Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Metaphors for Teaching – Midwife, Coach, Other?

| 7 Comments

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Reading Time: 3 minutes

…despite all that the midwife does, the birth event is not about her. For me, that’s the most powerful aspect of the teacher-midwife comparison. The midwife isn’t there to give birth. Despite the teacher’s understanding of what the student needs to learn and how he or she might learn it, the teacher cannot do the learning for the student. The journey to understanding must be undertaken by the learner

– Maryellen Weimer, Why We Teach (emphasis mine)

I laughed out loud when this teaching-as-midwifery post came into my inbox from Faculty Focus. 

Hilarious idea… Makes me want to do a class activity where students make metaphors for teaching or learning (I have done it before with flowers and food) and then critique the quality of the metaphor (especially if someone says teaching is like engineering or something easily critiquable like that… I think I blogged about something similar recently). 

What I like about the midwife metaphor is that a woman SHOULD theoretically be able to give birth alone but a midwife can scaffold it..while a doctor can sterilize and depersonalize the process so much that the woman may sleep thru it and not even be part of her own birthing process… Does a lot of our education do that? Sterilize learning and leave the student out of the process such that the birthing is all about what the teacher does while the student is passive?

Another metaphor for teaching I heard recently is one that’s more closely connected and it was teaching as coaching. It comes from the book Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless. The author Starr talks about how coaching is a good metaphor for teaching because it implies s focus on each person, their performance and focuses on their strengths and helping them improve, encouraging and motivating them, giving opportunities for pratice. I like that: instead of grading which puts students in boxes of predetermined outcomes met or not, coaching focuses on how to help an individual improve and meet their potential, giving constructive feedback to help them achieve not summarize grades to put them in their place.

More importantly, what I loved about thinking through these metaphors is making explicit how a metaphor is value-laden. We choose a metaphor for teaching that reflects our philosophy of how teaching could or should be. And we should unpack then how closely that metaphor aligns with our intentions.

For example, I don’t love the coaching metaphor, because even though it emphasizes improvement, in reality it’s very focused on behavioral change or outcomes and in reality some coaches don’t care about athletes’ wellbeing beyond the sport (am sure many do). Coaches also sometimes focus on winning (because competition in sports) more than cooperation in team-building. It depends. 

The midwife metaphor is interesting in its extreme feminity. When the author said the midwife-as-teacher at some point she said “he or she” and I don’t think a man can be a midwife. Strange, because many men are Ob-Gyns. They have status. Midwives (and nurses, male or female) have lower status. And in education, often the kind of teacher who sterilizes learning might be the one in a position of power in the hierarchy. It’s worth exploring further.

Am pretty sure someone will come up with a metaphor of teacher as actor (or clown!) and teacher as gardener or farmer (nurturing) and each of these is a different type. If we did teacher personality types, those would be kinda cool as names for them! So I will allow one to be teacher as engineer. One teacher as talk show host. Possibilities are endless! 

It would be an interesting class activity, wouldn’t it? Unpacking the assumptions behind each metaphor…

7 Comments

  1. Just to be clear. I was my wife’s midwife for our second child. The midwife never made it and I was trained to be her substitute. Thank God since I had to open the “veil” so that my child could come all the way down the birth canal. My wife did all the hard work, but I was there all the way for all the births. I didn’t find the births particularly feminine. They were watery bloody messes. Come on, it’s just like being a teacher. Messy.

    I have many masks as a teacher. Sometimes I am a whisperer, sometimes I pretend to be hard of hearing, sometimes I am a concierge, sometimes a friend or an arch enemy, sometimes a coach and sometimes a preacher and sometimes a sinner. Messy. Metaphors are just a handle on a frying pan. They are aids to the task at hand. All metaphors are partial lies/partial truths as a matter of course.

    • I agree on metaphors being partial truths/lies/distortions. Also ur story makes me realize that
      A. Men are the natural midwives as they should be the ones supporting their partners at childbirth! More likely to be there in emergencies anyway
      B. Definitions of femininity are so unlike the reality of being a woman (childbirth, menstruation and such). Society/culture impose a notion of femininity then we women comply

  2. What’s funny, Maha, is that I once likened my coaching (personal/professional, not sports) once to midwifery and my group of fellow coaches struggled a bit. Perhaps it was too feminine and too natural – one woman said it called forth an images involving blood, therefore unappealing…hmmm… Which then leads us back to remembering how very individual our perceptions and associations are/can be. Maybe all of those metaphors apply to us as teachers at different times, in different contexts and situations, to different students: gardener here, clown or coach there. Perhaps the real rule of thumb is NTSC (never the same channel – neither for students or teachers).

  3. I have done that very same activity with students who were exploring the use of metaphors in Information Systems Development (you use a metaphor then see where it breaks). I often used teaching and learning as a context for class activities because of its shared nature within a class (students and teacher). I asked them to imagine that they were IT consultants starting to think about using technologies in learning and teaching, then come up with some metaphors. It was very interesting. Most of the metaphors they came up with cast the teacher as active and the student as passive eg in a restaurant where the teacher was the chef and the students were the diners. The most interesting part of the activity was the discussion we had afterwards about active/passive learning and role of tech in this.

  4. I think metaphors may work differently for different people. I get the midwife metaphor cognitively, but I suspect a woman who has gone thru childbirth would get it more richly. The coach metaphor works for me, though I don’t promote winning, and I do care about more than just the academic dimension of my students, as do the best coaches in my experience–and I don’t define best as having the most winning record. Just my 2 cents!

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