Bulletin of Dental Education

Using Art to Hone Students’ Observational Skills

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By Nicole Fauteux

Two observations led Catherine Flaitz, D.D.S., M.S., in search of a better way to teach. She saw students focused on electronic health records and failing to make eye contact with their patients. In her oral pathology class, she saw students struggle to describe what they were seeing. “All lesions look alike,” they said.

Of course, all lesions do not look alike, so Dr. Flaitz, Distinguished Professor at The University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston (UTSD), sought a remedy to these problems in an unfamiliar setting: the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. There she found an enthusiastic collaborator in Jay Heuman, the museum’s Public Programs Coordinator. Together, they developed a course for dental and medical students, The Art of Observation, which is yielding impressive results. Dr. Flaitz provided details and insight relating to the course during her symposium, Engaging the Brain: Art and the Science of Dentistry during the 2014 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition held last month.

On three evenings during the course of a single week, first- and second-year students travel to the museum for two hours of interactive instruction. After an initial orientation to the elements of art and the principles of design, students begin looking at the museum’s collection. 

According to Mr. Heuman, museum visitors generally view an individual work of art for an average of 6 to 8 seconds.

“We seat students for 20 minutes,” he says. “You need to create a relationship with the works of art.” 

Why a relationship? Because the course’s goals require an understanding of relationships, and the museum experience enabled students to enhance their skills in close observation and engage in unbiased analysis and clear, empathetic communication—skills that can be transferred from the museum to clinical settings.

As students examine each work of art, they not only catalog its various elements but record their emotional responses to its form and content. Students tend to recoil, for example, when they learn that one particular sculpture in the museum's collection is filled with the artist’s own blood.

“The museum provides a safe place for students to look and respond really negatively,” says Heuman. They can then begin the difficult work of separating their emotional responses from what it is they are seeing. The intention is to help them develop a stronger empathetic response that will allow them to communicate with and treat patients more effectively.

Toward the end of the course, students analyze clinical photos of individuals with a variety of diseases. They examine physical characteristics, social traits and clues that would provide insight to each subject’s attitudes and mental status. Students also complete homework assignments where they observe individuals and describe them in-depth. 

During the symposium, Dr. Flaitz shared an evocative essay demonstrating how one student’s enhanced ability to observe improved his ability to relate to strangers. His vivid description of a man washing the windows of a high-rise building not only captured his physical traits but placed him in the context of his job, which the student viewed as dangerous. This example showed Dr. Flaitz’s students how understanding the perspective of others engenders empathy. 

To assess the students’ progress, Dr. Flaitz had them describe an oral lesion in writing before completion of the course. Although she notes that their opinions and attitudes toward ambiguity did not improve, their essays showed significant gains in other important areas. Students used richer vocabulary to describe what they were seeing, including global descriptions of a patient, adding more analysis and comparisons and, in some cases, expressing feelings about their observations.

This UTSD course represents a broader movement to reintegrate the arts with education in the sciences, according to a 2012 article in Scientific American titled “From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand.” The course also has a precedent in medical education. Half of U.S. medical schools are teaching art to improve their students’ observational skills. 

As symposium moderator Dr. Karen Novak, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., Associate Dean for Professional Development & Faculty Affairs at UTSD, pointed out, the course also illustrates two of the best practices described by 2014 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition plenary speaker, David Eagleman, Ph.D. He urged attendees to make learning an event and create enriched environments in which it can occur. 

This pass/fail elective has proven extremely popular. The Art of Observation now has a waiting list, and former attendees would like to see the class lengthened. Dr. Flaitz’s next project? Developing a course on the art of listening.

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