Training Wheels (No Scooter)

March 5, 2008

My mind is very metaphorical. I am not a poet and I have my doubts that metaphorical thinking is very sound, but if taken with caution and in small doses, it may be useful. As a “semanticist” once said, “The map is not the territory.”For example, I train volunteers to teach basic computer classes to people who are not very computer-literate. I tell the volunteers to use analogies, metaphors, and similes to explain unfamiliar concepts. An obvious analogy is to say that email is similar to postal mail. In each method of communication, one can send a message to a friend.

The analogy gets someone just getting started with computers over their confusion enough so they don’t get stalled.

However, as the beginner develops some understanding, he or she needs to move beyond the superficial similarities and begin to understand the subtle differences as well. Email, for example, generally arrives much more quickly than postal mail, a difference pungently captured by the label “snail mail.” The snail mail label slides us into the tricky area of connotation (literal meaning) vs. denotation (emotional meaning).

Another difference is that one puts a stamp on a letter, but each email seems like it is free to send (though one may have to subscribe to a service such as an account with an Internet Service Provider) to pay for sending as many email messages as one may want to send.

At this point, the student might begin to think through the implications of these differences. The “free quality” of email may be illusory if it allows (or even encourages) the transmission of billions of “spam” messages of junk mail. If a person ends up spending hours evading or filtering out spam, how “free” is that?

I told volunteers that analogies were only useful as a way of getting people started with unfamiliar concepts and technology, and should over time lead students to a more sophisticated understanding.

I came up with an analogy for analogies. Analogies are training wheels for students. At some point the student should learn to understand the technical concept itself and should learn to use the correct terminology, riding a bicycle without training wheels as they do so.

So I describe the scroll box as an elevator but then start using the term scroll box and stop saying elevator. I encourage students and teachers to ride bicycles up and down the elevator cables so they get enough exercise as they use their computers.

When I tell beginners that Windows is an operating system their eyes typically glaze over in confusion. Adding that they should use the operating system to start their applications doesn’t seem to help much.

I began to describe an operating system as a tool box and a file cabinet. Go into your tool box to start a tool such as a word processor so you can write a letter, I tell them. Once you have written the letter, it’s a very good idea to save it into the computer filing cabinet because computers are evil and like to eat your work. (Anthropomorphism is a useful training method as well.)

Of course, soon enough the students will need to learn about Windows XP vs. Windows Vista. At some point, I further puncture their innocence by talking about Macintosh and Linux. If they still show the slightest signs of sanity and life, I then begin talking about hard drives and flash drives, not to mention CDs and DVDs, not to mention flashy solid state hard drives, which will soon be all the rage. I don’t know why my students seem filled with rage by this point.


15 Responses to “Training Wheels (No Scooter)”

  1. pandemonic Says:

    Oh, my.

    I once taught an 82 year old woman to use a computer. She was a great student. I am a horrible teacher, which is why I don’t teach for a living. I didn’t have the analogies, and she still got it!

  2. Pete Says:

    I used to train computer users for a living, and as much as I enjoyed it, pretty much have stopped. I think it was trying to teach my 81 yr old father that broke my spirit. My patience was shattered, as was his. Now I sit at a desk and work on servers that don’t talk back and I can say what ever I want to them. I stopped before I got in the situation that you have found yourself in Random. We anxiously await hearing of your fate!

  3. modestypress Says:

    I thought I was safe with less than a year to retirement, like a pilot flying a plane with an engine sputtering but the airport in sight.

    It looks like I will be on probation and on an improvement plan. I do want to be able to get a good reference in case I need to work at Wal-Mart after I retire. Even though it’s on the island, it’s about a two-hour drive to Wal-Mart. I think I would need an airplane to commute to work there. This does not seem like a good plan.

  4. renaissanceguy Says:

    Analogies are excellent for teaching.

    Beyond that, I think they are necessary for understanding many abstract concepts. They can only take you so far, but it is nearly impossible to grasp many ideas (I’m thinking of philosophical and religious ideas mainly) without them.

  5. Scooter Says:

    I like your post.
    Sometime your idea is correct.
    And make me review myself again.
    like scooter on the no destination way.

  6. modestypress Says:


    In a situation where one thinks, “I am not very good at this,” two possible appropriate reactions are:

    a) I will practice this until I get better at it.

    b) I will stop doing it and let others who are better at it do it instead of me.

    As far as I know, there is no “absolute law” about which is the better choice.

  7. modestypress Says:


    I found myself in a similar situation with my aunt in her 80s in New York City. Hasan from Bangladesh, who works for Staples, eventually helped her. I bought her a new computer from Staples (dealing with Hosan in Seattle from I don’t know where). I work with many people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and occasionally 90s. Through practice, I have gotten better at this, though it’s rare that I perform miracles in which a flood of light fills their brains while angels sing heavenly choruses.

  8. modestypress Says:

    Ren guy,

    I agree. However, I have also noticed that many intelligent people fail to grasp analogies. From time to time, I tell my bosses why a suggestion or order they have given me will not work or is not appropriate. I often use an analogy to make my point. They often take the analogy completely literally. In these circumstances, not only does no heavenly light appear or celestial chorus sound, darkness fills the scene and the cackling of demons (no relation to pan) fills the air.

    At the very least, I am required to write on the white board 1000 times, “I will not be sarcastic with my bosses.”

  9. Does that mean taking analogies literally is a sign of extreme intelligence and extreme . . .simplicity of mind? It seems that there is a fine line between intelligent and incredibly stupid. A tight rope, best traversed with a pink parasol.

    As always, I am amused by your surreal and delightful posts.

  10. modestypress Says:

    waxing strange,

    Your point is well taken. In my experience, when intelligent people make mistakes, their mistakes tend to be much more dangerous than mistakes made by stupid people because the intelligent people are much more skillful at being stupid.

    I also say of myself, “The smartest thing I ever did was realize I am not that smart.” However, I keep that caution in mind and act on it only about 10% of the time. The rest of the time I just act stupidly, like most people.

  11. modestypress Says:


    Welcome to my blog. However, I am not sure you are just dropping in once or going to stay and read and visit for a while. I won’t say more unless the second option applies.

  12. My goodness. Your comment number 10 is one of the best short things I’ve read in many ages.

    I have a bit of an ego. My way of dealing with the smartness thing is to think I am smart and thus shouldn’t ever work on anything important to humanity so as to avoid profoundly messing it up.

    I think the smartest thing I ever did was something I didn’t really do. I simply didn’t obstruct my sweetie when she decided to marry me. I don’t know that I even could have stopped it from happening if the idea had crossed my mind.

  13. modestypress Says:

    Sounds like your goodness.

  14. Scooter Says:

    I like your post.

  15. modestypress Says:


    Good for you for not getting in the way.


    Thank you for liking my post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: