On the occasion of the release of the latest 10-year installment of Dr. Fox’s project, it is appropriate that we take this opportunity to review her unique contribution to human-development educational efforts. After all, she has shown us 20 years of her family, and one cannot watch these videos without feeling warmly connected to the children and adults in her life. This observation in and of itself is important from a teaching perspective. We cannot present our students with material for which they do not develop empathy and devotion and expect them to learn. That has been proven time and again in educational research (1). To this end, Dr. Fox’s videos, intended to teach the deceptively-tricky, albeit LCME- and ACGME-required topic (2) of Normal Development, is a clear success. Educators who teach human development to medical students as well as residents in psychiatry, pediatrics, and primary care have long struggled with how best to present this material.
Stale projections outlining Erikson’s and Piaget’s impressive accomplishments, even when coupled with the astounding and emerging neurobiological evidence that jibes well with the largely empirical conclusions of these developmental pioneers, often falls flat with students who may lack both the context and the life experiences to conceptualize the importance of learning about normal development in the course of becoming a doctor (2). In short, human development is very hard to teach to medical students. However, couple these notions with real stories, viscerally experienced through the immediacy that film, and probably only film affords, and you engage students limbically, such that they cannot help but to ponder their newfound curiosity.
The question, then, is not whether Dr. Fox’s videos are useful. Anecdotally, many medical educators, including me, have found her films to be invaluable teaching devices. The question is really whether her films are any better than fictional films depicting normal development that have often also been used in classrooms (3). Perhaps even more salient: Why are Dr. Fox’s films better than somebody else’s family films?
First, and probably most important, Dr. Fox made these films for a clearly-expressed purpose: the better elucidation of developmental principles to medical students and residents. She happens to be an expert in development, so her editing turns out to be, by definition, immeasurably better than a popular movie onto which we force developmental doctrines. Her videos are also better than another educator’s films that were preserved as personal mementos and then later employed as teaching devices. Dr. Fox made these videos to teach specific lessons, and, in that sense, she has given us a gift. Her videos of her family, long-celebrated in academic circles as one of the gold standards for teaching development, have maintained a kind of intimacy that one just cannot find in popular films or any other teaching device that has as its primary goal human-development pedagogy.
For example, we see Dr. Fox’s own toddler playing “mother” in the backyard; that same toddler later wishing to be “perfect” by the time she is 10; that 10-year-old dancing to Brittany Spears when she is 11; that 11-year-old decrying, when she is 15, the sanctity of her own bedroom and the absurdity that it ought to be clean, as it is, in fact, her room; that 15-year-old turned 18 and crying in the face of her first trip to college…all of this capturing the developing complexity of the human brain in ways no other medium has or can.
One might ask, however, whether these films hold the same prowess as teaching devices, absent Dr. Fox herself as the teacher. Certainly, she is the individual most closely bonded with the material on the screen. However, Dr. Fox takes special care to keep her videos relevant for all educators.
Dr. Fox is a seasoned medical educator and child psychiatrist. She has focused much of her professional career on curriculum development. With regard to teaching Human Development, she realized early that any teaching tool would need to be applicable for all educators with equal efficacy. Because her tapes are uniquely personal to her life story, she takes special steps to make certain that fellow teachers can take advantage of all that her work has to offer. Her techniques include
Teaching notes for all who use her films, in which she instructs educators to accentuate specific developmentally relevant topics for each video clip.
Easy-to-read and carefully-crafted outlines for each video clip, illustrating the important developmental tasks captured on film, the developmental challenges ahead, and the theorists and scientists who elucidate for us how best to understand these issues.
Because we know that adult students are more apt to pay attention when they are struck by something novel, the experience of watching the video clips and combining these clips with well-crafted discussions is invaluable. In my experience, the real depiction of another physician-teacher’s life, especially when it is shown on screen to students, is rare in medical education. Doctors tend to be more private about themselves and each other (4). However, even if students do not personally know Dr. Fox, they will appreciate that her videos are authentic and, therefore, that the lessons have real relevance. I would suggest using the tapes as teaching tools as follows:
Start a given Human Development session with specific video clips and then allow students to discuss or write in a journal open-ended observations about what they have seen.
Allow students to discover, through their own careful inquiry, the same conclusions that Erikson and others drew through similar exercises more than 50 years ago.
In this sense, they will learn by discovering rather than by being told. This active learning process is also a major component of adult teaching (5).
The closest I can come to a criticism of Dr. Fox’s work is the extent to which some might feel her videos lack accurate representation across all families and cultures. However, this is the very issue that makes the study of development so challenging and fascinating. To what extent are observations about human development universally relevant versus culturally-bound (6)? Rather than shy away from this topic, Dr. Fox addresses these issues with skill and empathy. She freely notes that her videos depict one family among a million, that her family is aptly described as a politically-liberal, upper-middle-class group, with a mother and a father, and, at least from the higher altitude that the viewer is afforded, no horrific events. She stresses that it is incumbent on the educator to note these issues, but she makes a case in the accompanying pamphlets and in the introductions that we humans often have more in common than not.
Because each segment is intended to illustrate specific developmental milestones and concepts, Dr. Fox succeeds in creating something special. I think the rare intimacy of the material, which is carefully tracked with clearly demarcated pedagogic goals, is, in fact, why she has garnered such attention from both the academic and the film world for her project. She has won major film and academic awards with this work, and these awards are richly deserved. I would recommend that any educator who is tasked with the difficult chore of teaching the seemingly fuzzy topic of development to medical students and residents—physicians-in-training who are often more accustomed to formulas on the computer than to families on their classroom screens—take advantage of these teaching devices. They are essential to the balance of humanism and science that must characterize any modern telling of the developmental story.