Top teaching honour for celebrated surgeon

08 June 2018 | Story Kate-Lyn Moore. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 7 min.
Between a busy clinical and teaching calendar, Professor Robert Dunn runs the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, where he has revolutionised surgical training.
Between a busy clinical and teaching calendar, Professor Robert Dunn runs the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, where he has revolutionised surgical training.

Not only does Professor Robert Dunn practise as a celebrated spinal surgeon, he heads up the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, where he has pioneered innovative teaching practices at undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral levels.

It is for this excellence in teaching that Dunn was selected for a Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA): the highest accolade afforded to exceptional teachers at UCT. Dunn spoke to Kate-Lyn Moore about his teaching journey.

You are already a celebrated surgeon. Is this your first accolade for teaching?

This is the first official UCT recognition of my teaching. However, since becoming HOD I [have] revitalised the orthopaedic undergraduate teaching programme, focusing on primary orthopaedic care rather than creating ‘mini specialists’.

We introduced the use of YouTube videos, which the students create themselves, instead of the old case reports. The best are uploaded to the UCTeach Ortho channel for the others to use. We changed the exams to OSCE (objective structured clinical examination) format, which was somewhat revolutionary in surgery. This resulted in a written congratulatory letter from (then) Dean Wim de Villiers.

I am part of AOSpine, an international spine education group, where I am recognised as an international teacher and educational advisor. The real accolade is seeing my juniors propel into practice – both orthopaedic and spine surgery – wherever they choose to settle.

What got you interested in orthopaedic surgery?

As a houseman, I witnessed the dramatic impact of Dr Meiring, the visiting orthopaedic surgeon, transforming bed-bound trauma patients to walking discharges with a few hours in theatre. It is a very positive discipline, not only enhancing quality of life – total hip replacements are only second to cataract surgery in terms of improved health status – but full of great, enthusiastic, ‘love for life’ people.

 

“The real accolade is seeing my juniors propel into practice.”

What do you teach and to whom?

My passion is teaching postgraduates, both doctors in the process of specialising in orthopaedic surgery and, even more so, qualified orthopaedic and neurosurgeons who come and train in spine surgery.

This latter group is a one-on-one, externally funded fellowship where we work side by side every day for a year in the spine unit, transferring not only academic knowledge but equally important technical skills and surgical philosophies.

Be this as it may, I have come to realise the importance of undergraduate teaching, where musculoskeletal pathology is neglected at UCT. Twenty-nine per cent of GP consults are for musculoskeletal ailments, yet they receive four weeks orthopaedic surgery and two weeks rheumatology exposure in the whole MBChB!

This drove me to reorganise the undergraduate teaching at an appropriate level, changing the exam process to drive skills learning, which UCT graduates lack in comparison to those from other institutions.

What do you love most (and least) about working with students?

The postgraduates’ enthusiasm to learn and compete with the best, despite the challenges of our overburdened clinical environment.

Some of the undergraduates’ tardiness, lack of punctuality, and sense of entitlement, whose demands have recently been excessively entertained by UCT management.

What do you believe makes a good teacher?

Enjoying interacting with people, being able to perform surgery – not just talk about it, and “leading from the front, supporting from behind”.

 

“This DTA recognition highlights the value we as clinicians offer UCT and raises the profile of my orthopaedic department significantly.”

How would you describe your teaching style?

Most of my teaching is around a patient, whether it is in the clinic, theatre or in courses, which lends [itself] to practical skills transfer with appropriate application of knowledge. It is personalised, and emphasis is placed on ongoing mentorship, even once the students have qualified and moved on.

How has your relationship with your students, teaching style or subject matter changed over time?

I realise I am ageing as my registrars have gone from calling me “Rob” to “Prof”. I am more tolerant of their individualism, and [I] think more sensitive to their knowledge/skills deficiencies. I have instituted more practical labs so that the surgeons can gain confidence simulating surgery on cadavers.

What is the importance of this kind of recognition to teaching staff?

The clinical staff are under a tremendous workload due to a burgeoning population, failing medical infrastructure and increasing student numbers with a static staff complement.

Generally, our teaching contribution is unrecognised by the university as we are perceived to be focused on the clinical demands. We are frequently too busy with patient care to attend the numerous UCT meetings or even complete the various award applications.

This DTA recognition highlights the value we as clinicians offer UCT and raises the profile of my orthopaedic department significantly.

 

“My efforts to teach and train came from a desire to improve orthopaedic and, more specifically, spinal surgical care in the region.”

What do your academic responsibilities entail besides teaching and research?

I run the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, which operates on just under 8 000 cases and sees 27 000-odd patients a year over three hospitals. I look after 11 full-time consultants, five part-time, 21 trainees and five fellows, and see that all the integrated allied medicine partners function.

I represent UCT as a director on the UCT Private Academic Hospital board in their collaboration with Netcare and the provincial health department. I head the spinal surgery unit, where I provide reconstructive spinal surgical care. My interest is in children with spinal deformity, including those paralysed by spinal tuberculosis.

If you hadn’t pursued a career in orthopaedic surgery, what might you have chosen as a career?

I was originally planning a Bachelor of Business Science degree with a view to corporate riches, but despite not doing biology in matric, I was convinced by my best friend that medicine would be fun. Having discovered orthopaedic surgery, [I realised] he was correct.

What do you like doing off duty?

There is no “off-duty” for a surgeon, with a never-ending flow of WhatsApp pictures and queries from staff. However, I enjoy running and gymming – having completed the Comrades Marathon three years in a row – crayfish diving, hunting, playing the guitar on occasion, and being with my girls.

Any other observations, anecdotes or comments you’d like to offer?

My efforts to teach and train came from a desire to improve orthopaedic and, more specifically, spinal surgical care in the region.

