Telling students to be compassionate isn’t enough…

I hope that this finds you all well. I wanted to share some thoughts on my visit to Warwick Medical School a few weeks ago. I was invited to go and speak at Warwick Medical School’s Mindfulness Society by Dr Majid Kahn (who was kind enough to write a blog about teaching mindfulness on here a few months ago). In particular Majid had asked me to talk about compassion, its relation to mindfulness and its importance in studying and health care practice.

I started by talking about what I consider to the be the ‘compassion imperative’ in  higher education more broadly and then in health professional education specifically. If, in education, the mind is being taught to the exclusion of the heart, and I know I am not alone in thinking that it is, this is not only a problem for those who choose to study to become a health or social care professional. I therefore wanted to establish the breadth of the issue from the outset.

I then talked about what contemplative pedagogy is. The issue of how we teach health care professionals to become compassionate care givers is an area where I strongly believe (and hope over time to evidence) that contemplative pedagogy can make a very valuable contribution to students learning. I therefore used several contemplative exercises during the evening to provide a glimpse of an alternative way of understanding and getting in touch with compassion that goes beyond conceptual understanding which in isolation risks reducing  compassion to another key performance indicator (these exercises are detailed in the slides below). I also gave a brief  description of the course I have developed here at Essex called ‘Developing as a Compassionate Pracitioner’ to provide a practical example of how contemplative pedgaogy can be applied.

At Majid’s request I also spoke about compassion in the context of studying, particularly in competitive environments such as medical school. I was surprised by how easy it was to draw on my own experience in this regard and how my own contemplative practice and the insight this has provided has led to a much greater ability to connect and work with others without feeling either threatened by their apparent greatness, or superior due to my own imagined brilliance! In preparing for the talk I noticed how our judgement of others and ourselves is a huge block to compassion – not just because we might not ‘be nice’ but because allowing compassion to develop threatens the very hierarchy we construct.

The discussion during the evening was very interesting. One question that has stayed with me was about whether we need all health professionals to be compasionate. The example given was that a surgeon’s career is defined largely by his technical skill and not compassion. But even more importantly – would you choose a surgeon that was compassionate but was less technically skilled or the one who has the best outcomes but was not compassionate? Whilst my immediate reaction is surely we can have both, I think it raises a really important point.

Here is a PDF of the presentation slides, I also hope to have an audio recording of the evening to share in due course. Many thanks to Majid for asking me.

Telling students to be compassionate is not enough…

I am now off on holiday for a week and plan to stay away from my computer as much as possible! I will respond to comments and questions when I get back.

Warm wishes Caroline

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