Within my Queen’s University Belfast centre, a collaborative research group has made completing and producing research a much easier task than it would be if going it alone. An open attitude to friendship, conversation and general conviviality at conferences has delighted and surprised me by opening several avenues of collaboration and invitations to present workshops and seminars.
This extremely productive experience, however, really only scratches the surface of the potential of collaboration. The work that the AoC group, and subsequently, the roads of thought down which I’ve travelled has started to transform my notion of the concept. Truly productive collaboration happens when the same aim is approached by 2 or more groups with wildly differing perspectives. Thus any problem is approached from several directions, rather than from within disciplinary trenches.
This “same aim, different wheelhouses” approach to problem solving may give rise to wildly transformative solutions to long existing difficulties. I’m beginning to see this very clearly not just on a personal and professional level, but also societal and global.
Within the group, the burgeoning cooperation between disparate people can be seen already on a number of different levels. Thus, musicians schooled in the Persian Classical tradition interact with those of the Irish trad and western classical idioms and something new, different and extremely exciting emerges.
A design professional contributes to the programming and setup of a concert which receives rapturous applause and a standing ovation. In this concert a mental health professional enhances the experience by directing thoughts to mindfulness and the value of art in life. Such synergies have already arisen in the first few months of the life of the group, which bodes well for the future.
On a societal level, collaboration challenges us to reject the extremely low bar of tolerance of difference in favour of embracing it for the diverse perspectives the lived experience of “the other” offers. Collaboration speaks to a bigger point of humanity and what we have in common as human beings on the same planet. By its very nature collaboration rejects the “othering” that has poisoned academic, political and personal discourse.
In my own professional life, the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous nature of the bold act of open collaboration has already yielded unexpected fruits in 2 areas; reframing my ideas around educating adults, and in some professional collaborations with our Drama studies departments that arose unexpectedly and are beginning to bear fruit.
My professional role in educating future clinicians is directed by the General Medical Council who direct medical schools to facilitate lifelong learning skills. Trainee Doctors are encouraged to “Reflect, learn and teach others, acquire, assess, apply and integrate new knowledge, learn to adapt to changing circumstance and establish the foundations for lifelong learning” (General Medical Council, 2015).
For learning to be effective in this, it must be a process in which the student participates actively. With such active learning, any knowledge gained is more likely to be retained by students, who will thus learn to apply it to different contexts. Rather than merely inculcating students with facts, active learning strategies aim to “upskill” and enthuse them (Svinicki, 1998, Michael, 2006). We are directed to teach students how to learn rather than fill them with information.
Students, however, coming from a UK second level education system that is focused on results are used to learning strategically. They’re accustomed to having the answers provided to them for later regurgitation by a structure whose very survival and funding is predicated on continuing high grades. Year on year my efforts at active learning strategies come up against the same bulwark with student requests for pat answers and tutorial guides. When I don’t comply I’m rewarded with poorer Teaching Evaluation Questionnaire scores.
My work with the Art of Collaboration group is transforming my attitude to this, however, and I’m beginning to see this as a classic opportunity for a shift away from the language of dictation and directives to requests for a collaboration among equals. The students and I both have the same aim (their becoming happy, skilled, effective compassionate clinicians), but we have completely different perspectives. Mine is informed by the GMC and my experience of teaching, theirs by their own experience of what has worked for them (strategic learning).
In framing my teaching strategies as a request to join me in an education collaboration rather than dictating my rules to them, I hope this year to achieve a different, more successful, teaching environment, less marked by conflict. Im realising that the process of real transformational active learning can’t take place without an active commitment to collaboration on both sides. Transforming their attitudes to see confusion as a necessary part of the learning process rather than an irritation to be endured is my aim, and framing the process as a collaboration will be my starting point.
Related to this is my work with Dr. Paul Murphy, the head of QUB Drama Studies. In seeking means to motivate students to focus on engaging in the process of active learning, I came across Dr. Murphy’s work on high-fidelity simulation for final year medical students. This is an ongoing partnership between Medicine and Drama studies. In it, final year medical and drama students collaborate on clinical scenarios to enhance the “human factors” skills of empathy, meta-cognition, reading body language and teamwork (Walsh and Murphy, 2017).
The differing perspective that drama students add to the traditional patient safety course are instrumental in bringing these skills to the foreground; skills that had hitherto been seen as part of the “hidden curriculum” of medicine. I’m currently transferring this high fidelity simulation model to paper based basic science (physiology) tutorials much earlier in the course (second year). These paper based cases have remained the same for generations of medical students.
Rather than seeing the clinical cases as a dry, paper based exercise, students will get to play and observe the basic science in a proper context, receive training in the Stanislavski method, and hopefully begin to see the importance of learning actively, as the effectiveness of their learning will impact on the welfare of future patients. This is in line with the General Medical Council’s drive to place compassion and Human Factors at the heart of Medical Education, down to the early pre-clinical years.
While Medicine, Physiology and Drama studies have widely divergent histories, training and perspectives, the common goal of Medical Education of inculcating practical, scientific and “human factors” skills in new clinicians is only achievable by the synergy of collaboration between these widely differing perspectives. What may be dark matter to one group of professionals may be as clear as day to another group.
Synergy, the term given to the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, comes from the Attic Greek word “synergos” literally meaning “working together”. This exciting synergy is evident when people from widely different perspectives come together to work with open attitudes. Whether its Persian musicians playing in a different idiom or Medicine, Science and Humanities academics working together to make Medical Education truly holistic, the untapped potentials and possibilities of true collaboration are breathtaking.
General Medical Council (2015). In Promoting excellence: standards for medical education and training London: General Medical Council.
Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education 30 159-167
Svinicki, M. D. (1998). A theoretical foundation for discovery learning. Advances in Physiology Education 20 (1) S4-S7
Walsh, I.K. and Murphy, P (2017). Healtheatre: Drama and Medicine in Concert. Healthcare 5 37