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ON TEACHING AND LEARNING

Vincent G Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX


vincent valentineTeaching is essential for a civilized society and is one of the most fundamental of all human activities. Enormous amounts of accumulated knowledge, history and heritage must be passed from generation to generation informally and formally. As parents, mentors, doctors and other health care providers we all serve as teachers for our families, communities, for the ISHLT, for each other and our patients. At the other end of the "pendulum," while teaching we are learning. The opportunity to teach improves our ability to be a better learner or student. The one who learns the most while sharing knowledge is the teacher.

I will kick off this New Year Issue with a special dedication and devotion on how to best pass on such valuable information for all to attempt to make the right or best-informed decision. Now, I use the phrase pass on, which in health care at times we wrongly intend to mean to die. However in this issue and most prior issues it is all about communication. So when a patient is dying or has died, the patient is not passing, has passed or has passed on - we need to drop these "vague" and "passing" terms from our vocabulary. Many have died before any of us were conceived and all of us will be dead one day. Again, I digress.

So what are the essential qualities of a good teacher? Self-control, self-improvement, and hard work rank among the most important attributes of a good teacher. But different topics require different teaching approaches; one size does not fit all. Regardless, the goal is to transform callow students into intellectually self-confident adults. We are all at various stages of our careers. Us gray-heads are probably more set in our ways, have "conventional wisdom," and possess self-control (probably from exhaustion for prior endless battles that have ended in a draw). Our newbies—younger crowds—still have unbridled enthusiasm probably best tempered by us gray-haired curmudgeons. A clash must occur with some sort of consensus that will yield what may be best for all. Otherwise, either we become stuck and set in our ways, or we progress down some blind alley without guidance or the dreaded path of reinventing the wheel—again. History does repeat itself for human behavior remains unchanging. Despite the young vs. old differences, raw vs. refined, or intemperate vs. temperate, there are surprising similarities that help us define a "good" teacher.

Every teacher must be a dedicated learner and cultivate effective learning habits. Good teachers constantly push themselves beyond comfort zones and avoid the temptation of procrastination. As great educators we must welcome new experiences and come to grips with new ideas. We have a great capacity to learn, but we must learn how to take advantage of it. We have to educate ourselves, have the willingness to do so and keep our inquisitiveness alive.

Education has expanded to take up more years of our lives as we continue to advance. In reality, education is lifelong and never ending. The goal of the Western World has been to achieve universal literacy. On the other side of the pendulum or spectrum, we might be regressing, not advancing. Nevertheless, the internet, cell phone activity, instant messaging, and texting keep us plugged-in wirelessly and tirelessly with constant communication to the frenzy of an incessant need of everyone updating each other from I'm awake, I'm asleep, I'm bored to I'm in the bathroom, washroom or loo.

This has set the stage of potential rapid pace innovation which also will create different educational challenges. Are we headed to information overload? Is the side effect impatience? Not everyone deserves an "A." There are always winners and losers, but take note of this side effect.

In the process we just can't "pass on" knowledge; on the contrary, the mark or "tell-tale sign" of a good teacher is to help others think critically, primarily because specific knowledge will become obsolete. Along with critical thinking, a drive of self-improvement and willingness to accept criticism are probably the three most essential attributes for teachers to instill in learners. Can we teach drive and the willingness of others to accept just criticism?

To drive many of these points we need to be impressive, theatrical, and memorable. In the process, we need to help everyone we influence to keep our goals and their goals in view. When teaching, presenting your poster, delivering your lecture, or writing your paper you should ask yourself, what do I want the intended listeners or learners to know five years from now? That question will help us hone in on the important issues—set your goals. With this in mind, hopefully the preparation and delivery of your message will help us achieve a "teacher's high" allowing us to improve our practice and inspiring us to teach effectively with greater self-awareness. The capacity for self-criticism is essential for professional improvement.

Teaching and learning never cease but can be delayed. The greatest pitfall to effective education is to guard against the temptation of laziness and procrastination. We must develop our own willingness to learn and preach what we practice as we show others the way, practicing what we preach, especially persistence and drive. It is a struggle to open ourselves to new ideas; then it becomes easy not to, especially when it is difficult. We pursue the easy road and up ahead is the pit. Think how often we procrastinate. Think how gratifying it is when we don't. We can easily do all the work as long as we don't procrastinate—the constant temptation. It does feel great at the time we procrastinate, and then it feels awful later because we have to do the work in a rush to meet the deadline. We have to persist and drive through this temptation, probably the single most important lesson of all to be a great teacher. Letting up is an early sign of laziness. We do not need to be the enabler of procrastination, although it is much easier.

Bottom line—clear communication, diligence and energetic teaching are vital components for any endeavor. The annual ISHLT meeting provides a comfortable and exciting venue for our own continuing education so we can take back what we have learned to our institutions and bedsides. With the new knowledge, don't ever think you know enough. Lifelong learners resist that feeling, even if it threatens our sense of professional mastery. Also, recognize that there is no limit to how much we can learn. Learning is cumulative and our capacity to learn expands as we accumulate more knowledge. Finally, the initiative comes from within and links the past with the present to better prepare our future forever more and not just nevermore. Perhaps I've said enough.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.