Alan is a highly distinguished scholar, currently working as Professor of Child Health in Bristol Medical School at the University of Bristol. Alan has worked on many high-profile studies, including work on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC – Children of the Nineties). He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, with teaching interests in inter-professional learning and international health.
You recently won the James Spence medal for contribution to the advancement of paediatric knowledge – can you tell us a little bit about why you won the medal?
The James Spence medal is the highest award given by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and is awarded for outstanding contribution to the science of paediatrics. The citation for my medal highlighted my extensive and wide-ranging research work into child health in the community, my work overseas and my commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and learning. I have had a 40-year career in academic paediatrics, and have undertaken research into a range of issues affecting babies, children and young people. I was pleased to win the medal because of the recognition it gives to the importance of scientific research into community child health.
How your research work fed into your teaching?
I have been very privileged to have a job which has enabled me to combine clinical paediatrics with research and teaching, and strongly believe that each aspect informs the other. Contact with children and families as a paediatrician keeps you humble and grounded and highlights what is important for the public, and what is not fully understood in medical sciences. Clinical practice determines research questions, and research informs teaching. I am committed to practising and teaching evidence-based medicine, and utilise research from a wide range of sources (as well as my own research) in my teaching. We need the doctors of the future to be evidence-based practitioners, who apply scientific evidence in a personalised way to meet an individual patient’s needs.
Can you tell us a little more about the work you do around inter-professional learning?
In my opinion inter-professional learning is essential for students and trainees who are going to work in the health service, which relies on multi-disciplinary teamwork. Learning together, as both undergraduates and postgraduate students, helps students from different professional backgrounds understand each other, respect each other’s skills, and experience the team working they will participate in the future. If we want them to work together when graduated and trained, why don’t we teach them together?
I have introduced inter-professional learning modules for Bristol medical students with student children’s nurses from UWE (a joint case study of a disabled child and his family), and for Bristol medical students with final year pharmacy students from Bath University (prescribing for children workshop). Both have been evaluated by teaching fellows and published in educational journals, and were highly commended by the General Medical Council when reviewing the Bristol MB course.
A long- standing research collaboration with the School of Policy studies led to the establishment in 2006 of a unique interdisciplinary course – the intercalated BSc in Global Health. This one year programme for medical, dental and veterinary students is taught in equal amounts by academics from the social science and health science faculties, and the inter-disciplinary content is highly rated by both students and external reviewers.
What can we learn from inter-professional learning and apply to the wider university context?
Academic activity in universities is increasingly being undertaken in multi-disciplinary teams, and the University of Bristol has recognised the importance of fostering inter-disciplinary collaboration by investing in the establishment of the cross-faculty specialist research institutes. If carefully planned and managed, inter-professional learning can enable the of transfer of skills between different disciplines, the development of shared knowledge and understanding of a topic, and the acquisition of attitudes needed to promote respectful and effective collaboration.
Similarly, how can other academic disciplines can benefit from this approach?
Any academic discipline which wants to innovate and be different from rival departments in other universities would benefit from promoting collaboration with groups from neighbouring disciplines, which will foster new approaches and generate new research questions. Inter-professional learning can be the foundation of this- for example organising topic-based seminars for undergraduate students from different departments, or running problem orientated workshops for postgraduates. In my experience, it is difficult to predict what will come out of such encounters, but some of my best collaborations and biggest grants have evolved from ‘mixing with the other tribe’ workshops.
If you could change one thing about higher education, what would it be?
In this digital age, facts are available with a few clicks of the mouse or taps on the screen. One of the traditional aims of higher education- to impart knowledge- is now less important than encouraging students to think for themselves, to be confident in weighing up the importance of different arguments and to make decisions in the context of uncertainty. Good universities recognise this, but teaching approaches and assessment methods need to evolve- to get away from concentrating on the imparting and regurgitation of facts, and aim to produce graduates with transferable skills who can think independently.
What has been the highlight of your academic career?
In 2003 I established a joint academic centre between two universities- the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England. Initially, there was considerable scepticism of the added value of such a collaboration, but with the support of the Deans in the two universities, the Centre for Child and Adolescent Health was founded to bring together academics from different disciplines working in child health. In the next 15 years, the Centre grew from strength to strength and developed an international reputation for interdisciplinary teaching and research. Both universities have subsequently re-affirmed the value and importance of this collaboration, and when I retired in 2018 I was pleased to hand over the leadership to Prof Esther Crawley from UoB and Prof Julie Mytton from UWE. (More information about this venture can be found here.)
Tell us about your favourite teacher at school/ university and why they were your favourite.
As an undergraduate medical student at Cambridge I intercalated in philosophy and religious studies, a year which had a long-lasting effect on my development as a doctor and as an academic. I was privileged to have individual supervisions with a young John Bowker, who went on to have a glittering career and to write 41 books about important topics such as suffering , death, religious conflicts and science and religion. I was very anxious about my production for these supervisions, but I left each one feeling inspired, stimulated and encouraged. I’ve tried to do the same for all my own students!