metaphor for teaching
Mark Twain once remarked that “All generalizations are false, including this one.” It seems that we are in a time—an educational crossroads of sorts—when teaching is overgeneralized to the point where it can be difficult for professionals to have meaningful conversations.
Tired descriptors such as “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” have permeated the pedagogical literature for more than two decades now even though they greatly oversimplify what really takes place in the college classroom. Most teaching occurs on a continuum between these two extremes. But now the term “lecture” is equated with using didactic instruction and nothing else. It is regularly blamed for a multitude of pedagogical problems in the academy. Articles in various educational journals regularly associate teaching with telling and continue to recommend that this traditional method be completely abandoned in favor of more student-centered strategies that promote active learning.
Still finishing up? I remember one semester when I was doing my final grading in my office on a Saturday morning. It was very close to Christmas. I finally finished, submitted the grades, and exuberantly headed home with Christmas music on the radio far louder than it should have been. It was such a relief to finally be finished. At a stop light, I was singing with the radio and thinking about making Christmas cookies. The light changed and I zoomed forward, failing to notice the car in front of me had not zoomed forward. I did not exuberantly drive the rest of the way home.
“So, what does that mean—’I need to provide more scaffolding’?” a teacher asked, with frustration in his voice. He was just back from a peer review debrief. “Maybe that’s more a suggestion than a criticism,” I offered. “Okay, but what do I do to provide more scaffolding?” he asked.
Thinking and writing metaphorically is often a recommended way to clarify one’s approach to teaching. Having a particular mental image provides a reference point, or compass, to guide teaching decisions and actions. There are many interesting and colorful characters in Greek mythology that might serve as possible metaphorical models for teaching faculty.
The midwife is still my favorite metaphor for teaching. I don’t think there’s a metaphor that more aptly captures the complexity, power, and richness of the dynamic relationship between teachers, students, and learning. The metaphor is not original with me, and although I have read some quibbles in the literature as to who first proposed it, I first encountered it in a 1986 Harvard Educational Review essay by William Ayers. Here’s some of my current thinking about how the midwife mirrors all that a good teacher should be.
In her article, Donna Bowles offered some useful and stimulating ideas on how the film The Wizard of Oz suggests the “characteristics necessary for teaching excellence.” I’m sure that Professor Bowles prompted many of us to consider other classics that serve as sources of pedagogical inspiration. For me, it’s a text I use in several