Friday, May 13, 2011

What Can I Learn From Medicine

I read an interesting book last week.  In the book Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande, the author, at this point in his life a surgical resident, reflects on his training and his experiences.  He says at the beginning of the book (page 7):

There is a science in what we do, yes, but also habit, intuition, and sometimes plain old guessing.  The gap between what we know and what we aim for persists.  And this gap complicates everything we do.


As I read those words I thought about those in our society who expect educators to have all of the answers.  Our governor in Michigan talks about a year's growth in a year's time for all students.  In the last district that I was in one of the goals that I focused on was that very thing - a year's growth in a year's time.

Yet, education - like medicine - is complicated.  Clearly there is a science to what teachers do.  We know what good instructional practices are and we can identify when students are engaged in meaningful work.  Yet, what works for one group of students sometimes does not work nearly as well for the next group of students.

It has been awhile since I have been in the classroom, but I can still remember the feeling when a lesson went well.  The feeling was the same whether I was teaching college students or my middle school students.  When a lesson went well there was a sense of satisfaction; a sense that maybe I knew what I was doing after all.  A sense that the time my students and I had spent together was meaningful and somehow valuable.

When I experienced that feeling first hour, I couldn't wait for second hour.  I knew it would go just as well.  But there were times when it did not.

Why?  What happened?  What went wrong?

As Gawande says, There is science in what we do, yes, but . . . It is that "but" that keeps great teachers thinking, stewing, reflecting, searching for answers.  Good educators, good teachers, know what we are aiming for.  We understand the responsibility we have to ensure that every student learns everyday.  We feel responsible for the precious time that we have with students and know that we cannot waste minutes, hours, or days.

Those times when we sense that students are not learning, that time is being wasted, hurts us.  I often felt drained, almost sick, because I knew that the lesson that day - the time that I was given to help students learn - had been uninspiring, uneventful, and unproductive.

It was at those times that I struggled to find answers.

"Why did that strategy not work?"  

"What could I have done differently?"

"How can I be better tomorrow?"

I tried to find answers to those questions when I taught in my small middle school in hale Center, Texas, and when I taught my students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Finding answers to those questions is what drives me to this day.

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