Medical Educator interviews Professor Alan Mortiboys: Perspectives on Emotional Intelligence, and its importance to medical training.


Alan Mortiboys is Professor of Educational Development at Birmingham City University, United Kingdom. He talks to James Bateman from the Medical Educator team about learning theories.

Professor Mortiboys lectures at BCU on educational development and also on formal “medical education” programmes to doctors and health professionals including the Masters in Medical Education at the University of Warwick.  His publications include Teaching with Emotional Intelligence (Routledge 2005) and The Emotionally Intelligent Trainer’s Toolkit. (Fenman 2004). He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Thanks for talking to us Alan. You came to the attention of Medical Educator after we heard you speak on learning styles. We write a little about this on the site: From your perspective on teaching, where do you see the typical doctor falling into in terms of the ‘pragmatists’, ‘theorists’ ‘reflectors’ and activists? Have any patterns emerged from your own experiences?

Many doctors I have met have the characteristics of the ‘pragmatist’ – asking ‘What’s the implications of this?’ or ‘How do I prepare to put this into practice?’ I guess this reflects the work that you do, normally called upon to make decisions, plan and act, often under pressure. If you want to behave a like, say, a reflector, you need plenty of time to step back and think things through thoroughly, with no compulsion to act, only to arrive at conclusions. I have not met many doctors whose working situation allows or encourages that. Here’s a question for you – do pragmatists set out to become doctors or does being a doctor make you a pragmatist?

Do you think people teaching should always have consciously have these concepts in their minds?

The case has been made that although the idea of these four learning styles has aroused a great deal of interest, there is no solid evidence to back up the theory. Nonetheless, teachers have found the idea very useful. Awareness of these different styles can usefully inform your planning for any episode of teaching. You can say to yourself, ‘If these learning styles do exist, what will there be in this session that I am planning which will engage each of the activist/ reflector/theorist/ pragmatist, given that they each look for something different as a learner?’

Others have suggested that you should help your learners become aware of their learning style and assist them in developing their less favoured styles. That means to help the activist, for example, to know how to respond productively when they are in a situation in which there is no opportunity to learn by doing, by trial and error.

The question for you as a teacher is, do you set out to acknowledge and accommodate people’s learning styles, or to develop and shape them?

I was intrigued when I first heard your comments on multiple intelligences. Most medical students won’t know what this means: tell us a little about it.

Howard Gardner‘s idea of multiple intelligences challenged the notion that there is one form of intelligence which incidentally can be measured by an IQ test. He suggested back in the 1980’s that we have seven intelligences, each of which is developed to a greater of lesser extent in every one of us. We each have our own intelligence profile. The question is not, ‘How intelligent are you?’ but ‘How are you intelligent?’

The seven are: linguistic, logical mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.

Like learning styles, the evidence for the existence for these intelligences has been questioned. Like learning styles, the idea has proved very popular in some sectors of education.

How do you see multiple intelligences applying to student and junior doctors as they go through their training?

As with learning styles, the first step is to become aware of your own preferred/dominant intelligences and then decide – are you going to play to your strengths or are you going to improve your less developed intelligences? It can be liberating to recognise that you are never going to learn well by reading about things (linguistic) but that by manipulating objects and experimenting with them, you will always learn rapidly(bodily kinaesthetic).

You also write on emotional intelligence. Is this an important characteristic for medical students?

My chief interest in emotional intelligence is in how it applies to teaching. I am convinced that the effective teacher has to use emotional intelligence, that is, put energy into:

  • Encouraging an emotional state in your learners that is conducive to learning
  • Recognising and responding to the feelings of both yourself and your learners in the classroom, in order to make you both more effective in your respective roles

Daniel Goleman’s definition of emotional intelligence, which is not specific to any occupation, is:

“The capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our  relationships’. You cannot avoid the emotional dimension in your work, whether in dealing with patients or with colleagues, and a developed emotional intelligence will help you to function more effectively, giving you more energy to tackle problems and more resilience when under pressure.”

Medical Educator Would like to thank Professor Alan Mortiboys for his contribution.

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