Academic practitioner: to be or not to be?

Academic practitioner: to be or not to be?

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Jan 01, 2007

How would you define learning? Webster's dictionary defines "learning" as acquiring knowledge or skill by study or experience, while "study" is the act or process of applying our mind in order to acquire knowledge by reading or investigating. Unfortunately, Webster's definition of the term study emphasizes acquisition of knowledge without properly emphasizing the importance of acquiring wisdom. What's the difference?

Knowledge: The Greek term "gno'sis" (as in the word diagnosis) translated as knowledge indicates familiarity with relevant information (or facts) acquired by personal experience, observation or study. Unfortunately, many of us have been taught to over-emphasize the accumulation of new knowledge to a point where we neglect the development of two other essential components of learning—wisdom and understanding. How would you compare the attribute of knowledge to the attributes of wisdom and understanding? Is knowledge of this difference of practical value?

Apply it


Learning more about knowledge
Wisdom consists of acquiring a combination of knowledge and understanding that enables us to successfully apply knowledge. Those who acquire wisdom recognize the importance of acquiring sufficient breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding to provide sound clinical judgment. Although essential, facts per se are of little value to our patients. Medical facts only become useful to the extent they can be used to define and solve clinical problems. If we acquire knowledge, but do not learn how to properly apply it, we will not acquire wisdom. With these concepts in mind, how would you define understanding?

Understanding is a blend of many attributes in addition to knowledge. They include understanding, discernment, thinking ability, intelligence, experience, diligence, shrewdness (the opposite of being gullible or naive) and good judgment. Let us consider the attribute of understanding in greater detail.

Acquiring understanding calls for contemplating how new information fits in with the knowledge we already have. It is related to the ability to see how various aspects of a subject relate to each other, and also the ability to grasp how individual parts work together to form the whole. Those who seek to understand knowledge are not satisfied with a mere superficial view of a subject. As with a puzzle, they continue to study until they understand how to put separate pieces together in order to see the whole picture. In other words, the person who understands a subject can see the entire forest in addition to the trees.

This aspect of learning is important because we are unlikely to be able to retain and properly apply new knowledge unless we understand it. In addition, isn't it true that when we attend continuing education meetings, we are likely to become frustrated unless we understand where each new piece of information fits into the scheme of things?

For example, the priority of information learned about therapy of a specific disease should initially encompass why treatment is needed, followed by learning about when and how to give specific, supportive, symptomatic or palliative forms of treatment.

The why and when of the learning process provides us with a firm foundation for determining how to treat and prevent various diseases. If a veterinarian knows how to treat or prevent a disease, but does not understand why or when such action is warranted, misapplication of acquired knowledge is inevitable.

The result can be catastrophic to our patients. However, if we continue to keep our minds open in context of learning more about a subject, time, continued study and experience will also help us gain greater understanding. In contrast, selfish pride, stubbornness, self-will and independence can stunt the growth of our power of understanding.