having established that all were familiar with the relevant Walt Disney film, I asked the trainees to discuss the appropriateness of using Jiminy Cricket’s relationship with Pinocchio as an analogy for metacognition and self-regulation. I framed this activity by asking them to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the analogy and to think of any alternatives that might do a better job. This prompted some dialogue, discussion and debate which ran along these lines:

A: I think it does work in a sense. Jiminy really represents Pinocchio’s inner voice, advising him what to do and what to avoid and so forth. He’s like an internal advisor or counsellor and that’s what happens when children self-regulate. How am I getting on? Is this the right strategy? What should I have done differently?

B: Yes, I agree to an extent. Jiminy is a metaphor for Pinocchio’s inner voice – and I really like the idea of metacognition being all about the development of the learner’s inner voice, by the way – but it breaks down somewhat because the advice Jiminy gives is mainly restricted to matters of conscience. That’s what he is at the end of the day: Pinocchio’s conscience.

A: Yes, I see what you mean. So, what you are saying is that to strengthen the analogy we’d need to broaden Jiminy’s repertoire so that he can help Pinocchio to monitor his progress with his writing or maths as well as choosing between good and evil!

B: Yes, I have been watching His Dark Materials on television and wondered if Lyra’s relationship with her daemon, Pan, is perhaps a better analogy than Jiminy-Pinocchio because Pan actually interacts with Lyra on a wider range of matters, material as well as moral and spiritual, including strategy choices and decision-making linked to her learning and development.

Listening in to this amazing discussion, I had a metacognitive moment of my own. I remembered just how powerful a learning strategy using analogies can be. It can really help learners to clarify and refine their thinking about a concept which has been previously taught. A few years back I was teaching a Year 11 GCSE History group about the Cold War. We had spent some considerable time talking about the concept of a superpower and our discussion included the use and dissection of analogies. For example, I checked (no pun intended) that the pupils knew the game of chess, and then asked them to consider the fitness for purpose of the following analogy:

A superpower is to a satellite state what the queen is to one of her pawns in chess.

  • In what ways does the analogy work? 
  • Where (and how) does it break down? 
  • What alternatives can you suggest?

This led to some great dialogic learning amongst a group of pupils who were well schooled in the Acknowledge – Build on – Challenge tradition of dialogic talk. There were lots of comments about the need to sacrifice pawns being similar to the fate of Poland and Hungary in the event of the outbreak of a Third World War in Europe; e.g. conveniently positioned to take the brunt of the onslaught. Unleashing their creative thinking the class came up with some wonderful analogies of their own that they (and I) thought were better than mine. For example, Jess drew on her knowledge of the navy by suggesting that superpowers were like mighty aircraft carriers compared to a small frigate. Ahmed dipped into the natural world to suggest that superpowers were like the queen in an insect colony. Ben thought they were more like gigantic superstores compared to corner shops and so forth.

Historians do not usually have much truck with hindsight but indulge me this once. My wish is that we had paused – for just a moment at least – to talk about the power of creating, using and analysing analogies as potent learning strategies for history. Our talk was exclusively linked to cognition around the object of our discussion: the superpowers. Perhaps some of the pupils grasped the metacognitive message at an implicit level and have continued to create and deploy analogies in their personal and professional lives. But, I am almost certain, some will have missed the trick because I didn’t pose any questions (or give any feedback) which were designed to make the strategy and its value explicit.


The other day on BBC Breakfast I heard Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (the now famous JV‑T) being interviewed by presenter Dan Walker. At the end of the interview, which was of course focused on virology and the pandemic, Dan asked JV‑T about his use of colourful metaphors and analogies as a communication strategy. The Prof described how he developed and honed this strategy whilst working alongside armed forces personnel and explained why he thought it was such an important and powerful way of getting messages across to the general public. It was a fascinating insight into the workings of a truly powerful mind, and he went on to tell viewers about the supplementary strategy he always uses of trying out his analogies on the ever-patient Mrs JV‑T before going live with them! There’s a message for the classroom here about the need to make explicit the workings of our minds and in particular the strategies we devise and draw upon. I have written about this in a previous blog which you can read here:

Finally, I’d like to give a big shout out to the person who created the wonderful diagram below. It is one of the most useful aids I have come across in years. My colleagues at the EEF Research School Network affectionately refer to it as Blue Six’. I think if it had been around when I was a classroom practitioner it would surely have reminded me, amongst many other things, of the importance of developing my pupils’ metacognitive knowledge, particularly their knowledge of strategy.

Blue 6

The Blue Six’ diagram. Acknowledgement: Education Endowment Education

Andy Brumby is a Director of Cornwall Associate Research School, linked to the Research School Network through its partnership with Kingsbridge Research School.

For further information about metacognition and self-regulation, see the EEF Guidance Report (2018) below:

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