Raymond Mak, MD, of the Department of Radiation Oncology, was honored with the 2018 Bernard Lown Teaching Award, which celebrates physicians who are outstanding clinical teachers.
In this Q&A with BWH Bulletin, Mak shares his ideas on the field of radiation oncology, effective teaching and the Socratic method.
What drew you to the field of radiation oncology?
RM: I was always interested in cancer care and patients. One of my medical school mentors, Anthony D’Amico, MD, PhD, happened to be a radiation oncologist. He introduced me to the field of radiation oncology, serving as a mentor and teacher. The field combines procedural/interventional aspects of medicine, technology and imaging, with an academic, evidence-based and patient-centered focus, which was very appealing to me.
What is the key to being an effective instructor?
RM: From my perspective, it’s about trying to put yourself in trainees’ shoes. You need to understand where they are coming from, their level of knowledge and their experience. Using this information, you need to tailor your teaching style accordingly. I focus most of my efforts here when designing a lecture or lab for trainees.
Additionally, I try to make the material as interactive as possible. Using the Socratic method, I ask a lot of questions, both rhetorical and direct, to gauge the level of understanding in the classroom or clinic. As an instructor, this is the key to understanding the needs of the learner.
Whose teaching style has influenced your own?
RM: My dad was a college professor, so growing up, I often observed him teaching and tailoring material to the needs of different people, and much of my approach now comes from him.
In the past, I considered myself somewhat of an introvert and did not really think I would be a good teacher. It was in speaking to and learning from my mentors in medical school and throughout residency that I was able to hone my craft and come out of my shell.
At Harvard Medical School, the problem-based learning curriculum set the stage for my own teaching style. Going into residency, the teaching model was Socratic as well, with the emphasis on direct questioning and audience participation. This emphasis combined with the many great teaching role models in my department and at the Brigham greatly influenced my own teaching.
How has working with trainees influenced your work as a physician-scientist?
RM: Residents teach me a lot. They have great ideas, and they don’t follow the assumptions and orthodoxies that those who have been in the field for a long time do. Between the teacher and the trainee, it’s a two-way street. I ask them questions to help them learn, and in return, they ask me questions that challenge my own thinking and customs. I always tell my residents when they’re on service with me to make sure they continually ask why I’m doing a procedure or approaching a patient’s situation in a particular way. I encourage my trainees to challenge my conventions and methods as much as possible.
Our department is an environment with such an emphasis on teaching; everyone is pushed to improve, from residents to junior faculty. There was no doubt to me that one of the most important things that I could do as a physician was to be a great teacher for residents and medical students. This has always been a primary focus for me. When everyone you’re surrounded by is focused on effective teaching and trying to do their best, you have to bring your A-game.