Analogical thinking has always played a powerful role in scientific innovation, but now the contribution of multimodal imagery is also becoming clearer.
Some 20 or so years ago, John Clements found that analogies played an important role in the problem solving abilities of scientists. Given a physical problem involving coiled springs, he videotaped and interviewed them as the were able to figure the problems solution. The analogies that the scientists used usually bore some functional or structural similarity to the unsolved problem, but several observations were notable: the solutions were not sudden (some only solved the problem after an hour or more), most adopted analogies only tentatively at first, the analogies seemed to based on structural or functional features, and most of the work seemed to be involved with testing and challenging the favored analogy. Ultimately the correct answer was arrived at by associational and inferential conclusions, rather than deduction.
Now in this latest paper from John Clements, he has become interested in the role of personal dynamic / kinesthetic imagery in bridging the analogical concept and physical problem. Hand gestures and movements seemed important for representing forces, and visualizations (combined with gestures) were important for reaching final conclusions.
Studies such as these are an interesting look into the problem solving process and they offer interesting questions as to the best ways to expose students to these approaches in their school training. There are variety of successful problem solving traits of these scientists - persistence with a problem, willingness to suspend judgment, flexibility to possibilities, and facility with personal imagery.
We also included some research papers which looked at the introduction of analogical teaching in science classrooms. There are some differences presenting experts vs. novices with analogies - many experts love analogies because they start off with a richer foundation of knowledge. Analogies help you if you already have a lot of information because it simplifies and groups what you already know. However, for the novice, analogies might just seem to be a pattern to be memorized - and so the likelihood that it will be learned as it should be as a tool for other situations is unlikely.
The first chemistry paper below looks at an obviously very creative teacher who explores many analogies with chemical events in his classroom. But the concern would be that he adopts too many different and non-specific analogies that his students don't get a chance to test it out or see how the analogy could lead to particular predictions or testable hypotheses.
Finally, as a brain break, if you're interested, check out the funny 'bad analogies' link in student writing or the winning entries in the 'bad fiction' of Bulwer Lytton ("It was a dark and stormy night..." below.
Clement's Study of Analogy in Problem Solving
Analogy in Chemistry
Analogical Strategic Reasoning in Management
Multiple Models in Chemistry
Metaphors and Analogies in Scientific Thinking
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest