I like thinking exercises that are effective and fun, and I found one back in 2001. Pam Blundell, Executive Director of Adult Education with the Oklahoma State Department of Education, told a group of us about forced analogies.
A forced analogy is when you take any two nouns and find things they have in common—something that’s true for both.
I’m one of those off-the-scale Introverts. Typically, I have trouble coming up with a quick answer. Let me go somewhere quiet and think about and I’ll probably have a pretty good one later today or tomorrow.
All around me in that huge pit auditorium I could hear people writing their answers. I was getting nothing. Not wanting to appear dense to my colleagues, I started scribbling on my legal pad. I wrote, “You can bring a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.” Not a bad line, but not what she was asking for, either.
After I heard some of the others’ responses, it started to click. What do marriage and a yellow, number 2 pencil have in common? How about the number 2? That works. And that metal band that holds the eraser to the wood part…and, well, see what you can come up with.
I’ve used the forced analogies exercise with a wide variety of folks, everything from single mothers in a GED class to college and university educators in conference sessions.
Forced analogies are an excellent brain exercise, a good way to warm up for any learning endeavor. Beyond that, I like them because
· Students enjoy them. Even the most reluctant ones become intrigued and end up thinking in spite of themselves.
· They level the playing field. I let the students choose the nouns, so I have no way of knowing what they’ll be, no way to prepare ahead of time.
· They force me to be a little more like my Extrovert pals. (Just because we have a preferred learning style or an introverted personality, that’s no excuse not to exercise our weaker muscles.)
· They’re fun.
So far, we have never been foiled. No matter what the two nouns, we’ve been able to find something they have in common—and I mean something beyond the cheap answers like “they’re both nouns” or “they both have letters in them.”
I have many favorite stories about forced analogies. If you have time, let me tell you one.
This one took place in Arkansas. I was facilitating a concurrent class at a local high school. (Concurrent means they get high school and college credit for the same class.)
These students were tenacious with the forced analogies. They refused to give up. One day, the two nouns they chose were Walmart and pebble.
I wrote the words on the board, as usual, and we all stared at them for a good long while. Tick…tick…tick… Damn. Nothing. I thought that for the first time ever we were stumped.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s the students who come up with the best (sometimes only) responses. The reason this is one of my favorite stories is that this was one of those rare times when I saved it.
“I’ve got one.”
They stared at me like I’d just set fire to my moustache. (Is he crazy?) Arkansas?
“Think about it.”
They thought about it.
“Where is the Walmart world headquarters?”
Oh, okay. (Bentonville, AR.) So, where does the pebble fit in?
“What’s the Capitol of Arkansas?”
Ahhhh. Good one, Mr. Tom!
(If you’d care to read more about forced analogies, click upon this: