We need social interaction, now more than ever, as educators and learners
I firmly believe that we learn best when we learn together. That is why we must ensure that while we are physically distant in the months ahead, we remain socially connected.
I was a late starter in formally studying the theories behind adult education. By the time I began my master’s degree in 2007, I had already been a family doctor for more than 20 years. I had spent almost a decade in Niger, West Africa where I worked in medical outpatients for six years, then spent three years training community health workers. In Stouffville, Ontario, our group practice became a Family Health Organization and we regularly had medical students and residents, as well as learners who would become physician assistants or nurse practitioners.
But it was not until I took one of the first courses for my Master of Public Health, which was entitled Interprofessional Applied Practical Teaching and Learning in the Health Professions (INTAPT), that my eyes were opened to the theories of adult education. Suddenly all the things I had observed in practice had a framework that would help me understand what helps adults to learn. I was hooked.
I quickly discovered a favourite theory about how adults learn. This is what I wrote at the time: “Considering all the ways in which adults learn, there is no technique as appealing as the fact that when human beings interact, learning takes place. This process is known as ‘social constructivism’.”
Social constructivism sounds like a fancy academic term. But its practicality is what appeals to me. Simply put, we assemble knowledge through social interaction. Every conversation, debate or negotiation is an opportunity to learn. In the domain of health professions education, a tremendous amount of both knowledge and skill can be acquired by watching a teaching tape or using simulator equipment. But the addition of a social interface alongside the use of technology opens new opportunities for innovation and quality improvement.
In the fall of 2020, maintaining interpersonal connections seems harder than ever. Yet, we must not lose the power of social constructivism amid this pandemic that forces us to be physically apart from one another. Our faculty members are acutely sensitive to the balance that is required to keep learners safe from the biomedical harms of the virus that causes COVID-19, while still recognizing the social, psychological, and educational needs of students.
I am enormously impressed with the agility of students, staff, and faculty in the post-secondary sector as we adjust to our new pandemic realities. Education technology experts are adapting and sharing state-of-the-art software solutions that enable both large-group online lectures and small-group tutorials and labs. Some of the best education technology in the world has been developed right here in the School of Medicine at Queen’s. That includes the Elentra platform which is now being used by 21 universities around the world. We need it more than ever.
At the same time, we are working around the clock to determine when and how students, staff, and faculty can be brought back to campus in small learning cohorts to participate in standardized patient programs and other clinical experiences. Delivering these effective and creative learning opportunities is essential to the education of health professionals but doing so safely in the context of a pandemic requires exceptional attention to infection prevention and other public health measures.
Our faculty members are determined to maintain the highest quality of health professions education despite these challenges of our times. We want the best possible learning environment while still ensuring the health, safety and comprehensive well-being of our students, staff, faculty, and community. A few weeks ago the Faculty of Health Sciences posted a set of principles to guide us as we keep those priorities in place.
We must keep learning together. Social interaction helps build knowledge and makes life meaningful. So, please keep up those interpersonal connections and look out for one another. At the same time, I am counting on everyone to be safe and to follow the public health guidelines every step of the way. We can do this. We can get through this, together.
The pandemic has forced us to think outside the box on ways that we can enhance the learning experience. What creative ideas do you have to be socially connected while we must be physically apart? Share your thoughts by commenting below.
 Philpott J, Batty H. Learning best together: social constructivism and global partnerships in medical education. Med Educ. 2009;43(9):923-924. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03436.x