What really drives learning?

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Lessons from the famously self-taught.

Holidays are a great time to catch up on reading.  My own preferences are history and biographies.  This past couple of weeks, I’ve found it rather humbling to learn that some of the most influential thinkers and shapers of our society were essentially self-taught.  In fact, they seemed in some cases to thrive despite the benefits of traditional education or academic success.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) led a peripatetic life, meandering through a variety of career interests, excelling in all.  He’s perhaps best remembered as, arguably, the most important and essential influence on the Continental Congress that would draft and ratify the American Declaration of Independence.  Along the way, he was a writer/journalist/publisher/politician/diplomat and, in his spare time, a scientist of considerable renown, receiving honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale, and becoming the first person living outside Britain to receive the prestigious Copley Medal from London’s Royal Society.  Remarkably, all this was accomplished without the benefit of college or university level education.  In his excellent biography of Franklin, author Walter Isaacson describes three key educational components: the formative influence of his father who encouraged conversation and debate in the home, Franklin’s insatiable curiosity that spanned a huge variety of topics, and his access to books.  “Indeed”, Isaacson writes, “books were the most formative influence in his life, and he was fortunate to grow up in Boston, where libraries had been carefully nurtured”.  Despite this abundance, Franklin was required to actively seek out these books, generally housed in private libraries.  His apprenticeship in his brother’s print shop provided him opportunities to “sneak books from the apprentices who worked for the booksellers, as long as he returned the volumes clean”.

The facts regarding the education of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) are almost lost in the mythology that’s developed regarding his early life.  In Team of Rivals, author Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the challenges faced by the impoverished Lincoln as a “Herculean feat of self-creation”.  “Books”, she writes, “became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past”.  He also treasured conversation and stories he shared with interesting, informed people, and would analyze and reconstruct arguments afterward. He also undertook “solitary researches” in the study of geometry, astronomy, political economy, and philosophy.  “Life was to him a school, and he was always studying and mastering every subject which came upon him.”

Although Albert Einstein (1879-1955) did have the benefit of formal education, attending the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School, he was a mediocre, somewhat embittered student and was unable to secure a teaching position after graduation.  It seems he found formal curriculum far too rigid and stifling.  He eventually undertook relatively menial work at a patent office, which allowed him time alone to read and think.  It was during those years that he developed many of the theories that would revolutionize the field of physics and define his life’s work.  He also developed a social consciousness that, although less publicized than his scientific work, is in many ways equally intriguing.

So should these notable examples, drawn from three separate centuries, diminish our commitment to formal education?  Obviously not.  However, it would also be a disservice to simply dismiss them as prodigious intellects who managed to excel despite more primitive educational systems.  Simply put, it took more than brainpower for them to rise above their circumstances and become pre-eminent learners and, as a result, leaders of their times.  They also shared three essential qualities:

  1. Relentless curiosity and desire to understand.  Although the focus of that drive may have differed, the intensity and commitment were consistent.  They simply could not be deterred from learning.
  2. Willingness to apply themselves to their goal.  We tend to believe that people as gifted as Franklin, Lincoln and Einstein came by their success effortlessly, but this is far from the case.  Franklin was known by his contemporaries to habitually arrive at work earlier than anyone else and to work long into the night.  Lincoln often read or worked through the night, and photographs from the time document dramatically the physical toll.
  3. Commitment to betterment of their communities.  All three were motivated by a desire to improve their societies.  In fact, the energy and commitment that was so evident in their work appears to arise from this altruism rather than any personal self-interest.

It would seem that when these three qualities triangulate in an individual, great things are possible.  However, those possibilities are only realized if their environment provides a few necessary things, including access to information and people with whom they can converse, share and test ideas.

How does all this relate to our work as medical educators?  I think two important lessons emerge.  Firstly, it would seem that any admissions process would benefit by concentrating on means to identify within applicants the three essential attributes listed above.  Any student with these attributes is essentially programmed to succeed and will do so within, or in spite of, any educational system we choose to impose.  Put simply, the appropriately motivated, reasonably capable learner is essentially unstoppable.  Conversely, the absence of these attributes virtually dooms the process from the start, despite our best efforts.  Secondly, these examples would suggest that the learning environment we develop is at least as important as the methods we employ to deliver and assess knowledge.  Providing our learners with direction and opportunities to explore concepts and develop their personal learning skills is critical and, from the perspective of their ongoing career, much more durable than simply requiring them to reproduce pre-determined dollops of factual information.

All this should reassure us that the changes we’ve undertaken over the past few years with our admissions processes, curriculum, information technology, physical space, mentoring programs and educational methodologies are all positive developments, clearly moving in the right direction.  We should also be encouraged to creatively and boldly go further.

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