UB Pediatrician Uses the Movies to Teach Other Physicians How to Teach

By Lois Baker

Release Date: April 13, 1992

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The scene is from the movie "Footloose." Rock and roll blares from a tape deck parked on the hood of a car while actor Kevin Bacon demonstrates all the right moves for his rhythm-impaired friend Christopher Penn so that he won't be humiliated at a high school dance. You might watch this film at home on a slow night.

Richard Sarkin, M.D., on the other hand, uses the movie clip with its dance lesson to teach physicians how to teach.

Sarkin, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics in the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, had a burning desire when he graduated from New York Medical College in 1977, and it had nothing to do, directly, with healing the sick.

"I really disliked medical school, because so much was poorly taught," said Sarkin, who was a science teacher in elementary and middle school before entering medical school. "I thought one of the contributions I could make to the medical profession was to help improve the teaching."

When he was appointed director of pediatric medical student education at the University at Buffalo's medical school, Sarkin saw his opportunity.

Working with Joseph Roetter, a curriculum specialist in the Buffalo Public Schools, he fashioned the Teaching Effectiveness Program for physicians in 1987.

He introduced it to the UB pediatrics residents and faculty, and, as word spread, the team soon was being invited to demonstrate the program at regional pediatrics meetings. Over the next four years, the two educators presented the program, by invitation, at more than 25 professional medical gatherings, including the Ninth International Congress of Pediatrics in Paris in 1989.

Their work has been nominated for two national teaching awards. Participants rate it very highly. Sarkin himself has been named the outstanding teacher on the UB pediatrics faculty for two years running.

The Sarkin-Roetter approach is unorthodox and highly original. A devoted movie fan, Sarkin figured that showing scenes of people teaching from movies would command his audience's attention and induce participants to focus on teaching as a skill that requires special talents.

Finding the right scenes for this specialized audience proved to be a problem.

"We had such a hard time finding good medical scenarios," Sarkin said, "and when we did, we discovered that physicians couldn't step out of their physician's mode. They seemed to be

consumed by whether the content was right, and we wanted them to focus on the teaching process. So instead, we showed them dancing, or we showed them how to play golf."

Sarkin also often uses a scene from "The Karate Kid" that features an elderly Japanese man introducing his young neighbor to bonsai, the oriental art of cultivating miniature trees. "It forces them to look at the process," Sarkin stated, " and reflect on it."

The approach is unusual, but it works.

"It pushes the right buttons," he stated. "The response has been very dramatic."

The program was designed as an introduction to teaching for resident physicians -- recent medical school graduates who are training for their specialties. Teaching medical students is one of their responsibilities, a job for which -- as recent students themselves -- they are ill-equipped to perform, Sarkin said.

"Medical students are very passive learners. They are used to being in a lecture hall having someone tell them what they should know. So for most residents, the transition from being a learner to being a teacher is difficult.

"By asking them questions like 'Who was your best teacher,' and 'What are the characteristics of a good teacher?'," Sarkin continued, "we get them to use their experiences as learners to create their own style."

The other large group of medical school teachers are physician specialists, who have little or no training in teaching, Sarkin said.

"Physicians think that because they're experts, they're automatically good teachers," he observed. "In fact, many are actually lousy teachers."

All residents currently associated with the UB hospital consortium, as well as all UB pediatrics department faculty, have participated in the Teaching Effectiveness Program. Sarkin has also presented it at UB summer development programs for new faculty from various disciplines.

Sarkin and Roetter will be in New York City next, conducting a workshop at the spring meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. They are also preparing a description of the program for publication in a professional journal.

"The program has really caught on," Sarkin said. "The response has been terrific."