Neel Sharma: Those who can teach, those who can’t don’t

Recently I was left dumbfounded by a senior colleague who stated that the sign of a good medical educator is one who can do two things well: publish and deliver conference presentations. I questioned him on the aspect of teaching. Surely this is relevant in the field of medical education— a field designed to enhance the teaching and learning avenues of those in training and beyond. His response was curt: Those who can do, those who can’t teach. Of course, it goes without saying we don’t exactly see eye to eye.

If we take the traditional view of teaching, maybe he had a point. Didactic, dry lectures, or bedside pimping has long been associated with medical training. Kost et al highlight that “pimping” is widely recognized by learners and educators in the clinical learning environment as the act of more senior members of the medical team publicly asking questions of more junior members. Pimping, as described in the literature, evokes negative emotions in learners and leads to an environment that is not conducive to adult learning. Medical educators may employ pimping as a pedagogic technique because of beliefs that it is a Socratic teaching method. We all know however that Socrates was not a pimp (1) and a wealth of more valuable teaching avenues exist. If we take the example of problem based learning, the literature highlights the wealth of input required to be an effective facilitator: case in point the importance of being a role model, asking open ended questions, and providing feedback to name but a few (2). Of course, those who can’t teach don’t exactly follow the relevance of these tips. And take team based learning, where facilitators also have to demonstrate significant elements of what makes a good teacher. Gullo et al highlight the relevance of remembering that facilitation is not delivery of content, as well as highlighting the importance of addressing any uncertainties or disagreements (3).

Other teaching avenues hot off the press include the flipped classroom, a novel form of instruction where audio or video based material is delivered to learners prior to a class session, with teaching time spent actively engaging in problem solving. Here effective peer to teacher interaction is essential in ensuring adequate understanding. And of course let us not forget simulation, where appropriate debriefing and feedback is paramount to the process.

So in the case of my colleague, I would like to emphasise that those who can teach and those who can’t don’t. And furthermore, from personal experience, I have always queried the motives of conference presenters. Sure they are given a platform and they may be talking, but what exactly are they saying? It is often a battle of experts pushing forward their own personal agenda. I maybe be biased —indeed, I am— but in my view the pen is and always will be mightier than the sword.

1.    Kost A, Chen FM. Socrates was not a pimp: changing the paradigm of questioning in medical education. Academic medicine : journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. 2015 Jan;90(1):20-4. PubMed PMID: 25099239. Epub 2014/08/08. eng.
2.    Azer SA. Challenges facing PBL tutors: 12 tips for successful group facilitation. Medical teacher. 2005 Dec;27(8):676-81. PubMed PMID: 16451886. Epub 2006/02/03. eng.
3.    Gullo C, Ha TC, Cook S. Twelve tips for facilitating team-based learning. Medical teacher. 2015 Feb 10:1-6. PubMed PMID: 25665624. Epub 2015/02/11. Eng.

Neel Sharma graduated from the University of Manchester and did his internal medicine training at The Royal London Hospital and Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. Currently he is a gastroenterology trainee based in Singapore. 

Competing interests: None declared.