Analogical Learning

Analogy—or more generally, structure-mapping—is a general learning process by which abstract knowledge can arise from experience. Carrying out a comparison invites a process of structural alignment and projection that fosters learning in at least four ways: they highlight common relational systems; they promote inferences; they call attention to potentially important differences between situations; and they lead to re-representations that maximize common structure. A key aspect of the human comparison process is that it is preferentially geared towards connected information; this contributes to its power as a learning process.

Most prior work focuses on analogy as a means of importing knowledge from a well-understood case to a less familiar one. This kind of mechanism cannot explain the origins of human learning without postulating a fund of initial knowledge. I focus here on another form of analogical learning -- analogical encoding -- in which comparison between two partly understood situations results in better understanding of both. Analogical encoding operates to bootstrap early learning; but it is also important in adult learners.

The power of analogy is amplified by language learning. Hearing a common label invites comparison between the referents, and this structure-mapping process yields insight into the meaning of the term. The mutual facilitation of analogical processing and language learning is a major reason that humans are so smart.

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