Teaching the tough lessons of open-mindedness
Each year, Scott North teaches a four-week block on oncology. The course introduces medical students to the general principles of cancer: how to diagnose it, what symptoms to watch for and some ideas on how to come up with a treatment strategy for their patients.
Instead of giving students experience with just paper-based cases, North, an associate professor of medical oncology, brings in an alternative-medicine practitioner or a patient who is using alternative therapies. In one instance, a patient dying of cancer came in with his wife to talk to the students about their grieving process. Actors also visit the class to act out different scenarios as patients who have varying types of cancer-like symptoms. In one exercise, North has the students practise what it’s like to break to the news to patients that they have terminal cancer.
North says the best part of teaching is the satisfaction he gets when students have that “ah-ha” moment when studying difficult concepts. As a practicing oncologist, he says, “teaching is that foil for the bad days when nothing is going well, and your favourite patient has been told the worst news you could imagine. Teaching gives you that outlet where you can have a lot of fun with the students and empower them with their learning.”
When he meets oncologists who took his course years ago, he is encouraged when they tell him his course is what inspired them to become cancer specialists. When students confess that, initially, they weren’t looking forward to the course, but after felt they could deal with terminally ill cancer patients, North knows he’s making a difference.
“Part of my teaching philosophy I’ve articulated as a tree analogy. If I can provide the students with the branches, they’ll put all the leaves on. And leaves are transient. The details will come and go and change, but if you teach people frameworks, then they can continually update the tree so the it will self-renew.”
For his inspirational ability to teach future medical professionals the difficult lesson of how to deal with the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, North was awarded a prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship in early March. Billy Strean, a professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, joined North in winning a 3M National Teaching Fellowship, Canada’s highest award for undergraduate university teaching excellence. The U of A leads the country with 34 professors who have received the award.