The cognitive role of metaphor in teaching science: Examples from physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and philosophy

Anke Beger, Olaf Jäkel


In her seminal work Models and Analogies in Science, Mary Hesse (1966) establishes an important function of metaphor in scientific theorizing – the explanatory function of metaphor in scientific models. While Hesse was concerned with scientists communicating with each other, this paper investigates whether this crucial function of metaphor can also be found when scientific experts communicate with a lay audience of students in the discourse setting of college lectures. For this purpose, we analyze transcriptions of five filmed US-American college lectures in biology, chemistry, psychology and philosophy. Our detailed analysis of authentic language data shows that what Hesse (1966: 157- 177) labeled “the explanatory function of metaphor” is indeed systematically exploited for didactic purposes by the professors when communicating scientific concepts to their students. Additionally, our examination also points out that in this educational setting, the explanatory function of metaphor sometimes merges with the heuristic function of metaphor, particularly when students engage in ‘creative’ discovery in their learning process. Last but not least, although we demonstrate that metaphor has the power to further the students’ understanding of the scientific concepts at hand, our analysis also reveals that some metaphor use by the professors might also lead to misconceptions of the respective topics.


metaphor and science teaching; explanatory function of metaphor; heuristic function of metaphor; deliberate metaphor; metaphor in college lectures; transcripts.

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