Creative thinking, creative solutions
Margalus’ viewpoint, which is central to his work at DePaul, is that creativity includes finding solutions to difficult problems. That theory, he believes, differs from the narrow boundaries imposed by much of modern education, particularly the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.
“What STEM education encourages is the learning of skills, rather than teaching kids a way of thinking,” said Margalus, who directs DePaul’s Idea Realization Lab, a space for students to work on hands-on projects. “What the K–12 education system, and quite possibly the medical education system, produces as an outcome are people who are able to find answers as long as they are given very rigid context and problems. But when the problems widen, they become paralyzed.”
Margalus looks to create an environment in which his students can engage with the material world and see tangible proof of their progress. One example Margalus cited is working with students on coding, one of the least popular parts of technology education. When his students code, they also build a circuit, so the code they are writing affects something in real life, such as a light switch.
“The idea manifests itself in real life, and they are able to engage with physical materials,” he said. “Thinking abstractly isn’t as powerful as seeing things in real life.”
Mutual engagement feeds learning
Margalus’ resume could make him an intriguing choice for a medical education conference. In addition to his faculty position at DePaul, he has worked as a game developer, hacker and designer. He is also the principal at Spacelab, a technology-centric “maker space” in Chicago’s south suburbs.
“It’s not necessarily important that I have a more technical background. What’s important is that I have different point of view, a different way of thinking about how one ought to approach the creative and iterative process,” Margalus said. “Any profession is creative, if you take it far enough.”
Margalus refers to that discovery process as improvisation and says it is applicable at any level of education.
“In medical education, you learn all these things, just like any other education process, and then you are told to go out in the real world and apply them to real people,” he said. “But what you miss is that you actually have to work with those real people to find the solution to the problem. It’s not just about applying the knowledge that you learn from the books and the things that people teach at you about medicine and medical fields.”
Treating a patient is hardly linear. Each patient brings a unique set of circumstances to the encounter. It’s understanding those circumstances and thinking creatively about them, Margalus believes, that can often lead to a positive outcome.
“When I speak with doctors, what I hear is that to be a truly good doctor, you have to really listen to what your patient is trying to tell you,” he said. “They might not be telling it in the appropriate way, but they are communicating information to you with everything they say. It’s only as useful as your ability to decipher it.”
That ability grows out of the creative process, Margalus said.
“Rather than diagnosing a person outright and imposing some kind of solution on them, a prescription or something, you engage with that person, you learn from them. But you kind of both improvise your way toward an actual solution toward whatever problem they are having.”