Teaching Histology: Lessons for Other Teaching?

Edward Edmonds is an histologist at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, New York. He has been an histologist since 2002. Previously he worked at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany, the Ehrling Bergquist Hospital Offutt AFB, Nebraska, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (now Joint Pathology Center), Washington D.C.

Recently he left an interesting comment on this blog:

When I train students I always expect that they will do things a little differently or that they will have new ideas, so . . . my first question is always show me what you have learned or show me how you’d like to do this procedure. In other words they went through the same training I did maybe at a different facility but there are a lot of different ways to approach things we do in the lab, so I let them develop their own “style”. Then after they do it in their own way I show them how I do it my way and I explain step-by-step why I’m doing it this way . . . The entire thing is an enjoyable experience. We are learning, and laughing, and undoing the dogma learned from the academic setting. . . . All of my students end up being excellent troubleshooters and problem solvers.

I asked how he came to this way of teaching. He replied:

Through experience. People like to feel good about themselves, no matter their status. If that person feels they have some sort of insight or knowledge that other people don’t have — when that person is queried about their knowledge or has an opportunity to discuss it, they light up, becoming a teacher themselves (regardless of the quality of the information). There is a level of confidence there.

What if someone came along and challenged the quality of that information? Let’s say the person challenging the information was an arrogant prick who did have better information but nonetheless put the ignorant person in their place? The quality of the information might be good, but nothing was actually learned that was relevant to the subject. Instead what was learned was how that prick made the other person feel and the prick feeling unchallenged felt empowered. If there were witnesses to the exchange the information learned was not bidirectional it was omnidirectional, everybody in the setting learned more about each others’ behavior but nothing relevant was retained because the environment was authoritarian. That is an extreme example but it happens in degrees and often it is subtle.

Now that person who was challenged might go home and for spite try to find things to improve the quality of their information. But the learning is motivated not by genuine interest but by spite which has a tendency to cloud judgment (as we can witness in heated academic debates). Are they learning (understanding) in that state of mind? Probably not.

That is partly where my teaching style comes from. It comes from recognizing the “state” in which learning occurs and that someone that learns well who is “smart, motivated, and capable” is so, not because they have some inherent grasp on a subject, but because they have confidence in their ability to learn. In other words they are smart because they recognized as being “smart, motivated, and capable of learning”. I want to learn from the students just as much as they want to learn. That really is key.

He also explained the difference between histologists and pathologists:

The histologists/cytologists are the people who develop the microscope slides you often see in studies with different “stains” we have a background in chemistry, biology, and anatomy, we do grossing (dissecting specimens), and autopsy, immunohistochemistry, electron microscopy, etc. A pathologist is some one who makes the diagnosis on the specimens we prepare. We work very closely together and in some facilities our disciplines overlap. However, they are actual doctors. There are also pathology assistants, they typically just gross and do autopsy. So whenever you have surgery or a biopsy it comes to histology to be processed, we do that and then the pathologist makes a diagnosis and puts their signature on it.

6 Replies to “Teaching Histology: Lessons for Other Teaching?”

  1. Following-up on Nancy’s off-topic post, I’m reminded of the fact that some significant percentage of songs on Spotify have never been played — ever. There’s a cool web app called Forgotify that will randomly choose an unplayed song and play it for you. I actually haven’t used that app, but there’s another, similar one called the Spotify Random Song Generator that plays a totally random song (whether it’s been played in the past or not). I’ve used it a number of times, and it’s quite interesting the music it selects.

  2. Thanks for this post.

    I like the description he gives of the state of mind one is in after being “put in one’s place” by someone arrogant. It’s not conducive to an open minded exploration of the facts. It’s not a learning state of mind. At that point, you’re just trying to save face in the group. Certainly, I have experienced this state of mind too many times. Not fun.

    But, it is the real world. There are always arrogant pricks out there. So, it is a great skill to be able to deal constructively with those types of people. But it’s difficult.

    Some of these arrogant people are really skillful at evoking fear and anger. And it’s a winning strategy for them because once you become fearful, you are no longer thinking as clearly, reasonably, honestly as you are when you’re calm.

    I sometimes think it is their main rhetorical technique: make the other person fearful, angry, resentful, predominantly emotional, and then make them look really stupid in front of the group.

  3. O/T lesson from life: today I happened across an article in an old Telegraph. On a brief visit to Washington D.C. a journalist decided to go and look at the White House. This proved surprisingly difficult because everyone from whom she asked directions assured her that it was beyond walking distance. When she got there she had, she said, covered a distance that most British people would consider a short stroll.

  4. More off-topic– This place has a good commenting community, but with only the three most recent comments listed in recent comments, it’s hard to know which threads are still active.

    The best simple system I’ve seen for keeping track of comments is at <a href="http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/"Making Light— give access to the last 1000/2000/4000 comments, and if you click on a comment in one of those lists, it changes color.

    The best complicated system is at Alas, a Blog.

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