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Episode 12 | Transcript
Storytelling is the Heart of Teaching A&P
Kevin Patton: It turns out that I have Trogocytosis in my brain, and I didn’t even know it. What is Trogocytosis, and what should I do about it? Well stay tuned.
Aileen: Welcome to the A&P Professor, a few minutes to focus on teaching human anatomy and physiology with host, Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton: In this episode I talk about how glial cells prune synapses in the brain. I mention a HAPS workshop I gave recently, and I talk about story telling as a teaching strategy.
My undergraduate students find human anatomy and physiology to be pretty challenging. That seems to crank up a notch when they get to Neuroscience. As a matter of fact, that’s a well-documented effect to this fear, or trepidation about Neuroscience that occurs not just in undergraduates, but even in graduate students, medical students, and probably in us A&P teachers as well.
I love Neuroscience. I’m really fascinated by it, but I’ll admit that I have episodes of this kind of trepidation when I’m wandering into a new area of Neuroscience, or an area that I just don’t much about ahead of time. Yeah, there’s some fear there. I’m not going to understand it, or it will be too overwhelming for me. We can only imagine what our undergraduate students are facing.
When we discuss neurons and other aspects of Neuroscience, I think it’s important for us to choose wisely in what we present to them. When we’re looking at the neurons, which is usually near the beginning of our story, depending on how you tell the story of Neuroscience, we see that there’s some overwhelming things that essential for student understanding.
They need to know what a neuron is. They need to know what the glia are, or neuroglia. They need to know the role of the neuron, and in doing that, they ought to know something about membrane potentials, and how action potentials work and they need to know about synapsis and synaptic transmission, and how Neurotransmitters are involved in that.
Boy, once you start to go down that road, even just the basics, and get pretty overwhelming for a beginning student. Hence, my advice to choose wisely. Well, here’s some information that we probably don’t want to get into in too much detail in a beginning A&P course. That’s up to you, of course. You know your students and your program better than I do.
I think even if you’re not teaching it to the students, this information might be useful to us as A&P instructors to increase our overall understanding, so we can be better teachers of the basics to our students. This is a discovery that was published in Nature Communications recently. It’s an article titled, “Microglia Remodel Synapses by Presynaptic Trogocytosis and Spine Head Filopodia Induction.”
So, what in the world does that mean, and what did they discover? Well, we already had this idea proposed for a long time, and some evidence showing that the way learning and memory works is at synapses, at least partly at synapses. We know that something is happening to change synapses in a way that strengthens memory. For example, when we’re doing learning.
They’re probably multiple mechanisms involved, but what was proposed was that Microglia get in there and do some pruning. As the synapses regrow, then that is going to form these new constructions, these new connections, that the learning and memory constitutes this learning and memory that is induced by the memory-causing processes. This new article says it’s not exactly the way many people thought it was, where the Microglia come in and just start chopping away and gobble everything up. It’s a little more refined than that.
The evidence they present shows that something like Phagocytosis, but a little bit different, called Trogocytosis. Trogocytosis is based on the word part, “Nibble,” or, “Gnaw.” So, the Phagocytosis is based on the word part “Phago,” which means, “To eat, or consume.” It’s like the literal difference between eating something and nibbling on it. You’re not really gobbling the whole thing up when you nibble on something, so Trogocytosis by the Microglia means that they go in and evidence shows what these researchers saw, they only go into the Presynaptic part of the synapse.
That is the little Bouton, or whatever structure there is reaching out from the Presynaptic neuron toward the Postsynaptic neuron to form that synapse. So, it gobbles up just that Presynaptic part of the little connection, and then they found something interesting and that is that when the Microglia made contact with the Postsynaptic side, they’re not nibbling there, but they are somehow inducing that spine that’s there on the Postsynaptic side to reach out to form Filopodia, these little feet-like filaments that reach out and they presumably are making a new connection with that Presynaptic cell.
So, the Microglia come in, they destroy the Presynaptic side of the connection, and induce the Postsynaptic side to reconnect. At least that’s what I’m getting out of what I’m reading here in this article. I’ll put a link to that article from Nature Communications, along with other interpretive articles to go along with it.
You can read through it and see for yourself and incorporate that into your own understanding of how synapses work, and how they can be altered by the glial cells, the Microglia specifically, and hopefully that will better inform what you are teaching your undergraduate A&P students in your A&P class.
I recently had the opportunity to present a workshop at the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society’s, HAPS, regional conference in St. Louis. This workshop centered around the things that I have tried and found to work in enhancing long-term learning, which is the topic that we had visited several times already in previous episodes of this podcast.
I recorded a version of that workshop for those that couldn’t be part of our regional conference. I posted that at TheAPProfessor.org. The specific URL is there in the show notes for this episode. If you follow that link and go to the page, you can view the seminar in an outline format, but there are also many links that link you back to resources that address the various topics that are covered in that workshop. You might also want to explore some of the other online seminars or workshops that I have at TheAPPRofessor.org.
