Mark Lechner

Multi-dimensional learning: Complexity in a drop of blood

June 12, 2017

By Jackie Amsden, Teaching and Learning Centre

The world is full of messy problems that don’t have multiple-choice answers.

Mark Lechner is helping students develop the skills they need to tackle those problems through a course-design approach that helps them see the complexity in things no bigger than a speck of dust—or, in this case, a drop of blood.

Lechner is a senior lecturer and director, undergraduate programs, in the Faculty of Health Sciences: “The motto for our Faculty—Cell to Society—reflects our recognition that there are so many different factors that impact health issues and that any solutions need to take those into account.”

He explains that he was struggling with how to actualize that multi-faceted reality within a single course when he came up with the idea of a course structured entirely around the literal and metaphorical idea of human blood.

The result—HSCI 333 Red, Hot, and True: A Semester of Blood—has been offered four times, and Lechner plans to run it again in Spring 2018.

“This course has done a very good job at providing a comprehensive overview of blood using both biological explanations as well as social explanations … This was a great way to learn in an environment which supported all kinds of learning.” – Teagan Sorokan, student

“I want my students to see that blood is multi-dimensional—visceral, emotional, scientific—and that there are dangers associated with not recognizing that complexity. In the course I am inviting students to go 360 degrees around the concept of blood so that they can truly understand it. If they can do that with blood, they can do that with any concept.”

The course touches upon everything from the meaning of vampires to misconceptions about sickle cell anemia to lab-based analyses of blood types.

Exploring such a broad range of topics through the frame of blood, explains Lechner, provides students with the freedom to make connections between diverse content areas. To help them weave the knowledge they are acquiring into an integrated whole, he also facilitates in-class reflection activities on a weekly basis.

“One of the prompts I give them is to look for patterns. One example I share is how we often encounter crosses and quadrants in the course: Punnett squares (a tool for genetics), the four humours, the crucifixion of Christ on the cross (and all that attendant meaning of blood), a plus sign for certain blood types.”

“I think beyond blood, this is a great way to approach other things … Looking at it from multiple views can vastly help shape your understanding and that is the most valuable thing I have gained from this course.” – Adriana Kanlic, student

Lechner admits, however, that his approach adds significant complexity to his role as teacher.

“Part of recognizing that the problems of the world are not linear is encouraging my students to express their knowledge in ways that aren’t linear either. This means inviting them to turn [in] final projects beyond traditional academic products.”

“I cannot ignore my extensive history in fine arts, nor can I walk away from my love for sciences. Blood has shown me that one can be active in the world of arts and the world of sciences.” – Carmen Saucier, student

The projects have ranged from CD compilations of blood-related songs to Frankenstein posters to self-produced claymation videos depicting blood clotting.

Such a range, he says, makes it difficult to apply the same criteria throughout, and so he has had to develop multiple assessment rubrics, which takes time.

“The course can feel a little chaotic at times, but if I can’t grapple with that chaos in the confines of academia, how can I expect to train the next generation of thinkers who will do so out in the world?”