Distance in Metaphor

StoryCode's teaching practice is primarily one of metaphor, using the the characters and events of fiction to model the operations and behaviors of programming.  I would like to examine the "distance" involved in this metaphor, the dislocation between what we study initially (fictional characters performing fictional acts) and what it is meant to teach us (the intricacies of computer language).  Contrast the leap between creative fiction and digital grammar with that presented in this analogy used in many science classes:

From the excellent paper "Making Science Concepts Meaningful to Students: Teaching with Analogies" by Shawn M. Glynn,    
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From the excellent paper "Making Science Concepts Meaningful to Students: Teaching with Analogies" by Shawn M. Glynn,  © 2008

          In this analogy, we are asked to consider the behaviors of water in plumbing in order to understand that of electricity in circuits.  Metaphorically, water is electricity.  The "distance" we cover in this metaphor is significant: water and electricity are not nearly the same thing. I would much rather apply my thumb to a running spigot than a dangling live wire!  At the same time, the distance is not astronomical:  water under pressure and electricity are both physical forces.  The "circuits" described above can be built and tested.  They are both common systems used in homes and buildings.  We pay bills for each of them.

          Because of this conceptual proximity, the imagination and mental precision necessary for comprehending the first system is directly applicable to the comprehension of the second.  We can say that the distance in this metaphor is significantly less than that of the literary-to-digital distance covered by a StoryCode metaphor.

          So what of this?  I suggest that short-distance metaphors (if I may coin some terms) are more effective than long-distance metaphors, but only when the learners are well-grounded in the mechanisms of their comprehension. For people who have been neither interested nor educated in plumbing or electricity, the above analogy is not very helpful.  Here in NYC, the analogy below might be more enlightening:


          Now, there are obvious problems with the metaphor of a municipal agency for understanding electric circuits (which we will examine in the next blog post), but we can certainly establish that the distance covered here is greater than that bridged by the plumbing metaphor.  The important question now is whether such increased distance affects a metaphor's educational utility negatively or positively.

          My experience has made me believe that when dealing with learners who are not well-grounded in the mechanisms of comprehension for your particular material, the distance of your teaching metaphor is immaterial, so long as its direction is toward something very familiar to your learners.  In fact, if you are sharing information which you can guarantee is familiar (like a story you've read together), then a large distance is preferable to a short one.  For example, if someone says they are not enjoying Moby Dick, the last thing you should do is subject them to additional information about whaling.  To stimulate greater interest and meaning in the novel for such readers, one needs to create some additional distance between the events of the story and its value.  Likening the whale and Ahab to Biggie and Tupac is a significant metaphorical leap, but the distance covered is precisely its value.

          StoryCode utilizes some of the longest leaps of metaphor ever brought to bear on computer science.  I've never been reticent to make these connections and I test each one as thoroughly as I can.  I deal much more with learner disbelief that a connection could exist than with confusion once the connection is revealed.  What is your experience with the distance of the metaphors and analogies you use to teach? What has been more useful to you, short steps or long jumps? Does anyone know of any research on this concept?