Over the decades, I’ve come to appreciate the idea that good teaching involves story telling, that teaching is a kind of story telling. I firmly believe that if we think of it as story telling, if we acknowledge the fact that teaching is story telling, our teaching becomes more effective. What do I mean by story telling in the context of teaching?
There’s a wide spectrum of things that we do when we interact with our students in, of course, ways that facilitate their learning. There are, of course, lectures and mini lectures, and online lectures, and discussions we lead in and so on that are obvious opportunities for story telling. Telling the story of how the human body is built, and how the human body functions.
When we approach our entire course in an opportunity for story telling, it gets even better. It’s sort of like a film maker, or an amusement park designer, or amusement ride designer who thinks of it as telling a story. So, there’s a beginning, a middle, and end. If we think of that as a beginning, a middle, and an end, and take those things that we know about teaching and learning such as learning outcomes that we expect, the place that we’re kind of starting from, like what do we want the student to learn, and then how are we going to get there? Then, how are we going to wrap it up at the end and conclude and pull all those threads together?
We can do that when we’re physically telling a story in a classroom, let’s say in a lecture context, but we can also do that in the entire course design. The design of each component of that course, if we think of it as a story, then I think it works better in our own minds, and therefore it translates better for the student. Once the students start thinking of these as stories … My students, I use that terminology with them.
I’ll say, “Remember when I told you the story of how the nephron works?” And they start getting that mindset of these are stories, and that makes it more accessible to them, I think, than when they think of it as a lecture on the nephron. If it’s the story about the nephron, wow, suddenly it takes on a whole different flavor than it did before.
It’s not just using that terminology and presenting things the same way we’ve always presented them. I think it’s important for us to think of them as a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and with protagonists and antagonists, and good guys and bad guys, and amazing things that happen and so on. I think that where that starts is to understand that we are walking the classroom and taking on the persona of a story teller.
It’s a kind of acting. If you’ve ever heard professional story tellers, or even amateur story tellers, I think you can kind of see the transformation that comes over people. Especially if you have a friend or a family member, or something, that likes to tell stories. Sometimes, their effect will change just a little bit, maybe a lot, when they get ready to tell some favorite story of theirs. Especially if they’re talking to children, but even when they’re talking to adults and telling a story to adults.
I think a lot of us as teachers do that, and I think that’s a great thing. It’s a good thing to have that story telling persona, that teacher persona that we walk in with. Especially for those of us that are introverts. I think that if we think of walking into a classroom, and we’re naturally very shy in front of crowds and so on, but we think of it as an acting role that we have.
We walk in, then it puts us and our students at much more ease because now it’s not Kevin the Teacher anymore, it’s Kevin the Story Teller. I’m going to come in and tell you some stories, and I’m an actor for that time that I’m spending with you. That acting part is important.
Once aspect of that is that people … Usually when they’re story tellers to be living the story with them. Sort of as if the story teller is hearing the story for the first time as well. Most story tellers do not speak in a monotone, and just kind of rattle off the events of the story and so on. They get somewhat dramatic. They move their arms a little bit. They move around a little bit. They act out certain parts. They change their voice at certain parts.
I think that if we do that … And not only that, but have fun doing it. I’ll never forget, I’ve mentioned before in this podcast, that I used to be a lion tamer in the circus. I spent a lot of years learning how to do that, and going to circuses and watching other animal trainers and other circus performers and so on. My mentors pointed this out to me that you always go in and act like you’re having fun.
If you act like you’re having fun, then everyone around you will have fun. Pretty soon, even if you weren’t, you are now having fun. Psychologists tell us that that happens. They often use a technique to help people who are having a hard time having fun, or having a hard time smiling and being happy is to, well, just smile a lot, and you’ll feel better. Maybe there’s some physiological things that go along with that.
My point being, that if we walk into our classroom and consciously think about the fact that we’re taking on a new persona, a persona whose going to have fun telling a great story. Then, the next step is that most people in our classes, or most people who want to hear a story, have curiosity about certain things. I think that our students have a natural curiosity about the human body.
My theory is that everybody who lives in a human body has some level of curiosity about how the body is built, and how it works. I think our students in particular come in with that, because they’ve been drawn to a career path that involves the human body. So, they already have that curiosity. We can start out with, “Did you ever wonder how the kidney does what it does? What does the kidney do? You got any ideas?”
Then, move from there and say, “Well let me tell you about the nephron. The story of the nephron is an amazing story. It’s the weirdest things that happen, and the most unexpected things that happen.” But at the end, we’ve end up reaching our goal of maintaining homeostasis. So, telling it as a story, and having characters in that story, identifying the characters in that story, the different segments of the nephron tubule, for example, could be characters.
Or, the ions and other molecules that are moving glucose and so on, that are moving back and forth across the wall of the nephron. Those could be characters in our play. We have a lot of recurring characters in our stories, don’t we? I often will say this, “Here’s calcium again. Here’s our recurring character, has come back in for another episode of A&P.”
So, having that story perspective is important. Having a beginning, middle and end is important. I think if we can introduce some conflict and resolution, that will help. Talking about the nephron, we can talk about how if a negative ion is pulled across the membrane, what are the positive ions going to do? We’re going to have this electrical charge building up. Is that something that we want to continue? Are we going to allow the positive ions to follow the negative ions, or vice versa.
