Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Power of Metaphors in eLearning

In the film, Lincoln, President Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens used the power of metaphors to solve two crucial historical stand-offs during the American civil war. The insights shared here will help us to better appreciate the power of storytelling and show us how we can effectively use it as eLearning professionals, developers, and trainers. __________________________________________________________________________
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s masterful biographical film on Abraham Lincoln, unravels the saga of an emerging American nation torn by ideological divide. The centerpiece of the film is the last four months of President Lincoln’s life, dedicated to push for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by the House of Representatives.

While the film uncovers the many facets of the 16th President of the United States both as a man and  as an emancipator, it provides a glimpse into how other Americans stood by or stood against Lincoln. As soldiers fight on the battlefields, another battle shifted to the United States Congress as Republicans and Democrats debated on the meaning and context of the line: “Men, being created equal.”

Even the Republicans were divided. 

Thaddeus Stevens was firm on his hard stance on full equality for all – Negroes and Whites – on marriage and voting rights. However, Lincoln only wanted to focus on equality under the legal definition of emancipation.

To persuade Stevens, Lincoln used this metaphor:

“The compass points you true north but does not warn you of obstacles and swamps along the way. What is the use of knowing the North Star when along the way one can sink into a hole and never reach one’s destination?”

Apparently, Lincoln’s metaphor was so persuasive that it convinced Thaddeus Stevens  to support the Law of Emancipation.

Taking his cue from Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens used the power of metaphor to outwit and overpower the hostile Congress with these words:

“How can I hold that all men are created equal? When here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallet slime in their veins instead of hot red blood?!

You are more reptile than man, George!

So low in fact, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.

Yet, even you... even worthless, unworthy you, ought to be treated equally before the law.

And so, I say again and again and again: I do not hold the equality of all things - only the equality before the law!“

At the end, Steven Thaddeus succeeded.

Congress passed the Law of Emancipation.

So, what can we learn from here?

If you want to accelerate the learning process, use metaphors and tell a story.

While Lincoln used the ‘story of a man following the North Star’ to persuade Stevens, he in turn, told a scathing tale about ‘a man who was as low as a reptile’ to rebuke Congress.

By infusing metaphors with brilliant storytelling, the complex abstracts are transformed into understandable specifics.

In Story-Based eLearning Design there are abundant opportunities to use metaphors. I often use metaphors to emphasize a point or stress a simple idea with a more vivid image.

For example:

"I hate doing this." to "I grind my teeth when I am asked to do this task."

"Avoid using the software for the wrong reasons" to "Don't use a dump truck to haul furniture or use a Volkswagen Beetle to haul a boulder."

Do you want to change the world?

Tell a story.

See previous blog: Transforming Minds - Using Metaphors in eLearning

Jimenez, R., Lincoln, Storyteller. 2012, accessed at

Lincoln Production Notes, accessed at

Spielberg, S.: Lincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox & DreamWorks Studio, 2012.

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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