The Crisis is the Curriculum. Education in the Midst of COVID-19

When I was a young father fretting about whether I was doing all I could to advise and guide my children, a very wise man provided some sage advice. “If there’s one thing I know about young kids, it’s that they don’t listen to much of what you say, but they watch everything you do.” His point was that we teach through example. Our behaviour, the decisions we make and the principles that we rely upon to guide those decisions are what really matter. They are what impress and persist in the memory of learners.  

That advice has withstood the test of time and, I’ve found, extended beyond parenthood to influence my perspectives on medical education. As factual information becomes more widely and easily accessible, medical students have less and less need for didactic teaching, but more and more need to understand how to manage that information and, importantly, how to “live the life” of a practicing physician. How decisions are made. How uncertainty is engaged. How stress and fatigue are managed. They’re watching, and they’re very astute observers.

All this has never been truer than during the current COVID-19 crisis.

The roles and routines of our students have been altered dramatically. In a short period of time, the first and second years have shifted from a curriculum featuring predominantly whole-class presentations, small group learning and regular clinical skills sessions with standardized and volunteer patients, to a remotely delivered curriculum that they’re accessing individually from their homes scattered across the country. Clinical Skills is being “parked”, to be made up when circumstances allow, in a manner not yet determined.

Our final year students have, fortunately, completed their clinical rotations and are also utilizing remote access to complete their curricular requirements. They are on schedule to graduate and enter their residencies July 1, but are facing adjustment and disappointment, with the cancellation of Convocation ceremonies, delay of the MCC Part 1 examination to some future date, no doubt after they start residency, and the uncertainty of what sort of hospital environment they will be engaging.

Perhaps the greatest impact has been on our third year class. About three weeks ago, we had to make the very difficult decision to suspend their clinical placements. This was not because of a lack of perceived value, but because the simple logistics of maintaining safe and educationally viable experiences in the face of the stresses currently being faced by our hospitals and faculty became insurmountable. For them, we are developing a completely original on-line, remotely delivered curriculum intended to provide learning that would normally have been undertaken in conjunction with their clinical placements. By doing so, we hope to be in a better position to complete their training within whatever time remains when clinical placements are eventually resumed.

How has all this been possible? Two simple answers: people and technology.

Our curricular leadership has taken on this unprecedented challenge with great creativity and tenacious dedication. Our newly appointed Assistant Dean Curriculum, Dr. Michelle Gibson, as well as Year Directors Drs. Lindsey Patterson, Andrea Guerin, Heather Murray, Susan Moffatt and Andrea Winthrop have all stepped up despite their own individual obligations at this time to develop and manage this transformation. Assistant Deans Hugh MacDonald (Admissions), Renee Fitzpatrick (Student Affairs) and Cherie Jones (Academic Affairs and Accreditation) have all overseen adjustments in their respective portfolios.

Our administrative staff has managed all this with dedication, a cooperative spirit and good humour. Although working remotely in compliance with university directives, they have managed to maintain excellent working relationships and communication.

All this has largely been made possible through technologic advancements that have been under steady development for the past few years. Zoom technology, in particular, is what makes remote educational delivery possible. Our faculty has engaged this with remarkable alacrity, even the technology-challenged (myself, for example). This past week, I was able to hold a virtual Town Hall with 76 members of the fourth year class, in which I was able to both update them about key issues and hear from them on a variety of topics.

It also makes it possible for our administrative staff to “get together” for daily meetings to ensure the curriculum is being delivered effectively, and all administrative aspects of the program are attended to.

Curricular Coordinators Tara Hartman, Tara Callaghan, Jane Gordon, Vanessa Thomas, Assessment Coordinator Amanda Consack, Educational Developers Theresa Suart, Eleni Katsoulas, Student Affairs Coordinator Erin Meyer, Standardized Patient Manager Eveline Semeniuk, Admissions Team Rachel Bauder and Kristin Baker, Facility Manager Jennifer Saunders, Student Support Assistants Dana Halliday and Jessica Griscti and UG Program Manager Jacqueline Findlay are all managing their areas of responsibility with great skill at this most difficult time. 

