Video-game developer says med ed should go outside the box

Brendan Murphy
Staff Writer
AMA Wire
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When Jay Margalus, who teaches video-game design at DePaul University, gets in front of his students, he’s not all that long-winded.

“Everybody is familiar with the teacher who thinks they are imparting some sort of wisdom on you, and that you are the receptacle for that wisdom for the hour and a half that you are in their class and that’s it,” said Margalus. “The way that I teach is by providing context for students to learn, then allowing them to learn by embodying that thinking and taking the paths I want them to explore.”

When Margalus addresses a room full of physicians and medical students as a keynote speaker at September’s ChangeMedEd™ 2017 National Conference, the audience will differ. His style will not. Rather than standing beside a screen overpopulated with text, Margalus plans to present images. And instead of a lecture, he hopes to create an experience.

“As part of the way I like to teach, I don’t really put any words on my slides,” he said. “I mostly use objects and pictures to make my points. I find it to be a much more meaningful way of teaching.”

Taking place Sept. 14–16 in Chicago, ChangeMedEd aims to further the work of the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education initiative by bringing together innovators from medical and health professions education, health systems and related fields. David B. Nash, MD, dean of Philadelphia’s Jefferson College of Population Health, also will deliver a keynote address. Registration is open until Aug. 31.

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.”

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