Rethinking the Biology-as-Machine Metaphor

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Rethinking the Biology-as-Machine Metaphor 

Luke Shors


Quote:None of this is accidental. Academic research from the early 1990s suggested students learn better when there is an analogue to aid memorizations, and the factory analogy was shown to improve learning when measured through matching tests. Many of these analogies have stuck, and to this day mitochondria are commonly described by science educators or in the popular press as being like power plants or batteries.  

To state the obvious: Cells are not factories. Nor do their parts in any way resemble gears. And despite the benefits of using a concept like cells-as-factories and similar analogies as mnemonic learning aids, failing to describe the limitations of those same analogies is likely to result in significant misunderstandings. We know from other research that students just as readily create their own analogical mappings as they use those supplied by the educator—a phenomenon called “over mapping”—and when later asked to recall the lesson, they cannot distinguish between material that was in the supplied analogy and what they independently inferred on their own.

In this case, students bring their own varied understandings of factories to supplement the analogy. 

If there are thirteen similarities between cells and factories supplied by Miller and Levine, we can easily list many differences...

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