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N.Y. Times: Doctors Suffer From Shame Disabled Learning Too

An OP-ED, “My Near Miss”, by Dr Danielle Ofri, in the May 28, 2013 New York Times, provides an excellent opportunity to see yet another example of how shame disables learning.

The beginning of the piece tells the story of the doctor’s ‘near miss’ – hospital talk for errors that could have, but didn’t, kill patients.  After touching on how (scary) prevalent such near-misses are,  the main thrust of the piece emerges: how shame over errors is preventing doctors from discussing and learning from them:

“But the instinct for most medical professionals is to keep these shameful mistakes to ourselves. For the past two years I’ve been interviewing doctors about the emotional experiences that have molded them. Though I was interested in the full range of emotions, nearly every single one brought up a medical error that they had been party to during their careers; many of them had never spoken about it before. The shame of their errors — including the near misses — was potent, even decades later.”

What this doctor’s important Op-Ed is pointing to is how ‘shame disables learning’. If we are honest with ourselves, we all experience this. We all avoid what causes us to feel shame and that avoidance has disabling effects on how well we learn in areas that trigger shame. This is not only pervasive in (all) adult professional and social arenas, this is a huge impediment to our progress in education.

When children feel ashamed of their bodies, they want to hide them. When they feel ashamed of their teeth, they avoid smiling. When they feel ashamed of their singing voice, they avoid singing. What happens when they feel ashamed of their learning? They avoid learning.

Most of our children are chronically improficient in the school skills most critical for their success. How do you think that makes them feel about learning???

The doctor’s piece ends with:

“Until we attend to the culture of shame that surrounds medical error, we will be only nipping at the edges of one of the greatest threats to our patients’ health.”

Mine ends with:

Until we attend to the culture of shame that surrounds learning errors, we will be only nipping at the edges of one of the greatest threats to our children’s education.


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