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If you know anything about Jedi training, you know that it should start with a youngling and it ends whenever the Jedi has achieved competency in the view of the Jedi Council. Breaking either of these rules leads to trouble. Young Anakin Skywalker in Episode 1 of Star Wars was deemed too old by the Jedi Council to be trained, even though he was still a little boy and had obvious potential. He received imperfect training from Obi Wan Kenobi that caused enough problems to fill the next several Star Wars movies (and lead to the murder of all but two remaining Jedi). Luke Skywalker didn’t complete his training in the view of Yoda, leaving prematurely, and being ultimately unsuccessful. Yes, he was unsuccessful. It was Darth Vader who saved everything in the end. Luke got lucky; and while we don’t know for sure yet, it seems that his imperfect training resulted in Kylo Ren going to the Dark Side as well.

So what’s the point? These two principles of Jedi training are relevant to teaching adult learners (such as medical students or residents) today in a land very, very close.

  • First, there is a difference between the way a child (or youngling) learns and the way an adult learns. The Jedi Council was never good at teaching adults, but we must be if we want to train competent future physicians. Understanding the pitfalls and strengths of adult learners versus younglings is important both for the teacher and the student.
  • Second, how long and in what way we teach an adult learner to be competent at a particular task or skill-set varies widely, much more so than it does with children. Assessing individual needs and abilities of adult learners and tailoring the lessons and curriculum to those needs and abilities is paramount for the most successful transfer of knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

Consider for a moment the difference in learning a foreign language as a child versus as an adult. Young children learn another language seemingly with ease and without limit; whereas adults struggle for years to barely achieve even a modest degree of fluency. What’s the difference? Certainly there is a difference in the plasticity of younger versus older brains; but this classic view only partly explains the distinction. A young person who learns a new language (or even her first language) undergoes a process of experimentation and correction. Mistakes lead to correction; sometimes, a child makes the same mistake hundreds or even thousands of times, each time receiving correction or nudging back to the right course. In the context of languages, this may come from a parent, a sibling, a teacher, an overheard conversation, or even the television. Sometimes the correction is stern and sometimes it’s passive. Yet, in spite of being “corrected” hundreds or even thousands of times, the child continues on, undeterred, never doubting in her ability to eventually get it right. The child is not embarrassed by failure, even repetitive failure. The child is not humiliated in front of peers by the struggle of learning something new. In fact, quite the opposite happens. Children embrace learning and embrace the challenge of what they do not know, always seeking to improve and grow and get better.

Eventually, however, this all changes. Adults are very much the opposite of children in this regard. Adults have been taught to fear failure. Adult learners fear being embarrassed in front of their peers for their ignorance or failings. Adults are taught to “fake it until they make it,” to act competent when they are not, to protect their egos at all costs. Adults are punished for failing. They judge themselves by comparing themselves to their peer groups and they build up a facade of competence that masks their incompetence and lack of self-confidence. They learn to shun anything that attacks this facade, which often means shutting themselves off from healthy criticism that might propel them to be better (of course, they do so because most criticism they have received in life is not geared towards making them better but geared towards making a bad teacher feel power over them; compare Yoda’s style of teaching to Darth Sidious’s).

Because adult learners hide their failures, teachers are often unaware of their learners’ deficiencies; this means that even good teachers are often not able to tailor the lesson to the individual learner because the individual learner is embarrassed to admit what he doesn’t know. Sometimes worse, adult learners have spent years learning the wrong information or developing bad habits that must be unlearned before mastery can be achieved.

Young children, fortunately, don’t have this problem. The egos of adult learners are too fragile, in most cases, to admit that what they have previously learned or how they have done something in the past might be wrong and needs to be unlearned and changed. These are all road-blocks to education that adults have that children do not: the fear of failure, the humiliation of admitting what they do not know, the comparison of oneself to others, the fear of being unmasked as incompetent, poor self-esteem, and a lack of confidence are all stumbling-blocks to success. Many adult learners, too, are not interested in mastery or competence; rather they are interested in passing the next test to get to the next milestone in life. Success, for them, is measured in degrees not mastery, attainment not ability; but younglings want the opposite.

So, what does Master Yoda tell us about education:

Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.

Adult learners need to be encouraged to think more like a child in their approach to learning. Successful students learn for the sake of knowledge. Failure is embraced as an opportunity to assess deficiencies and continue to improve; etc. Teachers need to create a non-threatening atmosphere that allows this type of mental exploration and questioning instead of one that seeks to motivate students by embarrassment and shaming.

Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

Success in any endeavor rarely comes to someone who is afraid of losing. Reframe failure and loss for the learner as opportunities to grow and improve. Challenges sharpen us and should not be avoided. Share with students stories of your own failures to let them know that it is okay to struggle and fail as long as the lesson is learned.

You must unlearn what you have learned.

There is a certain amount of sunken costs associated with what we have already learned. Imagine spending years learning how to type but finding that your style of typing is holding you back from being able to type more quickly or more accurately. Unlearning years of bad habits is nearly impossible for many, especially when the habit or skill has been mostly associated with success. Yet, this is the difference between mediocrity and mastery. The learner must be willing to challenge his preconceptions and abandon many skills and attitudes that have served him well, but perhaps not served him best.

Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view.

Adult learners are full of bias from a lifetime of experiences. We are often taught and culturally believe that experience is a benefit, and in some cases it is; but more often, experience is a detriment. It is experience that frames our cognitive biases and alters the way we learn and the way we interpret information. It is experience that is the foundation and bedrock for “anecdotal” medicine that stands in the way of science-based, evidence-based medicine. Remember that Hippocrates said that our experience was perilous. Actively employing metacognition and de-biasing tools is essential to both learning and teaching, and to practicing medicine. In the same vein, Yoda told Obi-Wan:

Do not assume anything Obi-Wan. Clear your mind must be…

Adult learners often lack the confidence or self-esteem to apply what they have learned. Good teachers know how to engage students and draw them out. Good teachers also know how to make students feel successful in applying what they know or what they are learning. Yoda said,

Already know you that which you need.

Yoda obviously had a lot to teach his adult learners, but he also recognized that as important as teaching them was giving them the confidence to utilize what they already know. Learners need to feel a pattern of success and they need to believe that they can achieve mastery if they work hard and continue learning. A good teacher believes that all of his students are capable of surpassing him and that all are capable of achieving competence. Some will do so faster than others.

Unfortunately, medical education tends to be a display of egos; teachers are often over-confident attendings or senior residents who want to demonstrate their knowledge or abilities to the learners and make themselves feel superior to them. With these displays (think “pimp” questions) enters in the destructive processes of humiliation and embarrassment that have conditioned adult learners to fail. Surely, this type of attitude by the teacher will lead only to the Dark Side.

Finally, Master Yoda told his Padawan:

Always pass on what you have learned.

True mastery is not complete unless the learner becomes the teacher. Repeating what someone else has taught you is not mastery and it is not teaching; teaching involves assessing the strengths and deficiencies of the individual learner, then tailoring an educational program that helps them gain competence. Teaching involves creating a supportive environment for the learner where experimentation is not derided and failure is not personal but is a process. Good teaching involves being supportive, but not to the point of undue praise; rather, good teaching constantly challenges the learner to do more, to learn more. The learner, like the child, must become self-motivated to succeed if she is to maintain mastery.