Doctors and Patients, Teachers and Students–Medicine and Education

12 Sep

I’ve been avoiding the Stanford Alumni magazine this issue, because the main article is about depression, and that seemed like such a…downer.  But I finally opened it, and the article, about Professor David Burns’s techniques for fighting depression, struck a chord.

It turns out that a lot of his techniques for successful therapy closely mirror what we know about successful teaching and coaching.  Not such a shock when you think about it–both fields are about working with people and moving them from where they are to a better (more advanced, more happy, more proficient) state.

In particular, Burns talks about his metholodogy, called TEAM–testing, empathy, agenda setting, and methods.  It bears a remarkable resemblance to best practices in teaching.

“Testing means requiring that patients complete a short mood survey before and after each therapy session…Therapists falsely believe that their impression or gut instinct about what the patient is feeling is accurate,” says May, when in fact their accuracy is very low. “  In teaching?  Assessment, particularly formative assessment, so we can track patient/student progress as we go, rather than just at the end.

“An error many therapists make, says Burns, is skipping empathy and agenda setting and jumping straight into methods. It’s the desire to fix patients instantly that drives this ultimately unproductive shortcut.”  In teaching?  Community building.  How many of us jump into curriculum and hard-core strategy work too early, because we feel like we need to be teaching SOMETHING.  It’s hard to slow down and do the foundational work of community building, norm setting, procedures and routines, but without them, the best lessons in the world have nothing to stick onto.

“…the key to agenda setting is specificity: focusing on an upsetting incident or moment around which different methods can be tried. Saying “I just haven’t made anything of my life” is unlikely to lead anywhere.”  In teaching?  Specific teaching points and goals.  It’s the difference between saying, “Proficient readers read fluently”  (true, but  broad) and, “Readers read smoothly and fluently.  One way they do this is by thinking about how the character is feeling and reading with that expression,”  (for your robot readers) OR “Readers read smoothly and fluently.  One way they do this is by scanning the punctuation beforehand and reading in chunks, up to commas and periods,”  (for readers who run through punctuation.)

Therapists need to forget that they are supposed to be disciples of this or that school and apply what has been proven and known to work. In teaching?  Instructional expertise in best practices.  I laughed when Burns wrote,

Can you imagine going to a doctor with a broken leg and he prescribes penicillin? You’d say, ‘Why are you giving me penicillin for a broken leg?’ And the doctor says, ‘Well I’m in the penicillin movement. Brain tumor, broken leg, you get penicillin.’ It would seem ridiculous.” Burns feels the same way about therapists who rigidly subscribe to a single therapeutic approach.

This feels so close to so many educational debates, like phonics vs. whole language (how about kids be able to decode words and comprehend them?).  It feels pretty safe to say that just like every patient doesn’t need the same treatment, every child doesn’t benefit from the same type of instruction.

It’s interesting that Burns’s methods are seen as revolutions in the field of psychiatry.  Education and business have long been thrown together by corporate America, but maybe education and medicine should take a closer look at one another.  It might be surprising what we can learn from each other.

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