It’s been a good week. The election is finally over, the results were met with grace and dignity by the losers and optimism by the winners, and hopefully we can all move forward.
(Plus, it’s Friday, and it’s officially been November for a full work week. Normally this would be a non-issue, but I realized last night I haven’t been acutely ill yet this month. I honestly can’t remember a 7-day stretch in November where I have been able to say that. I’m going to ignore the tiny little voice that says “don’t jinx this!” and hope instead this points to a better “plague season” for me.)
But the other reason this has been such a good week is this weird confluence of personal and professional interests that has taken place over the past few days. In my classes we’ve been reading a review article published a couple of years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine about developing professionalism in physicians. Initially, I chose the article because it is a good model for the type of evaluative research writing they are doing right now and while it is certainly useful for that, the content of the article itself has been even more beneficial.
We spent a good portion of class discussing the three concepts deemed necessary for developing professionalism: setting expectations, providing experiences, and evaluating outcomes. I was surprised by how readily they responded to these ideas, commenting on preceptors and colleagues in clinical settings who have been role models for them and instances where they really learned from someone else. And of course, they commented on the moments when the opposite happened, when they received little instruction or explanation from the people charged with assessing and training them.
They are thoughtful and passionate about what they do. They recognize that the best way to learn is by doing, and that sometimes the “doing” doesn’t go smoothly and certain doesn’t come easily. But they also realize that “doing” must be accompanied by knowledge, observation, and input from people with more experience…and that people who have authority also have accountability. Discussions like this remind of the privilege it is to see medicine from the other side. My personal experience as a patient is not something that comes into the classroom, but of course it is something that shapes my perspective.
With a week’s worth of discussions swirling around in my brain I sat down this morning to catch up on the latest doctor-patient column in the NYT’s Well blog. This week’s post, A Positive Approach to Doctors in Training, discusses the rigors of the intern experience and the “culture of fear and negative feedback” that permeates medical education. Could I ask for a more relevant topic to read?
Dr. Chen explores the negative reinforcement so common in the training doctors, and the tendency towards focusing on surviving, rather than improving, as a result. (And of course, the backdrop of last night’s Grey’s Anatomy, where the competition over surgical skills and opportunities took a somewhat macabre twist, added to my interest in this article).
But as noted in the article, research suggests positive reinforcement, long a staple in other professions, may have an important role in developing professionalism in doctors. (Obvious, right? But practice and theory can be far apart…). Of course we need to hear what we’re doing incorrectly so we can avoid making a (potentially serious) mistake again, but as published research, common sense, and several classrooms’ worth of future health care professionals seem to agree, knowing what we’re doing right is incredibly important, too.
All of this got me thinking about the practice of teaching in general. Setting expectations (syllabus, grading criteria, classroom policies, etc) and providing experiences (drafting, workshops, model writing, in-class prompts, etc) are easier to handle than evaluating outcomes (at least for me). I relate to my students’ concerns and experiences and I realize my responsibility in this. It can be an awfully difficult line to draw between giving comments that will help a writer improve (constructive criticism) and giving comments that ultimately deter or de-motivate a writer. I’m always conscious of highlighting moments in the text that work well, but at the same time I don’t want to gloss over moments that aren’t working but have potential.
And I am conscious of their consciousness—just as much as they don’t want pages full of red marks, they don’t want to only hear what they’re doing well, either.
One thing that has really emerged from the week of confluence is the reminder that in any kind of teaching environment, accountability works both ways. I want respect and hard work from my students, but they deserve all that from me too, whether it’s the way I choose to comment on a weak paper or the way I respond to their questions in class. This makes sense in the classroom and of course it makes sense in the hospital, too.