On teaching a panda Kung Fu (or the dilemma of a medical education)

How do you learn to teach? How do you teach to learn?

As a coach and as a future physician, I’m obsessed with the dilemma of teaching others (how do you get people to truly know something rather than just remember?) and learning from others I’ve been on a long journey looking for a coach or master who can teach me the things I want to learn. And of course, they are essentially the same thing: each act of teaching contains an moment of learning, and every inspired teacher must also be a student. A high-five needs two hands, and so learning and teaching requires two minds.

I’ve come to these conclusions after watching the Kung Fu Panda trilogy (KFP from here on out) more than a dozen times in the past month that’s at least eighty hours of panda-based Kung Fu. I roll KFP in the background while I view lectures on a second screen or run through flashcards. As I have just about memorized the entire trilogy, it serves as an excellent buffer for my attention; I can gently zone in and out of a lecture rather than check my phone and scroll through facebook, losing momentum entirely.

During an initial watch, you follow Po the panda and his journey into Kung Fu mastery. He’s lovable, affable, and immediately relatable. On a second run-through, you might latch onto the story of Shifu, his diminutive master, who carries a lovely story arc throughout the trilogy from arrogant teacher to humble student. Now, upon the nth viewing, I follow Oogway, the wise/crazy old turtle who served as Shifu’s master for many years, and Mr. Ping, Po’s adoptive goose father these are characters who remain stable throughout the trilogy, anchoring Po and Shifu as they meander through the journey from novice to teacher and master to student, respectively.

Even with repeated viewings, I tear up at a few specific sequences. The relationship between Po and his father, the noodle-loving goose, reminds me of my own father. There is a moment in KFP2 when Po and the Furious Five are leaving the valley to battle Shen, the maniacal peacock bent on conquering all of China, and his father worries deeply about his adopted son’s safety.

Tigress comforts him before they walk away, saying, “He’ll be back before you can say noodles.”

The shot shifts over to the father, slowly panning out, as he watches his son venture off into a dangerous unknown, without the promise of his safe return. His shoulders slump, and you hear him quietly whisper to himself, “… noodles.”

As a future physician, the question of learning and teaching is especially bothersome in my first year of medical school. The curriculum is designed to pack as much knowledge as possible into as short a time allowed commonly called drinking water from a fire hose. But this aspect of learning, and this facet of teaching, is the most superficial layer possible: rote memorization and basic clinical reasoning. The selecting factors for medical school admissions enforce and enhance this drive toward an algorithmic physician.

How does this prepare us for the third and fourth years, when we are rotating through our internships and facing the realities of the clinic? No lecture can tell us how to break the news to a young father that he has terminal cancer. Or how to console an expectant mother after a late-term miscarriage. No MS1 is studying for the moment when they must tell a child that their parents have both passed away in a car accident.

To be fair, these are moments that must be learned in the truest sense experienced. The teachers are the patients, who grieve and mourn loss. But, there are ways to facilitate that teaching, to ensure that a training physician can go through the fire, be tempered by the crucible, and emerge stronger, rather than broken by the emotional toll. We are told to spend our days studying, and recovering from studying, but what about preparing for the true tests of our future career? The ones that will leave us sobbing in the parking lot?

My podcast and these reflections are an attempt to put myself in that mindspace, to grow enough so that I can learn as much as possible when we are thrust into the clinic. I have not yet found my Oogway, a master that can gently guide me onto the path and provide encouragement when my spirits are low. At the very least, I can help clear a trail for anyone else squirrely enough to follow.

For an additional meditation on the subtle nuances of the Kung Fu Panda series, please check out this lovely post by Eric Weinstein in which he describes how Po goes from fat slob to Kung Fu master, and the great difficulty of teaching a self-directed learner.



6 thoughts on “On teaching a panda Kung Fu (or the dilemma of a medical education)

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