By Kirsteen MacLeod
Back when she was an occupational therapy master’s student, Danielle Naumann (Artsci’09; MSc’11) recalls being impatient about the mandatory workshop at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. “I wanted to be in the anatomy lab studying, not wasting my time looking at paintings,” she says with a laugh. “I remember thinking, ‘This has nothing to do with OT, or science.’”
Inside the gallery, she quickly changed her mind. “We honed our observational skills using paintings, and developed awareness of multiple perspectives – of how we all notice different things, and how one view is not the full picture,” says Naumann, now a PhD candidate in Rehabilitation Science in the Faculty of Health Sciences, and also the workshop’s academic assistant. “These are essential, hard-to-teach skills required by occupational therapists so they can assess clinical situations.”
Since 2006, between 50 and 80 occupational therapy students each year have participated in the two-hour workshop, part of the System Level Communications course, which was recently discontinued. The experiential workshop improves students’ skills in describing objectively what they see—exactly what OTs do with their clients—and illustrates how seeing from a narrow perspective compromises the ability to help clients, and to work within teams, a major requirement in health sciences.
This innovative workshop was sparked when Dr. Wendy Pentland, an associate professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, read an article in The Globe and Mail about New York Police Department officers using art to develop their observational and communications skills. Pentland, intrigued, collaborated with Pat Sullivan, Public Programs Manager at the Agnes, to develop a similar workshop for OT master’s students.
Sullivan guides the students in the gallery, explaining the art of observation and assigning them a painting to study for ten minutes. “Usually, people look at a painting for seven seconds, so the students can’t believe how much more they see when they stop and really look.”
Then, she says, she asks the students to describe what they see, without interpretation: for example, a bowl of fruit, or a man with a beard. After that, she asks the group to consider the painting’s meaning. “Hearing many different interpretations from their colleagues is often a revelation. Students become aware of their own biases and preconceptions, and of the need to be open to the perspectives of others,” Sullivan says. Finally, they participate in a half-hour-long debriefing with their instructor, linking learning from the gallery directly to the practice of OT.
Gord Unsworth, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Rehabilitation Studies who has been teaching the OT workshop for the past two years, says that “tangible, cookie cutter approaches don’t exist in the real world,” which is why the workshop is so valuable. “It is interactive, involves connecting, processing within, processing with others, and thinking outside the box.”
In the gallery, I gained many insights that made me a more competent OT as I moved into practice.”
Ten years ago as an OT student, Unsworth attended the workshop. “It was transformational, which is why I ended up teaching it. In the gallery, I gained many insights that made me a more competent OT as I moved into practice.”
At the Agnes, he adds, many students were challenged, but in a good way. “We were impacted beyond that class and are still enjoying the benefits. We learned memorable lessons about being client-centred, and about working with colleagues from different teams with other perspectives.”
Now manager of the Community High Intensity Treatment team at Providence Care, Unsworth hopes the pioneering workshop will be reintroduced into the OT curriculum. “It provides students with advanced skills they need in professional life. Plus we’d be losing a great resource: using art to explore OT is an exciting and surprising way to learn.”
For her part, Naumann, a practising occupational therapist for five years, says she draws on what she learned at the Agnes every day. “I take an individualized approach to therapy with clients. The better my skills of observation, and the more I can drop my preconceived notions and start with a blank slate, the more likely I will give them something more than a standard plan.”
Using art provides a unique way to teach competencies that professionals need to work with clients and teams, she adds. “The Agnes is a great tool for OTs – and for anyone else who needs sharp observation skills, and communications skills to work in professional groups.”