October 24, 2012

Mission-focused Learning

I was seeing patients at Loma Linda University’s Social Action Community Health System clinic in east San Bernardino. I was due back on the main university campus in half an hour to chair a committee, so I was hurrying. An old clinic trick is to pick thin charts when you have a choice, because the health issues with these patients are usually less complicated and therefore the visit is shorter.

I picked the thinnest chart and headed down to room number 7. The medical assistant had simply written “rash,” so I figured it was probably allergic dermatitis, eczema, or a fungus infection—any of which should be easy to treat. When I entered the room, Maria was sitting in the corner looking apprehensive. I quickly shifted to my medical Spanish, greeted her, and asked where the rash was. She slowly extended both hands. I looked carefully, couldn’t see anything obvious, took out my glasses, and looked again. Still no luck, so I asked her to move out into the middle of the room where the light was better. Still nothing.

I grudgingly did what my instincts had taught me through the years—take a deep breath and slow down, because something more was going on here. Then the story began to emerge.

Maria had gone to a low-cost clinic three years before and had been diagnosed with diabetes. She was given a one-month supply of free medicine and sent on her way. She soon ran out of the samples, couldn’t afford to go to the clinic again, and now was labeled with a diagnosis that she knew could maim or even kill with no hope of treating it within her means.

Soon after, she found out her husband had a girlfriend and was planning to leave her. Maria was living in a strange country with four teenagers depending on her and no employable skills. As many people do when under stress, she gained 30 pounds, making her diabetes potentially worse. So when she noticed a rash on her hands, which would come and go, she realized she was in deep trouble.

2012 1530 page14Thinking fast, I knew Maria needed companionship and acceptance, along with exercise and weight loss. We had recently started an aerobic exercise program for Hispanic women in another part of the clinic, and I thought that would be an ideal group for her to connect with. So I took her hand and we walked across the parking lot to the exercise class. As we got closer we could hear the music rumble and feel the rhythm of the bodies exercising in the old modular building. When I opened the door to introduce Maria to her new best friends, I realized I had blown it. One look at her face, and I could see the fear and anxiety of trying to connect with anyone enjoying themselves like that, regardless of what language they spoke.

Lessons Learned
I have thought back on that simple encounter many times. What lessons did it teach me? Compassion? Certainly. Justice? Patience? It was what is sometimes called a “teachable moment”—the kind of story you play again and again in your mind; in this case, not just for the compelling human-interest component but for what it meant for me, for her, for the clinic, for the university, and for the world at large.

What is the role of personal experiences like this for a university, or for education in general? It’s more than just clinical training. It’s the stuff of stories, certainly, but can it be counted as true education? Adventist schools at all levels are replete with these opportunities, carried out in various settings and countries, engaged in by many of our students. But do they have value toward our fundamental goal of developing character, of understanding the big issues in society today?

There is a key paradigm shift occurring in higher education today. It is the shift from teaching to learning. Generations of us have been schooled in the art of a teacher providing a room full of students with information they are expected to understand, memorize, and eventually recall. While there was some give and take, it was primarily a one-way avenue of information.

With the information explosion now all around us, this paradigm is fundamentally changing. Educators are being urged to create “learning environments” in which students can explore in their own way, at their own speed, driven by their own desire to learn and understand. To be effective, these learning environments require careful planning and orchestrating. Ultimately they will build the foundation for lifelong learning—an approach to education that becomes a pattern for life. It recognizes the broad spectrum of learning styles that we all have and lets students develop and maximize their own pathway to discovery and understanding.

As schools of all types seek to undergo this paradigm shift from teaching to learning, many issues enter the discussion: What is the fundamental purpose of education? Who is the effective employee, professional, or citizen of the future we are developing? Where are core values taught? What role does spirituality play? Is our educational system producing the kind of graduates who can handle the ethical questions of today? What are those questions? Who actually knows the answers?

It is in this arena that our Adventist educational system has so much to offer. We have recognized from the time of Ellen G. White that at the end of the day, education is primarily about developing character. It’s about shaping fundamental values into a clear foundation that can stand up to the cauldron of issues and conflicts facing us today. It requires a willingness to engage a student’s inner thoughts and questions. It helps each student explore the real issues in life while providing a safe environment for reflection and confirmation.

Experience in India
Some years ago I was with a group of Loma Linda University students working with Mother Teresa’s programs in Calcutta, India. We were staying in an Anglican guesthouse, where the sleeping and eating accommodations were limited, to say the least. Each morning the students would head out to Mother Teresa’s clinics, orphanages, and homes for the dying to spend the day in service.

2012 1530 page14The toughest duty was usually the homes for the dying. Early each morning Mother Teresa’s staff would search the poorer sections of the city and find individuals who were homeless or abandoned on the roadside and usually on the edge of death. They would bring them to one of several buildings where they could be fed, bathed, and cared for, giving them a chance to die in dignity, or occasionally to recover. Connecting emotionally with a stranger in their final few hours of life is a tough assignment for anyone, especially young, idealistic students from another culture.

One afternoon, as I was making my rounds checking on the students, I arrived at one of these homes for the dying as our students were saying goodbye for the day—not knowing whom they would find the next morning. As Kevin, one of our students, indicated he needed to leave, the wizened old man he had been caring for all day gradually bent over and took Kevin’s feet in his hands—a gesture of utmost respect in the Hindu religion. Then slowly he straightened, and he and Kevin clasped their arms around each other, each speaking softly in a language the other could not understand. But the knitting of their human souls was palpable. That parting brought tears to the eyes of us all as we recognized the commonality of all humankind and the fleeting nature of our own existence. 

Defining the Term
At Loma Linda we have coined the term mission-focused learning to describe these educational opportunities. This concept connects a commitment to the learning environment with the recognition of the broader mission of character development. Every Adventist school, from kindergarten to university, should have this commitment and programming at its core.

Confronting Human Need 
The real benefit of engaging with human need, often in an environment different from our own, is the effect it has on those who serve. While students can easily embrace the value of helping others, there is a much more important phenomenon taking place. When confronting human need, each student is led to move beyond the deed itself to confront the person and reasons behind each problem or challenge. It’s this exploration of core issues, such as compassion and justice and equity, that provides the teachable moments in life. When guided by skilled mentors, this is the best kind of education—the kind the world desperately needs today.

It’s in this mode that one can distinguish between mere knowledge and true wisdom—between learning for examination’s sake and for character development. Knowledge can come from many sources, but wisdom comes only from combining knowledge with life experiences that sharpen our understanding and refine our values. It’s what gives proof to the idea that “who you are is more important than what you know.”

This is the heritage of Adventist education—a strategy that is as useful today as when it was first enunciated more than 100 years ago. It has stood the test of time, and needs to be recognized for its eternal value.

We also must embrace the added cost and time that this type of education requires. It can be done only with thoughtful, caring mentors who recognize the need for questioning and reflection, those who can share frustrations with the problems in life while also pointing out the more enduring issues at play. Ultimately, it’s what makes us who we are and guides our decisions throughout life.

What could be more important than developing the characters that will be ours throughout eternity? 

Richard H. Hart is president of Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. This article was published October 25, 2012.