Are we going to pull these ions across, and let the water just stay there? Are we going to have an osmotic imbalance? Are we going to let the water come across, too? We set up conflict, we identify conflict, and then we say, “How is that resolved? How do things naturally occur?” A lot of times, the audience of the story, or students, they kind of know how it’s going to go.
Don’t you have that experience when you’re listening or watching stories? I know in movies, sometimes I’ll feel like I’m getting to know a character, and I can predict what they’re going to do next, especially in mini series, and television series, and things like that where you’ll start to be able, in your own mind, predict how a character is going to react.
I think if we set that up for our students, they can start to do that, too. They can sort of tell what’s going to happen when there’s an electrical imbalance across a membrane. Or, an osmotic imbalance across a membrane. Or, any one of the number of other kinds of conflicts that they’ve seen resolved in other areas of the body. When they do that, they’re just not being good listeners to the story, they’re starting to get to those higher levels, or maybe I should say deeper levels, of understanding of how the human body works.
They are just naturally being drawn to higher level thinking skills, to higher level understandings of what we want them to understand. I think another aspect of story telling that can be very effective is when there’s some shock and awe [inaudible 00:17:33]. What I mean by that is, “Oh my gosh, how can this happen?” How can this happen in the body? You know, is this what we’re really going to do, if we think about all of the fluid that is filtered out of the [inaudible 00:17:47] into the nephron?
We think, “Oh my gosh, you add all that up, that’s gallons and gallons and gallons of water that are going to end up lost from the body. That’s shocking.” That is awesome. Then, we resolve that. We say, “Well, wait a minute. Do we really pee 50 gallons a day?” I don’t think so. So, something’s got to happen. What could possibly happen before that fluid gets out of our body that restore the balance and prevent us from drying out almost instantly?
If we are bringing that shock to the fore … If we’re dramatizing that and bringing it out, but not that, but acting shocked ourselves. Don’t good story tellers do that? Don’t they act surprised even though they’ve practiced this story a million times, and probably have told it a thousand times?
But they do. They act out, they dramatize that shock. I do that with my students, like “Oh my gosh, how can we do that?” They know that I’m not being totally sincere. They know that I know the end of the story, and what’s going to happen. But, it helps to tell the story, and it helps them hear the story.
I’ll never forget a ringmaster announcer in a circus that I saw several times. He’s French, and even though I did see him in the United States, I also saw him over in Europe. He’s one of the best ringmasters I’ve ever saw, even though I only understood about half of what he talked about, because he usually spoke in French. I mean, he did do a little bit of English, especially when he toured in the United States, but he mostly announced things, announced the various circus acts in French.
He was so good. You don’t think of the ringmaster as being one of the stars of the show, but he was always one of the stars of the show, in whatever circus that he appeared in. The reason was that he became the story teller. He would not just announce an act, he would stay around, and he would watch. You could see him act out the shock and the awe when a high wire artist was going across, and maybe was teetering a little bit.
You would see him, and his face would change. He would appear to be just as shocked as the rest of us. He would laugh … There was a comedy circus act on … Maybe comedy acrobats, or something like that. In a very dramatic way, he would act out his reactions, and what that did was get us as the audience more involved in the circus act that we were seeing at that moment.
That’s the kind of teacher I want to be. I want to be just like that ringmaster. I want to be expressing that shock, that awe, and that amazement of the human body to maintain homeostasis under a wide variety of conditions, and even when bad things happen, can recover from it, if things are happening normally. We can be shocked and saddened when things get broken, when the heart valves don’t work right, or when the kidney doesn’t maintain homeostasis consistently in terms of our fluid and electrolyte balance.
One last thing that I’ll mention, there are many other things about story telling, but one last thing is to use a lot of pictures. Don’t use a lot of words. I think anatomy and physiology, both ends of that, the anatomy part, the physiology part, lend themselves to visual story telling. Where we show a picture, and walk our audience, our story telling audience, through that part of that story.
Then, we change the scenery, and we walk them through that part of the story. Putting up 25 bullet points in one slide is not going to help story telling. What we should do is use a title, maybe one or two little bullet points, especially if there’s subtitles of that story, to help the students understand sort of where we’re going in that story.
It’s sort of like when you go the theater, and you look at the program. What you will see is a very, very short outline. It will have Act One, Act Two, it will list the scenes and tell you some short little thing about each scene. Maybe, it tells you where it occurs, or what major thing happens, or could be happening in that scene.
If we’re going to be using slides or other visual aides, make it mostly pictures. Make them be very few words. I think you’ll tell a much more effective story. Your students will be listening to your story, rather than try to read the slide and copy it down, if we do it that way. So, a few story telling tips for your next A&P class. Have fun with it.
Aileen: The A&P Professor is hosted by Kevin Patton, professor, blogger and text book author in human anatomy and physiology.
Kevin Patton: Some excess material from segments in this episode were removed, then filtered out by the kidneys.
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