Simplicity in Innovation

When you think of educational innovations, the children’s book The Cat in the Hat doesn’t immediately spring to mind. It’s a simple, humorous tale told in rhyme about a lovable, fallible cat with human qualities.

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

It’s been reported that Theodore Seuss Geisel, more affectionately known as Dr. Seuss, was asked to write the book by William Ellsworth Spaulding, then the director of the education division at Houghton Mills. At the time, Spaulding had grown concerned about reading scores of school-aged children. Boring, unrelatable schoolbooks were identified as the main culprit.

Spaulding challenged Geisel to write a book that children couldn’t put down, and was supplied a list of only 250 words to use. While initially frustrated by the word constraints, Geisel later confessed that the additional challenge of the word count inspired his creativity.

The beloved story has stood the test of time, being translated into more than 12 languages and selling more than 10-million copies. It was the first in a long line of readers for young children, who instantly loved the silly cat and his zany antics.

An innovation in the truest sense – The Cat in the Hat solved a complex issue by making a change in storytelling. It worked because Geisel found a new way to capture the imagination of school children.

Like Geisel, educators at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry are finding new ways to capture the imagination of their students as they use innovative approaches to learning, curricula development and assessment.

Nicole Campbell, PhD, an assistant professor and recently appointed Western Teaching Fellow, believes that innovation is less about grandeur and more about simply doing something new for the students or the program. She also believes that innovation doesn’t rest in technology alone.

Campbell fell in love with teaching during her graduate training when she was asked to tutor a blind student. The experience was gratifying and really challenged her to be creative. She now serves as one of the main faculty members within the Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences Program at the School, where she is applying her philosophy to focus on learning rather than teaching as she takes a few risks and innovates along the way.

Since arriving at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Campbell has integrated a long list of innovations into her lectures and classes, inspired to do more as each academic year passes.

One approach she has taken with a fourth-year lab course is to have students work in pairs and do the pre-lab teaching to the entire class. After being assigned a topic, students can tap into their creativity and choose any teaching approach they feel would best meet the needs of their peers. Campbell says that this approach has led to students gaining a better comprehension of the material, while at the same time enriching their own presentation and communication skills.

Expecting unique approaches from Campbell, students in her course enthusiastically embraced a new process to be used when challenging their grades. Anyone in Campbell’s class wanting to challenge their grade was asked to submit a cover letter outlining their critical thinking process on why they believed they deserved a higher mark.

“The students thought this was an excellent approach,” Campbell said. “Even if their grade didn’t change, the students were learning, becoming more reflective, and they were getting practise writing a cover letter; it was simple.”

Campbell is inspired by her students to continue innovating, and she is supported by a culture that she says is distinct to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

“When I walked in the doors at the School, I could feel the spirit of innovation,” she said. “Now I’m working amongst some of the best educators. All I have to do is walk down the hall and there are colleagues who I can bounce ideas off of. I feel fortunate to be part of a culture of innovation.”

“In my opinion, innovation doesn’t mean complication. It can be simple. It means finding creative ways to engage students and promote learning. We can learn how to be innovative by just talking to our students and allowing them to be active contributors in the classroom through group and team-based discussions.”—Fabiana Crowley, PhD

Sarah McLean, PhD’07, is just one of a number of faculty members working down the hall from Campbell. She is an award-winning educator and one of the 2018 Marilyn Robinson Teaching Award recipients, which is one of Western University’s highest teaching honours.

Recognized time and again for taking new approaches, McLean believes that innovation means not taking things at face value or doing something like it always has been done.

“I’m always thinking about what my students need and what they want,” McLean said. “I want to help them build their knowledge base and also their critical thinking, analysis and presentation skills. At the same time, I’m always considering how I can give them an opportunity to apply their knowledge.”

The Healthcare Challenges and Scientific Inquiry for the 21st Century course is one of McLean’s most recent innovations. The course, created in connection to Western’s Community Engaged Learning model, integrates community service with course curriculum.

“I have a group of hugely motivated students who want to pursue careers in health care and research, so I started thinking how I could create a course that gives them hands-on skills and leadership experiences while engaging them with the community,” McLean said.

Working with the students, McLean identified areas of focus for their engagement including health care and literacy, social determinants of health, addiction and mental health issues. Western’s Student Success Centre then connected the students with various organizations in the community including Teen Challenge and the Middlesex-London Emergency Medical Services.

“The students loved the opportunity and really rose to the occasion,” McLean said. “By the end of the program they were contributing tangible resources and research for the community services.”

McLean’s innovative approaches also include flipping courses so students complete pre-work online and then come to class for engaging discussions and debates with each other.

Fabiana Crowley, PhD, is an assistant professor who is recognized as an innovative educator by faculty and students alike. Like McLean, she has found a way to engage students in real-life situations.

Crowley has moved away from the standard lecture approach and uses student response systems such as iClicker and case-based learning. While Western’s Ivey Business School and the Master of Public Health Program use case-based learning, it hasn’t been traditionally used to teach physiology and pharmacology courses. First- and second-year medical and dental students now engage with real cases and, by using the iClicker and OneNote notebooks, learn through discussion.

Taking it one step further for fourth-year medical students, Crowley has also designed the only full case-based course in the undergraduate medical curriculum. Students are expected to prepare in advance and work in small teams during class time to solve cases.

With case-based learning, students don’t just benefit from the interactive learning approach. Their communication, discussion and presentation skills are enriched. Asthe faculty member, Crowley believes that it’s her role to create a safe and creative environment, strong foundational materials and a proven structure, and then watch students thrive in the team environment.

“In my opinion, innovation doesn’t mean complication,” said Crowley. “It can be simple. It means finding creative ways to engage students and promote learning. We can learn how to be innovative by just talking to our students and allowing them to be active contributors in the classroom through group and team-based discussions.”

Dr. Jennifer Vergel de Dios values the team-learning environment and believes that utilizing team approaches was instrumental in leading the Department of Anesthesia through the transition to competency-based medical education (CBME).

Dr. Vergel de Dios was raised in a tight-knit community with an extended family and large group of family friends who supported one another through thick and thin. This has greatly influenced how she approaches her work and how she considers innovations.

“There is a beauty to the culture in which I was raised,” Dr. Vergel de Dios said. “I learned how much can be accomplished by the group, team or community. I try to remember the spirit of this when I bring groups together to accomplish major tasks, such as CBME.”

As the CBME lead, Dr. Vergel de Dios was charged with overseeing the full transition for the Department. This included mapping the 87 Entrustable Professional Activities across the five years of training and adhering to all the processes and standards set forth by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. It also included providing training for all current faculty and   incoming residents through grand rounds, hands-on practical sessions, scenario videos, newsletters and a dedicated website for CBME.

For Dr. Vergel de Dios, the adage to ‘know your audience’ is at the heart of all her planning and preparation. And that’s where her innovations shone through. She used a combination of communication approaches, open share resources, and worked to update and develop new curricula for academic half-days.

Currently she is working with a performance psychologist to incorporate performance resiliency techniques for residents to be in tune with the environment around them and harness constructive feedback to enrich their performance.

It’s innovations such as these that resulted in Dr. Vergel de Dios being nominated and receiving the Canadian Association for Medical Education Certificate of Merit. It is a national honour that rewards faculty committed to medical education in Canadian medical schools.

Like Geisel decades before them, educators at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry are taking risks, receiving mentorship, getting creative and thinking about the needs of their students as they innovate new approaches to learning.