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Computers, Cockroaches, and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning Through Metaphor

reviewed by Joseph Erickson - June 05, 2018

coverTitle: Computers, Cockroaches, and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning Through Metaphor
Author(s): Kevin J. Pugh
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681237768, Pages: 178, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

According to Kevin J. Pugh, metaphor is key to understanding modern cognitive learning theories. In Computers, Cockroaches, and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning Through Metaphor, he illustrates this approach by using a series of accessible mental pictures to represent major learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and socioculturalism. Aimed at teachers in the educational and cognitive sciences, the metaphors are related to the nature of the theories themselves (behaviorism: learning as natural selection; cognitivism: mind as network; constructivism: mind as ecosystem; and socioculturalism: mind as cultural tool) and serve to both explain the theories and make them more memorable. Pugh also attempts to illustrate some of the problems that prior knowledge, bias, and perception impose on learning new concepts. While not without some rough spots, the book is a useful tool for anyone seeking to understand the nature of modern learning theory. As Pugh writes, If you can understand the metaphors, you can understand the theories (p. 5).

In Pughs approach, teaching and learning are enhanced by providing the learner with mental images that scaffold complex schemas of interconnected information, thereby forming neural networks with many accessible nodes. He calls this approach crisscrossing the landscape, explaining that information that is part of a pattern is easier to process and recall (p. 47). This approach is meant to make learning more accessible and durable by helping learners to make complex connections across concepts and use deep-level patterns to organize larger concepts and ideas.


At several points in the book, Pugh illustrates various impediments to learning, drawing on examples from popular culture and science education that illustrate the important role of prior knowledge, bias, and perception in constructing new knowledge. As learners, we dont see reality as it is... Instead, we construct a reality. We construct meaning (p. 76).


In addition to building a series of effective metaphors, Pugh spends a good deal of time illustrating his concepts with personal stories and examples from history. He shares specific and innovative teaching examples, such as his work in problem-based learning that incorporated the Calvin and Hobbes comic book universe. Most of these examples serve to make the abstract concepts more accessible, but in an attempt to seem more approachable, some of the stories become overly casual and veer into tangents. That being said, most of the illustrations and stories he provides are very effective.


Another potential weakness that should be addressed in future editions is a lack of sharp editing. The book contains quite a few typographical errors that should have been caught by a careful editor. Unfortunately, this gives the mistaken impression that the book might be self-published, but it is not (it is published by Information Age).


The final two chapters discuss the goals of learning and promote two useful metaphors from the writings of Dewey: learning as journey and learning as art. These metaphors help Pugh make the case that modern teaching is often too focused on rote learning, leading to fragile and short-lived memorization. Pughs intention is to provoke a discussion regarding how to make learning more passionate and effective.


Overall, Pugh is successful in his goal of helping readers understand how the teaching and learning processes work from multiple perspectives. In particular, Pughs approach would be helpful for teacher educators and others interested in making modern cognitive learning theory accessible to practitioners and laypeople. Pugh states, We are in the age of learning. Yet the core principles of learning are not common knowledge. This is a problem (p. 9). This book provides a useful set of answers to this problem.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 05, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22399, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:35:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Joseph Erickson
    Augsburg University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH ERICKSON is Professor of Education at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also a licensed psychologist in private practice. He earned his doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Minnesota and was a member and former chair of the Minneapolis School Board. In March 2006, Erickson was honored as one of the “100 District Leaders for Citizenship and Service-Learning” by the Education Commission of the States’ National Center for Learning and Citizenship for his leadership in civic education and commitment to community service-learning. He continues that work and conducts research primarily in effective teaching strategies, attitude change, and the use of technology for enhancing learning.
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