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Maria Mylopoulos: Changing how we understand learning

By Marg Sheridan

As an education researcher at the Learning Institute Dr. Maria Mylopoulos is an expert in finding the perfect learning initiatives for SickKids staff and students.

Dr. Mylopoulos, who holds a PhD in Human Development and Education from the University of Toronto specializing in Applied Cognitive Science, has studied development and maintenance of expertise – more specifically, how professionals construct knowledge through their daily problem solving.  Her ultimate goal is to improve understanding of expert processes in a real-world context.

“The Education Research Program strives to advance our understanding of how health-care professionals develop and maintain the skills necessary for their practice,” says Kelly McMillen, Director of the SickKids Learning Institute.  “Through her work with clinicians, Maria informs the ways in which we understand and ultimately enhance learning.”

Q&A with Dr. Maria Mylopoulos

What are you doing as an education researcher?
My particular interest is in understanding how different facts of expertise work in the real world, and translating that understanding into designing education initiatives that can foster excellence in our health-care staff and trainees.

Through interviews and observations, I explore how expertise looks in the real world. For example, we know theoretically that experts are very good at continually improving their practice, so we did a study exploring how that looks in Paediatric Urology when a surgeon and his or her team introduce new laparoscopic procedures, techniques and instruments in patient care.  

Maria Mylopoulus

In this way we understand and describe processes that have not been articulated explicitly before.  Based on that understanding, we can work to create a language around expertise to help educators better train our future experts.

 Is there a particular education initiative at SickKids that inspires you?
For me, learning comes before education. By that I mean learning is a process which occurs as people work through their daily work challenges by interacting with their space, each other, patients and families. Learning is the process by which dealing with daily challenges informs and improves individual and collective practice. I am interested in the ways that education initiatives can support these learning processes.  

How does learning make SickKids a better place?
People learn every day as they work. By recognizing, valuing and supporting learning as a pervasive part of what it means to work at SickKids, we stay at the forefront of excellence in child health.  

What makes working at SickKids special?
SickKids values learning as one of the three pillars of excellence alongside research and clinical care. This makes it a unique and supportive environment to work in as a scientist interested in exploring and fostering learning.

How do you envision education in the future?
I think we do fairly well at delivering content and designing classroom-based learning. In the future, I envision education initiatives that will allow us to better support people in their daily learning, recognizing learning as a fundamental human activity rather than an event that takes place outside of daily work practice.  

Who was your all-time favourite educator and why?
I'm not sure I can answer this question!  I've had the privilege of having had a number of great teachers and mentors throughout my education and career. I think the common link between them has been their ability to engage creatively with ideas and learn alongside me with genuine curiosity and enthusiasm. To me, that approach to learning is contagious and something that I aim for with my own students.  

However, if I had to name one, I’d say my PhD supervisor, Dr. Marlene Scardamalia, who both embodied that approach to learning and also worked to embed the underlying principles of that approach across the spectrum of learning from kindergarten to the workplace.