Metaphors for Teaching – Midwife, Coach, Other?

Metaphors for Teaching – Midwife, Coach, Other?

By: Maha Bali

Editors’ Foreword: Maha Bali originally published this piece on her blog way back in 2015. We liked it so much we asked if we could republish it in our Think Tank. It’s the perfect close to our metaphor issue. If you’re not familiar with Maha’s thought-provoking work on equity, care, critical pedagogy, open and online education, AI, and so much more, we encourage you to peruse her blog and see what she’s posting on Twitter and Mastodon.

…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 critiqued 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 through 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 practice. 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 femininity. 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 kind of 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…

Editors’ Afterword: Absolutely! And it’s equally important for teachers to unpack the metaphors we use for teaching and learning. What teaching/learning metaphor(s) do you ascribe to? Send us your metaphors in a paragraph or two for publication in a future Think Tank issue: [email protected] . We’re looking forward to your thoughts!

Maha Bali is Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She has a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. She is co-founder of (a grassroots movement that challenges academic gatekeeping at conferences) and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound (an equity-focused, open, connected intercultural learning curriculum).

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