Throwing open the tool box

Photo by skistz

Some years ago, the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry took an unusual approach to their Medicine course. Rather than starting the degree by covering all of the basic anatomy and physiology in a classroom setting, they decided to throw their students straight into real clinical problem solving situations. Instead of choosing to give their students their toolkit piece by piece before letting them use it, they made them dived straight in.

This example was put to the participants of a course I am completing as part of my induction to Plymouth University, a group of academics from a wide range of disciplines who like myself as new to teaching the University. We came around to discussing two possible scenarios for learning:

1. Teachers give students the tools for their discipline in the form of traditional teacher, allowing them to apply these tools only when they had acquired and mastered the entire box.

2. Teachers throw open the toolbox and allow students to discover the tools and their uses themselves, guiding them through the process by flagging up possibile tools and encouraging them to evaluate both the tools and their own performance.

Opinion of these two approaches was quite divided, and it was interesting to note the lines along which this happened. Several people from more technical disciplines seemed aghast at the idea of allowing people to poke about with the metaphorical tools before they had been shown how to use them ‘properly’.

Personally, I think one’s stance on this issue is very telling of what you think the purpose of your teaching is. If you have a particular end point firmly in sight, a standard that everyone must reach by doing the same things in the same way, then number 1 makes perfect sense. Teaching people tools in a didactic way produces people who are often very competent at using the tools.

However, this is not how I see the purpose of my teaching. Rather than the expert, who holds all the knowledge and passes it on to produce clones of myself, I see my role as someone to draw out of students the potential that is in them. Throwing people into problem solving before they know their tools inside out causes them to really solve problems, not just apply something someone else came up with. Of course they need advice, possibilities they may have missed flagging up to them, support in reflecting on where they are going and where they can challenge themselves, but discovering tools for themselves kick starts a process that doesn’t stop when learners complete the course and collect their certificate.

The aim of my teaching is not to produce a finished product, but to catalyse a process.

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