Late night thoughts #2

by reestheskin on 12/03/2019

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Late night thoughts on medical education #2: Apprenticeship

We have a very clear idea of how apprenticeship has worked over the last nine hundred years or so within Europe. The core ideas are of course much older, and the geography wider. But we have written records of the creation of the various social structures that led to the rapid changes in society that led in turn via the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and modern capitalism. We can trace so many of the norms that have guided my professional life: Royal Colleges, corporations, guilds, “masters and apprentices”, universities, certification and the granting of monopoly, and ‘professionalism’, to name but a few.

Apprenticeship is a powerful pedagogical model, but one that can only take place when a number of conditions are met. In medicine the ‘apprentice’ model is widely discussed, assumed, and contrasted with the ‘bums on seats’ lecture, the latter, the now signature pedagogy of the modern ‘massified’ university. It is also used to justify the high costs of training of education in medicine and some craft university courses.

At the level of higher professional training in medicine (or in the training of research academics) apprenticeship still can work well. There is an asymmetry between master and pupil (the master does know best, but cannot always justify why he knows best); long term interaction between both parties is required; and, at its best the pupils will model their behaviours on the master. Apprenticeship is not passive — it is not ‘shadowing’ (although a period of shadowing may be required); it will require the pupil to undertake tasks that can be observed and critiqued — you cannot learn complicated tasks based on passive observation. Chimps are highly intelligent, and yet learning to crack nuts using stones takes years and years, not because the young chimps do not watch their mothers, but because the mothers never watch (and hence correct) the young chimps. This requirement is not just required for motor tasks but for any complicated set of ‘thinking’ procedures that require accuracy and fluency. In medicine, surgeons are ahead of physicians on this, and have been for a long time.

In medieval times, becoming a master meant more than being a ‘journeyman’ — the level of professional expertise was greater, and it was recognised that teaching required another level of competence, and breadth. The master is not one step ahead on the way to perfection, but several. We prefer those teaching ‘A’ level physics, to have more than an ‘A’ level in physics themselves. And whatever domain expertise a master possesses, we know that experience of the problems or difficulties learners face, is important.

Still, in comparison with say school teaching the demands on the master (with regard to being a ‘professional’ educator) are modest. They know the job — they do not need to check out the syllabus — as they are effectively training people to do the same job they do day-to-day. They probably also have little need of theory and, in a sensible system, their reputation may be accurate.

In higher professional training in medicine, apprenticeship is still possible — it is just that it is harder than it once was (as to why, that is for another day). Similarly, at one time higher education was in large part viewed as a type of apprenticeship. Students were not staff, but they were not treated as schoolchildren, rather they were —at best— viewed as co-producers of knowledge within a university. If you were studying physics, the goal was to get you to approach the world like a physicist might. This may persist in a few institutions for a minority of students, but it is not the norm anymore.

In undergraduate medicine apprenticeship died a long time ago, although its previous health may well have been exaggerated. There is little long term personal interaction, with students passed around from one attachment to another, with many of the students feeling unwanted (‘burden of teaching’, ‘teaching load‘ etc). Staff and students can walk past each other in the street, none the wiser. Apprentices are — by definition — useful. It is this utility that underpinned the business model that formalised training and acceptance or rejection into the guild. But sadly — through no fault of their own – medical students are rarely useful. If they were useful they would be paid: they are not. Historically, students might have got paid to cover house officer absences (I did), but that world no longer exists. Nor are we able to return to it.

Whereas the master has an implicit model of the goals of training, that is no longer the case in undergraduate education, in which literally 500 or individuals are engaged in educating students for roles that they individually have little knowledge of. Instead of personal interaction, over a long time period, based on a common world view, medical schools create complicated management systems to process students, with the predictable lack of buy-in from those who are doing the educating.

There is a deeper point here. Much though a lot of UK postgraduate medical training is poor, it is possible to improve it within a framework that is known to work. Many doctors know how to do it (although the same cannot be said of the NHS). Undergraduate medical education is in a different place (like much of university education). At graduation, you step form one world into another, but just as with caterpillars and butterflies, the structures and environment we need to create are very different.