Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Physical analogies

Marie Martin
Manager, Education Services
Meerilinga Young Children's Foundation

A physical analogy is a movement, activity or exercise to which people connect their real life experience. It is a metaphor or simile which enables people to clarify their understanding of an idea or concept, think about something from a different point of view and describe the complexities of feelings, morals, and caveats.

Physical analogies have the added benefits, for the purposes of adult learning, of providing movement, interaction and, usually, laughter. In a physical analogy participants undertake an action and then liken it or imagine it as an idea. Imagine standing on one foot. Raise your arms above your head. Put your hands together. Raise one foot. Now feel the wind blowing and move with the wind. Is this how you operate in your workplace? Like a candle in the wind?

Collaborative learning is also encouraged as people take turns leading, following and initiating, work with others, take joint responsibility, organise a task, resolve conflicts and evaluate their own performance. The noise level of the room increases in a physical exercise. This establishes the need to listen to each other, the importance of peer knowledge and a "climate" for learning. It also enables presenters to establish ways of bringing the group together and gaining attention.

As with any metaphor, simile or analogy whatever interpretation a participant makes of an exercise is correct. There are no right answers or wrong answers. Sometimes one person's description is more vivid, more complex or more appropriate. The group will often reinforce this.

In describing the feelings, how to make the exercise work better or things that make it harder participants make references to the idea or concept - sometimes unwittingly, but after the first two or three attempts with far more awareness. Imagine standing opposite someone, with your hands raised in front of your chest, palms towards your partner. They are standing in the same way. Your hands do not touch. Now one of you slowly moves one or both of your hands while the other "mirrors" you. Swap over so that each of you has a chance to lead and to follow. What makes this easier? Watching hands? Watching faces? Eye contact? Moving slowly so that you have time to establish the rules and the ways in which you both work? What makes it harder? Moving too quickly? Making things too complicated? How does this exercise relate to the ways in which you communicate with your boss? With your colleagues? With subordinates? With students? With your partner? With your children? What makes these relationships easier? Time to develop a skill, to focus on an idea, or just to be together?

In a group exercise each person will have their own interpretations. If there are four actions and participants are asked which describes their ideal way of communicating with other people all four actions will be seen as "ideal" for different reasons. Each of the other three analogies may also be strongly disputed by those who don't like it!

In the process of describing supports and hindrances for the exercise participants describe supports and hindrances for the real situation. They also have an emotional reaction which, at another time in the real situation they can say "I felt like this in that exercise. I didn't like it then because. . . We talked about what I could do if I felt like that in real life. I can try doing this differently."

People's natural resistance to change can also be alleviated in identifying uncomfortable feelings and developing strategies for coping with them. Some people are unaware of their emotional reactions, or the causes for their stress behaviours. Denial, sadness, anger, guilt, fear, jealousy, frustration, exhaustion and fatalism are unproductive stress reactions that can occur for some people in some physical analogies. Some physical exercises generate these reactions. The analogy can then be made to the change processes being undertaken. People can talk about what makes the exercise easier to manage and generate ways of helping the change process: talking to others, prioritising, sharing concerns, recording successes, setting new goals, being realistic about one's own capabilities, and so on.

Sometimes people are reluctant to participate in physical analogies. Simple, low-impact, low threat exercises are effective starting points. Complex exercises where there is a high risk of failure need more time, more sensitivity and more discussion afterwards. Exercises in which everyone participates are also better to begin with. In this way no one is "watching", everyone is taking the risk together and participation is better. Exercises involving two people are also better than those involving a group - it is harder to "sit out" or to not participate. Clear descriptions of the exercise and its purposes will also assist some participants, as will an established and trusting relationship between the "choreographer" and participants.

Finally, people sometimes feel embarrassed when they report to others what they did in a physical analogy. It helps to prepare participants for this by simply telling them it sometimes happens and that the best way of telling someone about it is to repeat the exercise with them.

Metaphors are personal constructs. They also have tremendous power to convey ideas, create and generate new ideas and to guide change processes. Physical analogies are an active way of constructing a metaphor which can then be used to describe the complex ideas, thoughts, feelings and attitudes which often underlie tensions between people and in challenging events.


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Garmston R.J. (1994). What's a Meta Phor? Journal of Staff Development, Spring 1994 Vol 15 No.2.

Heron, J. (1993). The Facilitator's Handbook. London: Kogan Page.

Hill, S. (1995). Games That Work Armidale,Victoria: Eleanor Curtin Publishing.

Jones, K. (1998). Interactive Learning Events. London: Kogan Page.

von Oech, R. (1983). A Whack in the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books.

Please cite as: Martin, M. (1997). Physical analogies. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p210-211. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/martin.html

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