What makes the technology possible is the remarkable skill and dedication of our IT support staff, headed by Peter MacNeil.

All this is certainly impressive and worthy of recognition but, it must be recognized, it is far too early to celebrate or claim any victory. This crisis is far from over. In the weeks and months ahead, there will no doubt be new, vexing challenges that come our way. It is nonetheless appropriate to pause and recognize the efforts being made by so many, and to take comfort in the knowledge that we have the capacity and dedication to engage change.  

It’s also appropriate to consider some early lessons that are emerging.

Education continues. Even if there were no formal structures or sessions in place, our students are witnessing a unique event. Their training to date allows them insights they otherwise wouldn’t have. In essence, the crisis itself is the curriculum. They are observing and learning. Much of that learning will relate to how the medical community is engaging the crisis, both collectively and individually. As I was told so many years ago, it’s not what we say but what we do that will persist.

We’re adaptable. Problems that seemed insolvable a short time ago are being solved. Impenetrable barriers are being easily breached. We’re learning to do things we didn’t have either the motivation or inclination to learn previously. And it’s working.

Communication is critical. The need to communicate efficiently and clearly has never been more apparent, or critical. Technology has allowed this to happen and, thankfully, was available when needed.

Opportunities are emerging. Circumstances are causing us to engage issues that have previously been ignored because the solutions seemed too disruptive and risky. We’re now forced to take on those issues by necessity and are beginning, in some cases, to find that those misgivings were preventing us from engaging valuable alternatives. Case in point, the role and electives in medical education will require a re-thinking and re-imagining that’s been long overdue.

And, most importantly…

Medical Students belong in the clinical workplace. All the efforts to maintain formal education remotely are certainly of great value and allow us to ensure our students are progressing in their basic learning, but it does not substitute for active engagement in the workplace. Students themselves, all across the country are coming forward to provide what service they can. They are providing home support for busy clinicians. They are manning phone lines for Public Health. They are collecting valuable equipment for use in hospitals. They’re donating blood to address current shortages. Over and above all this altruistic volunteerism, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are many very useful roles they can play within the clinical workplace. Every medical school in the country is working tirelessly to determine when they can re-enter safely and in a supportive learning environment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem imminent at the time of this writing.

Finally, it must be recognized that the students of today will be the leaders and front-line providers of whatever health care crises face our society in the future. We must not deny them the learning that this crisis provides. By “watching everything we do” and through active involvement, they will emerge better prepared to engage the challenges the future.

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COVID-19: Advice from previous crisis management experience

By Brent D Wolfrom MD CCFP

The following was distributed to the physicians in the Queen’s Department of Family Medicine earlier this week and has since found its way to a broader audience. Please feel free to distribute it you think it will be helpful. The context is based on my experiences as a Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, in particular lessons learned during a couple of tours to Afghanistan:

As we head into this pandemic I thought I would share a few thoughts based on my past experiences with crisis planning and management in prolonged stressful environments involving complex systems and little control. These are completely subjective lessons that helped me cope in prolonged stressful experiences and they may not relate to you. That said, I would have really valued receiving a variant of this email 12-13 years ago.