It heartens me to see my enthusiasm mirrored by my present and, even more so, past trainees who have gone on to develop their own training programmes, not only at SA hospitals, but [also] developing our discipline in other sub-Saharan countries such as Namibia, Kenya, Cameroon and Zimbabwe.

I hosted a dinner two weeks ago and invited the 21 spine surgeons I have trained. Seventeen managed to come and share our experiences. All are making a massive impact – on patients and their own junior trainees – the ultimate positive Ponzi scheme.


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Distinguished Teacher Award

 

The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.

Read more about the award.

 

2018


‘Teaching swept me off my feet’ Despite the challenges, Anneliese Schauerte – a recipient of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2018 – says she’s right where she’s meant to be. 19 Jun 2019
‘No stupid questions’ in Distinguished Teacher’s classes Curiosity, responding to change, technology and empathy are what 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient Jeff Murugan says make an excellent teacher. 19 Jun 2019
 

2017


Discovering purpose and potential Trauma surgeon Professor Pradeep Navsaria, one of four 2017 Distinguished Teacher awardees, describes himself as ʻan accidental or incidental teacherʼ. 08 Jun 2018
Top teaching honour for celebrated surgeon Lead from the front, support from behind, says acclaimed teacher and spinal surgeon Professor Robert Dunn, who was recently honoured with a Distinguished Teacher Award. 08 Jun 2018
Distinguished physics teacher leaves his mark Relaxed, irreverent, interactive, engaging. That’s how physics lecturer Gregor Leigh describes his teaching style. Leigh is one of four new Distinguished Teacher awardees. 05 Jun 2018
Voting creativity and engagement into law Distinguished Teacher awardee Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats didn’t plan to become a teacher, but almost 13 years later she wouldn’t have it any other way. 04 Jun 2018
 

2016


Put students at the heart of pedagogy Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens. 30 Mar 2017
Number's up for scary statistics Senior lecturer Dr Miguel Lacerda teaches statistics with an artful combination of precision and creativity. 27 Mar 2017
Tax time made easier Associate Professor Ryan Kruger has taught on every finance course offered at an undergraduate level, which he says has allowed him an understanding of the development that students undergo over the course of their academic careers. 24 Mar 2017
Winfield teaches ethical accounting Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield, an accounting scholar at UCT, runs a course called Business Ethics which aims to open his students’ minds a little 24 Mar 2017
The formula to make maths fun Dr David Erwin’s philosophy of creating a comfortable classroom, keeping students focused, and developing the structures they need to succeed is visible in his teaching. 22 Mar 2017
Taking the shock out of teaching maths Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six DTA awardees for 2016. 15 Mar 2017
   

2015


'A good teacher? Someone who teaches to learn' Dr Joanne Hardman of the School of Education gives us a peek into her classroom and talks about her teaching style, what makes a good teacher and her five top tips for teachers 30 Nov 2015
'If learning is not engaging it is not happening' Associate Professor Jacqui Kew from the College of Accounting engages her students by asking questions in the classroom. 30 Nov 2015
Find the 'amazing' in all you study and teach Dr Azila (Tzili) Reisenberger, Head of Hebrew in the School of Languages and Literature, says that her classes are like communities and she's always on the lookout for that amazing bit of information to impart when she's teaching. 30 Nov 2015
Knowledge is not fixed in textbooks Dr Adam West of the Department of Biological Sciences says that a teacher’s job is to help students realise that the creation of scientific knowledge is on-going and dynamic, and that they have a role to play in that. 30 Nov 2015
 

2014


Dr Spencer Wheaton – Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics Dr Spencer Wheaton creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students by making connections with the real world and linking physics to their major subjects. 01 Dec 2014
Assoc Prof James Gain – Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science Assoc Prof James Gain believes that it is important to create the type of environment where students are not afraid to ask questions. 01 Dec 2014
Prof Delawir Kahn – Head of the Department of Surgery For Prof Delawir Kahn, being a surgeon and being a teacher are intricately intertwined. 01 Dec 2014
Dr Linda Ronnie – Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business Dr Linda Ronnie believes that an eagerness to learn is vital to being a great teacher. 01 Dec 2014
 

2013


Dr Helen Macdonald – Anthropology Dr Helen Macdonald's teaching portfolio and her students' and colleagues' comments all indicate clearly that she is as passionate about her teaching as she is about her discipline, anthropology. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Hedley Twidle – English language & literature Dr Hedley Twidle believes that teaching literature in English should be a fluid and evolving thing. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk – Film and Media Studies Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk is described as an inspirational teacher of film studies, film production and screen-writing whose energy, enthusiasm, deep generosity and passion for cinema have captivated a generation of students. 09 Dec 2013
Paul Maughan – Accounting Paul Maughan’s teaching philosophy is underpinned by a fundamental insight: Ken Bain’s view that effective teaching results in deep learning that is best achieved through the disruption of existing mental models. 09 Dec 2013
 

2012


Professor John Higgins – English Literature Professor John Higgins believes that what counts is the question of identity, in a view of teaching as process and not transmission. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Jeremy Wanderer – Department of Philosophy Dr Jeremy Wanderer believes that it is possible for academic life to be set up in a way that does not lead academics to experience a tension between teaching and research. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Zenda Woodman – Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Students working under the tutelage of Dr Zenda Woodman have remarked on her use of humour to create a safe environment for learning. 12 Dec 2012
 

2011


Quartet of outstanding teachers féted On the 30th anniversary of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), four recipients joined the ranks. 12 Dec 2011
 

2010


Medical teachers grab 2010 awards Professor Roland Eastman and Professor Zephne van der Spuy, both of the Faculty of Health Sciences, have been named the recipients of UCT’s 2010 Distinguished Teacher Awards. 15 Dec 2010
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