by Ann Conti Morcos, MA, ELS
The brain can’t handle nonsense, but it can handle meaning.
--Hilliard Jason, MD, PhD
A special workshop was held at the 19th SLS Annual Meeting and Endo Expo in New York City for faculty, moderators, residents, and fellows. Hilliard Jason, MD, PhD, and his wife Jane Westberg, PhD, education experts, discussed “Recent findings about how our brains learn. Implications for how we teach.”
“Children are curious, persistent, and ask questions. They begin life as a learning machine,” said Jason, “but then they become exposed to traditional parenting and educational methods.” What can teachers do to help students recapture this instinctive curiosity about the world around them?
Teachers, generally speaking, have a desire to teach and motivate medical students to become good physicians who provide quality patient care. However, some fall short of this mark. “Once teachers become knowledgeable about a topic, the more difficult it is to understand the beginner’s level of understanding,” said Jason. As a result, some teachers of medical students may become adversarial toward students, even mistreating them, rather than becoming advocates. The way that teachers interact with medical students is the result of who they are rather than the result of evidence-based teaching methods that have proven successful over time.
To become an effective teacher, it is helpful to understand how the human brain works. Short-term memory, also called working memory, allows retention of things for about one minute. Long-term memory allows storage and recall of some data for a lifetime. The brain can also remember things we are exposed to through our senses. Sensory input goes into both short- and long-term memory. Memories can be constantly practiced and reinforced.
Retention is associative. We all have a template in our heads that is unique to us. One person may remember an event in one way, while another may remember it differently. Retrieving a memory is a reconstruction of an event. Interestingly, recalled memories are subject to distortion and manipulation. Attorneys have learned to implant false memories to distort eyewitness accounts.
All people are unique because of the brain’s plasticity. The brain is constantly changing. All cells have the same DNA, but the neurons function differently based on sensory input. That’s why “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
The brain doesn’t learn well if it isn’t focused. That is why multitasking is a myth. “We can alternate between 2 or 3 things at a time, but we can focus on only one thing at a time,” said Jason.
The human brain needs to practice (rehearse) in order to learn and remember something. Practice makes perfect. Athletes practice. Pilots practice. Musicians practice. The brain or thinking (mental practicing) is about what one has done. During deep sleep, things studied are repeated many times. So staying up all night cramming doesn’t help you learn anything.
In the classroom, or OR, conveying information—asking questions—asking and inviting questions transforms the learning experience. The basis of constructive reflection, the key to learning from experience, the foundation of lifelong learning needs to be part of all experience. Control isn’t teaching. Making people do something because you control them doesn’t make them learn anything. Teachers should be encouraging and supportive so that students do on their own what teachers are teaching them, because they had an emotional, positive experience. When teachers impose negative feelings, students focus on survival and protecting themselves rather than learning and doing things for others.
The best teachers, like the best clinicians, are interactive, make on the spot decisions, and have emotional intelligence; they have the capacity to read other people’s emotions and thinking. Rather than being adversarial and controlling, teachers must be supportive and develop trustworthy relationships with students. Rather than shoveling out information or being controlling, it is more effective to ask and invite questions from students. Becoming a helpful teacher who encourages student participation will be more satisfying and fulfilling for the teacher and more effective for the student.
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