  1. This event is unlike anything we have lived through before and we all expect it to be drawn out, especially if social distancing does what we hope it will. It is likely that at some point we will all transition from an acute to chronic crisis mentality. This can be a difficult transition because it can feel like defeat. It’s not. It’s us getting better at beating COVID-19.
  2. Plan now for wellness and stick to your plan rigidly, however, also set expectations at a realistic level.
  3. Find supports who will talk about non-COVID, or ideally non-medical, related topics and stay in touch daily, even if just by text or email.
  4. There will be long and dark days ahead and people will all cope differently. A small word of encouragement or appreciation from a colleague will make all the difference.
  5. Support each other. If you have the time or capacity to help someone just do it.
  6. Communication. Communicate with those who need the information and minimize with those who don’t. Be deliberate about your email distributions and who you include on the To vs CC lines. Information overload is going to happen and we need to be deliberate about protecting each other.
  7. Brushup/readup now on the skills you consider outside, but proximal to, your normal scope. We don’t know where we will be needed in the coming weeks.
  8. Remind yourself daily that you are trained to deal with this situation, even if that means lying to yourself a little bit.
  9. Grief doesn’t equal failure. Bad outcomes don’t equal failure. Say those two phrases daily.
  10. There will be many changes and constraints over the coming weeks-months. Sports, clubs, social events, etc that used to recharge you will not be available. Try to find a replacement for each joyful activity you lose.

As a discipline we have just come out of a few recent years of public assaults, difficulty and infighting. Now we are the face of our nation’s defense against this threat. How times change quickly!

Watching our department, and specifically the physician group, come together over this pending crisis has been so encouraging. I truly believe we have a fantastic group and we have a great team supporting us. We will be even stronger and better at the end of all of this.

Dr. Wolfrom is a family physician, former Course Director for our Year 1 Family Medicine course, and currently Postgraduate Program Director for family medicine at Queen’s University. He was previously a full time Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

A version of this post was shared earlier on the CMAJ blog.

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“If I can help somebody”. Two voices challenging our concept of diversity.

You can’t be in a hurry listening to a Mahalia Jackson song. Her voice captures your attention like a moth to a flame. She extends each lyric and note, drawing you irresistibly into the heart of the song. You have to wait for her. You want to wait. You can’t not wait.

Her voice is like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. A refuge from the busy and hectic world, a place where haste is no longer a virtue and we’re reminded of the value of slow, deliberate contemplation and search for deeper meaning in what’s transpiring around us.

One of her songs, in particular, came to mind as I recently read an article about a young man named Logan Boulet. Logan was born in Lethbridge Alberta in 1997, the second child of two teachers who decided to name him for the highest mountain in Canada. He was an active child with many, constantly evolving interests. He loved hockey and more than made up for average size and natural talent with dedication, intensity and commitment to his team. His work ethic bordered on the obsessive. He eventually came to play for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Logan was one of 16 people killed April 6, 2018 when their team bus was struck by a loaded tractor trailer that failed to stop at a highway intersection near Armley, Saskatchewan. His father, who was driving 15 minutes behind the bus, was one of the first on the scene.

Four weeks earlier, Logan had signed his organ donor card. He did so in honour of a former trainer who had died at 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage and been an organ donor. Logan’s heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas and corneas have all been successfully transplanted.

When asked a few weeks before by his father why he decided to sign the card, Logan replied:

“If I can help save six people, I’m gonna to do it”

When I read the article, his words stuck with me. In fact, I couldn’t shake it. I’d heard those words before. Turned out it was a Mahalia Jackson song entitled “If I can Help Somebody”.

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Hard to imagine any two human beings whose life experiences were more different. Mahalia Jackson, two generations removed from former slaves, was born in New Orleans in 1911 and lived her childhood in a three room dwelling with 12 other people, including her mother, aunts, siblings and cousins, and the family dog. She was afflicted with congenital genu varum (bowed legs) which would have caused pain and physical limitations but didn’t stop her from dancing for the white ladies for whom her mother and aunt cleaned house. Her childhood was difficult, particularly after her mother died when she was five.  There was no schooling, but there was church and, with it, singing. And how she loved to sing. She was courted by choirs and choirmasters particularly after she moved to Chicago at age 20. She went on to become one of the most celebrated gospel singers of all time, the first to sing at Carnegie Hall and at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. In 1963,  she sang before 250,000 people assembled to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Five  years later, she would sing at his funeral. She was  an important force in the civil rights movement, but also the subject of racial prejudice and herself the target of assassination attempts. Despite all this, she remained hopeful and never embittered. When asked about her choice of gospel music over more popular forms, she said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope”.  She is also quoted as saying that she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”.

