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Expressive instructions

written by Anna Harris

“When a chef or cookbook writer instructs on how to make a dish, they must not only provide a clear guide to their students, with important steps and signposts, but they must also find creative ways in which to share and teach the tacit, bodily, sensory skills entailed in cooking. In his book The Craftsman, the sociologist Richard Sennett considers the teaching of skills through this example of recipes. He shows that how to prepare one dish, Poulet a la d’Albufera (stuffed chicken), can be instructed in many different ways, from Julia Child’s sympathetic illustrations to help the cook, to Elizabeth David’s scenic narrative style that draws on historical references, to his own cooking class instructor’s emphasis on metaphors. Sennett calls these different ways of sharing the recipe ‘expressive instructions’.”

“Teachers also need to be creative when they teach clinical skills such as physical examination. They need to find imaginative ways to describe instructions expressively in protocols and then to improvise with these scripts in class in order to share expertise with students. Yet such practices often go unnoticed in medical education; they are taken-for-granted aspects of teaching and learning.”

I explore these practices with my co-author Jan-Joost Rethans in an article published this week in Perspectives on Medical Education. Entitled “Expressive instructions: ethnographic insights into the creativity and improvisation entailed in teaching physical skills to medical students”, the article, quoted above, draws from my fieldwork this year, as well as my fieldwork in the Sonic Skills project, several years ago. Working with Jan-Joost we draw out some of the themes of creativity and improvisation witnessed in teaching.

Gerard Gormley and Paul Murphy wrote a beautiful commentary to the piece, “Teaching clinical skills in the theatre of medicine”, which expands upon the expertise required in improvisation. As they write, “novice teachers can read a script (clinical textbook content), but expert teachers deliver a script with sincerity that engages an audience and captures their imagination … a recipe book can instruct how to make a dish, but an expert teacher can provide room for creativeness and experimentation to produce a Michelin star meal.”