Explaining with buckets – an unusual analogy in adult learning

Explaining with the bucket analogy

An unusual title I know, but I wanted to share a technique I’ve been using for many years with adult learners when needing to describe something. I’ve found that you can describe a lot using a simple bucket analogy.

It all started when I was facilitating the Diploma of Web Development at TAFE and in particular, PHP. A student was having difficulty understanding how a variable works, and the first thing that popped into my head was a bucket. I got them to imagine the variable was a bucket and you’re going to put something in that bucket. When you want to use what you put in the bucket, you simply call the bucket up and take what’s in it. You can also replace what’s in the bucket.

As time moved on, this simple explanation started to take on a life of its own as I continued facilitating and using the analogy a variety of subjects. It made it’s way into presentations and lessons along my journey in adult education.

Some examples included learning about arrays (in PHP) and how a bucket is the array and has other items in the bucket, each with an identifier. When you want something from the array (bucket), you can get it based on the ID straight from the bucket.

It moved into databases and how it’s one massive bucket with lots of little buckets (tables). I’ve even used it in eLearning when describing how LMS and a SCORM package work together and variables in Articulate Storyline.

What caused me to write this little article was a conversation I had recently with a colleague who uses Moodle to deliver courses. Moodle was slowing down and so my colleague looked for advice from their IT Department. As usual, IT sent a baffling email full of anecdotal messages and technical jargon aimed to confuse and play the ‘I know more than you’ game (which if you hadn’t picked up in, is a bug bear with me 😊 ). Main issue was that Moodle (run in PHP) was running on a virtual machine under windows.

I reached out to my ever-trusting bucket analogy and explained that windows is a bucket that is ¾ full of water. These are the resources that are needed by windows and the virtual machine. When you add PHP and Moodle, the bucket will overflow. Now, if you consider that another bucket is Linux, it would have about an inch of water in it. Add Moodle (it’s already running PHP) and there is no chance of overflowing (ordinarily).

For me, I’ve found that this simple visualization works. For me this simple explanation taps into some of the adult learning principles. Adults have a wealth of life experiences and can relate to how a bucket works both metaphorically and practically. Although a bucket may not be explicitly relevant to the explanation, it does make it easier to demonstrate something.

Some may think that this analogy may be a little silly, and it may be, but when a student or someone you’re explaining something too has a ‘light bulb’ moment…it’s all worth it.

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