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Exploring Two Analogies About Our Educational System

A constructivist theory of learning posits that we build new knowledge on (by tying it into) our current knowledge. That is, our brain finds a pattern match (makes a connection) between what we already know and the new information we encounter. This is a type of analogical process that goes on in a learner’s brain.

Quoting from Robert Sylwester’s article, The Central Roles of the Varieties of Analogy, (Sylwester, September, 2013):

Thought requires concepts, and analogies are perhaps the best way to gradually understand a concept. Analogical thought identifies and uses common elements between an understood concept and one that isn't yet understood.

Thus, the analogy “a heart is like a pump” can help children understand what a heart does to maintain blood circulation if they have seen and understand what a pump does to regulate water circulation. Hearts and pumps aren't the same thing conceptually, but they can be analogous to each other. The human ability to understand, create, and communicate analogies is perhaps our greatest cognitive property, since analogical thought provided the basic creative spark that led to advances in science/technology/the arts/religion/government/etc. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Public Utilities

Recently I talked with a friend about a financial problem facing our large public utilities. Such companies are regulated monopolies that provide electricity and other resources to very large numbers of customers. It takes a huge amount of money to build and maintain a power plant, such as a large dam, a coal-fired plant, a nuclear-powered plant, or a windmill “farm.” In addition, it takes a huge infrastructure to distribute the electrical power to customers.

Now, add solar power to our energy production resources. Current solar power generation in the United States is sufficient to power over 4.5 million homes and is growing at a record rate (Fehrenbacher, 9/9/2015). The typical solar-powered home is still tied into a pubic or private utility, and draws electricity as needed. In most parts of the country, excess power generated during the day can be sold to the power company.

The decentralized generation of electrical power is an essential component of worldwide efforts to control global warming. In addition, decentralization can help bring electricity to the (roughly) 1/7 of the world’s population who do not have it. However, decentralized generation of solar power is putting a significant and growing strain on the budget of many power companies, and the situation is steadily growing worse. Over time, hundreds of billions of investment dollars are at risk.

Solar power is such an important business topic that it was the cover story in the February 1-February 7, 2016 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek (Buhayar, 1/28/2016).

An Analogy with Computer Use in Education

In the United States, public schools have similarities to regulated public utility monopolies. They are regulated at a state level and funded typically by a combination of federal, state, and local funds. Each state sets its own requirements for school attendance, although the federal government tries to set and maintain some national standards. The Common Core State Standards and requirements in the area of Special Education provide examples of this.

Moreover, we have home schools and private schools that to a certain extent compete with public schools.

After learning more about the growing financial problems of pubic utilities, I attempted to draw a useful analogy between public utilities and our educational system. Is this a useful analogy?

I asked myself the question, “Will progress in various technologies related to education eventually seriously damage the economics of bringing large numbers of students together in schools and having them follow a state and/or federally mandated curriculum?”

My first thoughts on this question led me to wondering why the mass production of books and other print materials did not prove disruptive to our educational systems. Once children learn the rudiments of reading, why can’t they just learn on their own, by making use of books and other print materials?

Historically, it has turned out that for most students the ready availability of print materials is insufficient to replace formal schooling.

Now, with Internet connectivity, the Web, and inexpensive computers, why can’t most students essentially home-school themselves by making online use of the world’s largest library and a steadily growing collection of good quality computer-assisted instructional materials?

Although today’s online interactive multimedia provide far more and better aids to learning than just plain print materials, school is much more than just book (or interactive online book) learning. It remains to be seen how well this growing decentralization of education will impact our public and private school systems.

A Better Analogy

In this section I analyze an analogy with the development of computers. In the very early days of computers, one needed to be located near a computer to use it in a timely fashion, and there was a considerable economy of scale in very large computers. Then came time-shared computing, connectivity, and eventually the Internet. All of these supported large-scale, centralized computer complexes (somewhat like large power plants).

But, microcomputers came along, and it became possible for a person to have routine access to a personal computing device. The story continues with computer game machines, more and more powerful microcomputers, Smartphones, and tablet computers.

Now, we have lots of compute-power that is individually owned and used, and lots of compute-power that is centrally located and accessible via computer networks. In essence, the computer industry has successfully coped with moving from highly centralized compute-power to a combination of distributed and centralized compute-power. Connectivity and reliable off-site storage are a critical aspects of computer use, and they are being made available via a variety of competitive and competing national and internatinal companies.

At the current time, I think this is a good analogy to help us understand roles of computers in informal and formal education. A good modern education helps students to develop the human-to-human skills and empathy that come both from face-to-face interactions and working together, and also through communications/interactions facilitated by electronic connectivity. Students learn to learn from human teachers and by use of computer aids to learning. Students learn what they can do better than computers and what computers can do better than they can do. Ideally, students learn to work in teams that consist of a combination of one or more humans and one or more computers.

What You Can Do

Analogies are a routine and essential component of communication, learning, and using one’s knowledge. However, an analogy is a type of pattern matching. It may be quite strong and useful, or it may be quite weak and perhaps not at all useful. Think about the analogies you routinely use in communication, learning, and problem solving. What do you do to improve the analogies you develop and use, and what do you do to help your students and others to improve their analogical skills?

Final Remarks

I think the analogy between our educational system and the development of the computer industry is quite useful. As computer hardware and software continue to improve, and as we continue to make progress in artificial intelligence and theories of teaching and learning, our educational system will undergo major changes. However, for a long time to come education will remain mainly a human endeavor. While science fiction sometimes makes use a process of connecting a human brain to a computer and “pouring in” a second language or other subject matter, we are still a long way from the development of such capabilities.

References and Resources

Broughman, S., & Swaim, N. (July, 2013). Characteristics of private schools in the United States: Results from the 2011–12 private school universe survey. National Center for Educational Statistics. Retrieved 1/29 2016 from

Buhayar, N. (1/28/2016). Who owns the sun? Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 1/30/2016 from

Fehrenbacher, K. (9/9/2015). Solar panels just broke another record in the U.S. Fortune. Retrieved 1/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Web: PDF: Microsoft Word:

Smith, J.M. (9/3/2013). Homeschooling continues to grow! U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved 1/29/2016 from

Sylwester, R. (September, 2013). The central roles of the varieties of analogy. IAE Blog. Retrieved 1/29/2016 from

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