The Advantage Blog

Metaphors as a Teaching Tool

August 29, 2014 | By | ,

There are times when I’m working with clients when I’ll suggest a colorful metaphor as a way of communicating an idea about the case.  Sometimes these suggestions are well-received, and other times an attorney might be reluctant to implement the idea because they see it as “fluff” that doesn’t contribute to the goal of proving the facts of the case. I have to admit there was a time when I agreed with such sentiments.  As a learner, and then subsequently as a teacher, I subscribed to a “just the facts” approach to the exchange of ideas.  I wanted to know the facts of the issue and wasn’t interested in stylistic flourishes. However, as an educator I came to learn how people come to understand information, and  it made sense to me why metaphors are such an important learning tool.  Dr. Rob Pitcher, an education professor from Australia, summarized the usefulness of metaphors (not surprisingly, in the form of a metaphor):

“Metaphors are very useful in teaching and learning because they use already held knowledge as a scaffold upon which to build new knowledge or to illustrate some property of the new concept to be learned.”

One of the most important approaches to helping jurors understand information is to relate it to knowledge already held by the listener.  If you find common ground upon which to build, you make it easier to understand the concept being introduced.  A metaphor works in the same way.  A simple example is seen in a “decision tree” demonstrative, where jurors are told and shown that a character faced numerous “forks in the road” as they traveled through time, and that each decision made moved toward a particular outcome, and away from a different outcome.  Most jurors can relate to the “fork in the road,” and use this knowledge to build a better understanding of the consequences of the choices made by an individual. It’s also important to recognize that a metaphor doesn’t have to be a perfect comparison.  It’s rare, in fact, that all nuances of the case can be captured in a metaphor.  But that’s not the point.  As Dr. Pitcher explains, “Although the metaphors aren’t perfect, they help the learner to come to terms with the new concepts. The metaphors use knowledge that the learner already has of the surrounding world to illustrate some property of the unfamiliar topic. Thus learning takes place by building on that previously held knowledge.” Jurors typically don’t have much background in the topic being tried in a legal case.  Getting them to understand the issues being discussed is a challenging task, and a speaker should use all the tools in his or her toolbox to help build that understanding (see what I did there?).  Dismissing metaphors as simply “colorful flourishes” minimizes the value this figure of speech has in helping jurors comprehend your theory of the case.

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