The particular song that came to mind when I read about Logan goes as follows:    

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he’s travelling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Two very different people. Different races, genders, generations, talents, interests, culture, environment. Poster children for our concept of “diversity”. It’s hard to imagine they would ever have had occasion to encounter  each other, even if they weren’t so separated by space and time. And yet, they were linked by a common value and simple, human interest in doing what they could to help people around them. Linked in their values. Linked in their humanity. And so, perhaps not so diverse after all.

Here’s a link to that song. Give it a listen, but don’t be in a hurry.

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Ensuring learners get the point: wrapping up case-based sessions effectively

We often spend a lot of time planning classes, especially case-based small group learning (SGL) sessions. We tailor our sessional learning objectives to the course objectives that have been assigned, selected solid preparatory materials, build great cases and craft meaningful questions for groups to work through.

This makes sense, as the small group learning (SGL) format used in Queen’s UGME program is modeled on Larry Michaelsen’s team-based learning (TBL) instructional strategy that uses the majority of in-class time for decision-based application assignments done in teams.

One comment we often read on course evaluation forms and hear directly from students, however, is that sometimes learners walk away from an SGL session and still aren’t sure what’s important.

Much of the focus in the literature on TBL is on the doing – setting things up, building great cases, asking good questions to foster active learning. There’s not as much written about how to finish well.

Wrapping up your SGL session should be as much a planned part of your teaching as preparing the cases themselves. If you build the time into your teaching plan, you won’t feel like you’re shouting to learners’ backs as they exit the classroom, or cut off as the next instructor arrives. Nor will you find yourself promising to post the “answers” to the cases on Elentra. Sometimes it’s not the answers that are important, but the steps students take to get there.

Wallace, Walker, Braseby and Sweet remind us that the flipped classroom we use for SGL (preparation before class, application in class) is one “where students adopt the role of cognitive apprentice to practice thinking like an expert within the field by applying their knowledge and skills to increasingly challenging problems.” One such challenge is figuring out what the key take-away points are from an SGL session. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to plan your session summary, but then have students take the lead since “the expert’s presence is crucial to intervene at the appropriate times, to resolve misconceptions, or to lead the apprentices through the confusion when they get stuck.”[1]

So, have your own summary slide ready – related to your session objectives – but keep it in reserve. In keeping with the active-learning focus of SGL, save the last 10 minutes of class to have the groups generate the key take-away points, share them, and fill in any gaps from your own list.

Here’s a suggested format:

  1. Prompt the groups to generate their own study list: “Now that we’ve worked through these three cases, what are the four key take away points you have about this type of presentation?”
  2. Give the groups 3-4 minutes to generate their own lists
  3. To debrief the large group, do a round of up four or five groups each adding one item to a study list.
  4. Share your own list – and how it relates to the points the student raised. This is a time to fill in any gaps and clarify what level of application you’ll be using on assessments.
  5. If you’d like, preview an exam question (real or mock): “After these cases, and considering these take-away points, I expect that you could answer an exam question like this one.” This can make the level of application you’re expecting very concrete.

Why take the time to wrap up a session this way? Students often ask (in various ways) what the point is of a session. With clear objectives and good cases, they should also develop the skills to draw those connections themselves. This takes scaffolding from the instructor. As Maryellen Weimer, PhD, writes in Faculty Focus, “Weaning students from their dependence on teachers is a developmental process. Rather than making them do it all on their own, teachers can do some of the work, provide part of the answer, or start with one example and ask them for others. The balance of who’s doing the work gradually shifts, and that gives students a chance to figure out what the teacher is doing and why.”


If you would like assistance preparing any part of your SGL teaching, please get in touch. You can reach me at theresa.suart@queensu.ca


[1] Wallace, M. L., Walker, J. D., Braseby, A. M., & Sweet, M. S. (2014). “Now, what happens during class?” Using team-based learning to optimize the role of expertise within the flipped classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 253-273.

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