Analogies for teaching

Please note, this post is a work in progress.

Whenever I teach a concept or movement, my brain immediately attempts to create an analogy to help communicate it to my students. I don’t know why it does this, but it’s wired deep inside me, so I figure that there’s no point fighting it. In many circumstances, it’s actually quite useful.

This post aims to condense some of the more useful analogies that I’ve either come up with, or heard from other teachers/dancers. Feel free to use the ones that I’ve come up with, but for the others, please contact the original authors for permission to re-use them.

Dodging dogs

You are a room service attendant at the very prestigious, and exclusive hotel, the “Hôtel pour chiens”.

Your tasks are fairly straightforward. Residents call down to your office, and order food and drinks, which you then carry upstairs on your tray.

Now, the Hôtel pour chiens is a very special hotel - it is a hotel for dog owners and their pooches to come to get away from it all, and relax. The dogs are allowed to freely roam the hotel corridors and grounds as they please, and they are the real VIPs here.

As you take your tray to a room, you must make very careful not to tread on any dogs! They’ll be running down the corridors at all hours of the day or night, so you’ve always got to be on your lookout!

Unfortunately, the Hôtel pour chiens was built quite a while ago, when resources were tight, and people were thinner, meaning that all the corridors are a lot narrower than in other buildings. That means that whenever you see a dog coming, you can’t just step out of the way, you can only collect your feet to one side to allow it to pass.

When one collects one’s feet, the natural inclination is to lean away from them - especially if you’re up against a wall. However, you’re carrying a tray of delicious dog food, and orange juice, and leaning would cause you to drop that all over the passing pooch! A fireable offense!

Instead, you need to push your hips out sideways, allowing you to isolate your feet from your upper body, and keep your shoulders nice and flat and still. That way, nothing gets spilled!

Now the Hôtel pour chiens allows both fully grown dogs and puppies to stay with their owners. Fully grown dogs are easy to spot and step away from, but puppies tend to scamper and zoom hither and thither, and can be hard to predict! Unlike their bigger relations, puppies can be hard to dodge by simply stepping out of their way, so we need to keep stepping quickly to keep out of their way - picking up our feet to make sure we don’t kick them!

As with the bigger dogs, we need to make sure that the tray doesn’t wobble too much - there’s nothing worse than a puppy covered in orange juice! We therefore need to make sure that our upper bodies are still isolated and still. A slight bend in our legs, and lifting our legs from our hips, rather than from our feet will really help with that.

Nuclear dogs

Note, this is an extension - see below for the full details.

TODO

Salted Caramel

TODO

Push-bikes and stabilisers

Courtesy of Gregory Dyke, expanded somewhat.

You’ve seen them, right? Those little push bikes that you often see toddlers scooting around on. They have no pedals, and they’re usually made of wood, garishly painted, with rubber wheels about 6" in diameter. I personally find them terrifying, as they allow very small people with very little intelligence to go very fast quite close to roads and other hazards.

That said, they’re a great way for getting kids cycling, and helping them to learn how to balance, steer, and generally get used to the feeling and actions of riding a bike.

Another way to learn to ride a bike is through the use of stabilisers.

Stabilisers are little wheels, attached at the end of L-shaped brackets, which are attached at the sides of a full on, real (though potentially child sized), bike. Stabilisers work by providing an extra point of contact whenever the bike leans over to one side, preventing a catastrophic dismount, injury, and crying.

Learning to cycle with a push-bike teaches the rider the core, difficult, mechanics of cycling from day one. They teach the rider about balance, about steering, about being in control of the vehicle, and leave nothing out aside from propulsion.

Stabilisers, by contrast, only teach the rider to steer, and propel the vehicle. They keep the rider “safe”, and stop them from worrying about falling over. After all, if the rider does fall, the stabiliser will be there to catch them.

With stabilisers, there comes a day where they must “come off”, and the user must go on, unassisted in their cycling lives. It is at this point that they must actually learn to balance. Up until this point, they can get by relying on the stabilisers, but no, they’re cycling for real.

Unpacking the analogy.

The choice between teaching a child to cycle with a push-bike, or with stabilisers, is the difference between using a simplified but accurate model, or a simplified but inaccurate model to teach a concept. A push-bike represents a simplified model of cycling, and captures the core difficulties and skills that must be learned to cycle effectively. Stabilisers “hide” the rider, or student, from the real difficulties, and only teaches them ancilliary skills (such as how to pedal), that are not core to the skill of riding a bike. 1

As a teacher, I believe it is our responsibility to choose “push-bike” structures wherever we can while teaching. We provide the students with just the same level of simplification as a pedal bike with stabilisers, but we do not hide details, or mislead them in ways that may make their later learning harder.


  1. When cycling on a pedal-bike, pedaling is of course a core skill. However, on (say) a motorbike, balancing and steering are much more vital skills. Concretely: they are the skills common across all kinds of bike.

Posted on October 29, 2018
Last modified: Oct 29, 2018
Tags: swing dance, teaching, shag, dancing, thinking