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Using Analogies - A Useful Memory Aid For The Three Lines Of Defence
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Learning is an interesting game because it involves the last and greatest frontier; the human brain. How do our brains process information and sort everything we know from everything we need to know? Why, despite carefully storing away the knowledge, does it fail to find it at the critical moment, eg during an end of semester exam?

One of the goals of modern education theory is to unlock the secrets of metacognition. How do we learn the things we learn? In this article, I wanted to share one of the tricks I've used both as a result of reflecting on my own metacognitive processes and also because of what I have learned from students.

The scenario is the three lines of defence against disease. Most students need to learn about these at some stage and they can be quite complex and hard to recall. One thing that is fairly well accepted is that linking something new with something familiar is more likely to ensure it will be found again when it is required. This is the beauty of analogies. Analogies take something familiar and wrap it around something unfamiliar so we are more likely to remember it.

The analogy I use for the three lines of defence against disease is a club located inside a fenced off property, protected by a dog.

The fence is like the first line of defence. It is a physical barrier. It may occasionally develop a weak point, or even a hole and you may even be able to climb over it with a little effort. It may have a gate or two which might open occasionally, so if you are quick, you can sneak through. For most purposes, this parallels the first line of defence; the skin and mucous membranes. Like the fence they are a physical (or chemical) barrier and like the fence they can occasionally be breached, either through natural openings or by temporary holes which are opened up.

The dog is like the second line of defence. The dog is not particularly nice, except to anyone he recognises. Anyone he doesn't recognise he attacks. Lots of noise and angry growling will be produced and he will chase you around until he catches you or sees you off. The response here is a non specific response like the phagocytes in the second line of defence. Phagocytes are a type of white blood cell. Their response is simply to attack anything recognised as foreign. The angry inflammatory response (redness) often accompanies this response (like the barking dog).

If you make it past the fence and the dog, you reach the door of the club. Here you are met by a pair of bouncers. This is the final component of our analogy. This club has an age restriction, so the bouncers are checking ID. The bouncers not only identify you before they let you in, or lock you out, they also remember. If you get turned away once and you try to enter again, they recognise you more quickly and are more vigourous with their second response. This is similar to what happens in the third line of defence. B and T lymphocytes (different types of white blood cells) are involved. They have a coordinated response, often work together and the response is specific. In addition memory cells are generated so a re-exposure to the same pathogen will cause the body to respond more quickly and strongly (this is the reason why immunisation has been so successful in virtually eradicating some horrific childhood diseases).

Providing students with opportunities to learn science in different ways motivates them to work a little harder, especially with the relevance of understanding what is happening inside their own bodies. Using analogies as a memory aid is just one tool in the box. It is an imperfect one and any lingering examination of the analogy will swiftly identify its limitations. But this is also a key component of the learning exercise. Examining any model for its limitations encourages students to think deeply enough about the subject to understand why something may tell part but not the whole story.

Understanding how our students learn and how we can make use of techniques and technologies for science education will improve the outcomes for both the students and their teachers. This is the value of integrating technology into learning. It provides another opportunity to combine the familiar with the less familiar to create an enjoyable and meaningful experience for students. Put simply, it helps make learning fun.


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