Monday, February 16, 2009

A new identity for teachers: from pitchers to catchers

OK, yes, yes, I know that blog post title has more than one meaning. Let's get our giggles out of the way before we begin reading, shall we?

I came to this post by way of Martha Burtis's meditations on lifelong learning and Dean Shareski's musings on what he should call himself (if not "teacher"). I'm also thinking about Martha's post about Barbara Ganley's 2007 Faculty Academy talk and pretty much anything Barbara herself has ever written on her blog about taking risks.

I found myself casting about for professions where people teach and nurture but where risk is involved. And when I re-read Dean's description of what he does--"I teach, I lead, I share, I encourage, I critique, I monitor, I connect, I care, I model"--I realized that the metaphor that for me best describes teaching is midwifery.

(photo credit: Voxphoto, used under a Creative Commons license)

During my entire pregnancy, my contact with medical doctors was limited to about 20 minutes. With the exception of one sonogram, one morning where we thought I might have preeclampsia, and one moment in the delivery room where an obstetrician popped her head in the room and asked "Is that baby going to come out of there?", my care during my pregnancy with Lucas was provided entirely by midwives. But the midwives were always there, rotating through my office appointments and my labor, reassuring with their calmness and cheer and expertise, answering all my questions on my prenatal visits and during birthing class.

While I'm sure I'm not the first to equate teaching with midwifery (especially regarding helping students to "birth" ideas), I wonder how many of us have examined this metaphor in all of its richness and utility. What I like most about it is that it reverses completely the metaphor of students as vessels to be filled. We're bringing something dynamic and lively out of students rather than simply pouring in static content. Again: We're no longer pitchers in the sense that we, too, are vessels that pour content into students. We are, like midwives, catchers.

How are the best teachers like midwives?
  • We have specialized knowledge, but we understand that we're not in the business of passing on all that specialized knowledge to our students. To extend the metaphor: using our knowledge and experience, we coach people through the birthing experience; we're not teaching them to be midwives.
  • We prepare students for the learning experience: here's what you can expect, here's what will likely happen, here's our goal.
  • We honor, as much as possible, the students' perception of what a learning experience should be. Many women go into labor with a birth plan--for example, no drugs, no "medical interventions" like forceps--but end up having an entirely different, and not necessarily less satisfying, experience.
  • We monitor progress using multiple tools, some conventional and some not so much. We encourage students to reflect on these modes of assessment and evaluation.
  • Drawing on my own experience in the delivery room: Midwives wean us off the pain meds if we're not pushing hard enough to make progress. The best teachers aren't afraid to make students uncomfortable as long as the learning is productive and takes place in a safe atmosphere.
  • We know when to intervene and when to let students labor.
  • We acknowledge that there are multiple people involved in the learning experience, that the student need not "go it alone" even if she is doing the bulk of the physical or intellectual work on a particular project.
  • We follow up with the student shortly after the learning experience to be sure she doesn't feel overwhelmed and that she's retaining the intellectual skills she needs to nurture her own newborn critical and creative thinking skills.
  • We encourage students to tell stories about their learning and to share their experience with others. We help them document the experience as appropriate.
For the student, how is course-based learning like the birthing experience?
  • You must be open to the possibility that things will not go as planned.
  • You should try to have at least one friend in the room.
  • You must trust the midwife.
  • It is only the beginning of a journey marked alternately by great joy and great difficulty.
Practicing this form of teaching is risky. There's the possibility that you won't "cover" all the "content" you believe the students should know. And it's a real fear: every week I talk with faculty who ask me about coverage, who see themselves as pitchers more than catchers. Some argue outright with me about cutting back on coverage in favor of furthering critical and creative thinking. But increasingly--and maybe it's just that I've practiced my spiel enough--I'm finding faculty open to new ways of thinking about teaching, about letting students labor on more than just multiple-choice tests.

How are you making yourself less of a pitcher and more of a catcher? (Or do you think I'm totally off-base?)


Bardiac said...

I rather like this metaphor! I think one of the places it doesn't work is that mostly, the baby's going to come out, no matter if the laboring woman is tired or doesn't want to have a baby right now, or if other things are happening. But learning requires a lot of choosing to learn from students, and it can get sidetracked by all sorts of things.

But, still, it's a good metaphor. And I'm glad you chose a midwife, because there seems to be much more a sense of respecting the laboring woman by midwives than by some (emph: some) medical folks.

jo(e) said...

I like this, but I would add stuff to the student part.

A woman who chooses a midwife does so because she wants to be the person responsible for her birth. She wants to make the decisions about her own body.

So, too, a student needs to take responsibility for her learning and make decisions about how she is going to progress.

She has to trust the midwife, yes, but more than that, she had to learn to trust and have confidence in herself and her own learning process.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful...