Saturday, May 14, 2011

William Bradshaw, the Educator

Of the long list of pre-requisites for medical school, Bio 120 was not supposed to be difficult. In fact, it was theoretically the easiest 2 -credit class of them all. But it snapped my DNA in half. And that's because my instructor was William Bradshaw, professor at BYU.

After I got my DNA back together, and looking back with 20/20 vision, I could see that Dr. Bradshaw helped me more than any other educator in the business of teaching, from elementary to medical school. Everything I thought about learning changed after Bio 120.

Dr. Bradshaw was in his last years when I took his course. He had thin white hair, a curvilinear tie from a mildly, portly belly, pressed slacks and thick eyeglasses. He spoke in short sentences with long pauses. He never cracked jokes and never really smiled. The only things I knew about his personal life were that he was a mission president somewhere and was a Red Sox fan. The day after the Red Sox won the World Series, he wore a big red towel with the signature "B," like a cape on his back. That was as spontaneous as I ever saw Dr. Bradshaw.

In our first lecture, we spent the entire period reading an essay about "The Who," and a concert they played at where some fans were trampled to death. All the students, including me, left the class in a BYU funk thinking we signed up for the Cultural Arts 101 instead of Bio 120. The next few lectures were devoted to topics far outside the scope of Biology. But he made us interact with each other. He made us ask and answer hard questions. He made us realize how uncomfortable it is to defend your position if you're not so sure of your position. And he made us want to prepare properly so we would eventually have a position. And that to me was huge.

I felt like I had just spent 14 years in school without ever really learning how to learn. I could memorize and regurgitate, but the content would never stick. This stick-less pattern worked in public education. But it did nothing to prepare me to ask the hard, meaningful questions in life. And it did not inspire me the way Bradshaw did. He got me so excited that after class I would bike furiously home to my roommates so I could chat their ears off about my incredible Bio teacher. I would try and mimic class at home by asking my roomies hard questions to break their DNA too. But breaking anyone's DNA is a hard thing to do when ESPN is the major building block of conversation. So I always got excited for my next Bio lecture. It kind of became a fascination of the abomination for me to see just how little I knew about learning.

I remember one lively discussion in class about the purpose of the Giraffe's neck. Of course, I knew, I had seen the evidence. Those necks were for food high off the ground. But then Bradshaw showed us other evidence. He showed us observations of male giraffes using their necks as battering rams against other males in competition for the female. He showed us that most giraffes ate their greens close to the ground. He turned my giraffe world upside down and shook it up.

But most valuable of all, he showed me to stop, think, evaluate, decide, defend, and respect other's opinions. I knew I wanted to preserve his lessons, both for me and my kids someday. So the other day I called him up at his home in Orem, Utah.

On the phone, I said, "Hi Dr. Bradshaw. I took your Bio 120 course seven years ago. It changed my education, and continues to profit me in every area of my life. Can I ask you some questions about your teaching style?"

He responded, "What's your name?"
"Spencer Hansen, I'm a medical student."
"That's nice, where do you live?
"Tucson, Arizona."
" I'd be happy to answer your questions."

He was, at the moment, convalescing after heart surgery. So we agreed to have me email him the questions. He could then read them and respond out loud for his daughters to type up. I thought it an extraordinary effort for an extraordinary educator. But I got what I wanted. The questions I emailed, followed by Dr. Bradshaw's answers are below.

1) If you were a student beginning a course in any field, what would you define as a “success” upon completion of the course?

To think like professionals in that field. To hear a presentation from a person in the field (a seminar talk, for example), and be able to follow most of the arguments and evaluate their validity.

2) Are there elements of an education that every student should possess upon graduation from college?

a) To be able to write well – clear, concise, complete, and interesting.

b) To be able to evaluate the merits of data and arguments so as to make valid judgments. To draw conclusions based on evidence.

c) To have a general interest in a wide variety of subjects, and maintain an interest in them as an educated adult. Be committed to reading.

d) To be able to engage in a meaningful conversation about important ideas.

3) Does practice, practice, practice make perfect in any field?

Practice makes perfect if one is in a field for which he or she is well suited. There are probably some fields of endeavor for whom each of us lacks the neurological wiring, interest, or commitment to be able to succeed.

4) When were you happiest as a student? Explain if you wish.

The day I left a biology classroom session having learned the principle that cells of an embryo are genetically equivalent, but cellular differentiation is due to selective gene expression.

5) When were you most frustrated as a student?

Poor performance on exams when I thought I had prepared well. Recognition that I really didn’t know how to study.

6) Can true learning exist without God’s help?

I don’t know, but if we really are God’s children we must have some genetic endowment – with the potential to learn as He does, perhaps independent of Him. One person can’t learn in behalf of someone else. One can’t learn very much without constructing his/her own set of models and frameworks.

7) What advice would you give a high school student to prepare for the academic challenges of college?

Learn how to read and write. Cultivate broad intellectual interests. Don’t take AP courses as a means to avoid (pass out of) those subject in college. Be prepared for the realization that you’re not as good as you think you are.

8) Are there principles of education that you use in college that you could also use with primary children?

Teachers should provoke people of any age to actively articulate an idea, not just passively accept as true ideas presented by others.

9) What does the ideal learning environment consist of?

It’s not an environment, it’s a process. An active exchange between students and teacher, where following a formative assessment, teachers provide feedback that allows people to identify the holes in their understanding and take the steps to correct them. The experience must be both rigorous and user friendly.

10) How has your wife helped you improve your teaching?

She has helped me in everything because she knows more about me than anyone else. Coming in the room when I was grading exams and saying, “Don’t be so hard on them.” I never paid attention to that.

11) What do students do wrong in their learning?

Study alone. Study silently. Fail to ask questions. Fail to be metacognitive – to think about thinking with the intent to do it better.

12) What do they do right?

The opposite of the items in 11 above.

13) Should every high school graduate aspire for college today? If not, for what reasons might they pursue a different course?

No. Lack of sufficient interest in higher education; unwillingness to pay the price; sufficient interest and aptitude in earning a living in a field that requires some other preparation than college.

14) What do you do to keep learning every day?

Read the newspaper. Read books. Listen to NPR. Associate with informed friends and associates.

If you want to hear a great lecture from the man, go to:
He discusses the causes of homosexuality.

1 comment:

NanaH said...

Spencer, reading your blog is like a breath of fresh air. I may not be able to write, but I sure can appreciate good writing.