Dr. Daniel Gerber’s long career in public health began in the mid-1970s when he spent two years in the Philippines as a health programs volunteer for the U.S. Peace Corps. This experience proved to be the beginning of a four-decade career in public health that encompassed time in Bangladesh and Indonesia as a director for Save the Children, work in other developing countries as a health trainer/educator, and culminated in an appointment as faculty and then associate dean for academic affairs with the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences. In 2011, he was inducted into the Delta Omega Honorary Society at Umass as a faculty member.
In April 2012, the National Office had the opportunity to ask Dr. Gerber a few questions about his work in public health and what the Delta Omega Honorary Society means to him.
Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. As you have more than 30 years experience in the field and education, what approaches do you find work best in communicating and teaching public health to students and the public-at-large?
As a Peace Corps Volunteer I was trained in and utilized the typical educational approach that everyone knows, a method known as “The Banking Approach” which dominates the world of education. It was only after accepting a health program manager position in Bangladesh for Save the Children in 1983 that I discovered a new and exciting approach to education known as “Adult Learning Theory.” This new pedagogy was pioneered by Dr. Malcolm Knowles and calls on teachers to work with students’ already established knowledge and experiences in order to increase their knowledge and skills. In addition, I was taught the Experiential Learning Cycle developed by David Kolb and over time have integrated Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory with Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle. The result has been designing and implementing successful public health programs that respected the villagers’ current knowledge and understanding, and through dialogue opened the doors to new knowledge and healthier ways of living. I have been using this pedagogy for the past thirty years and have established successful programs around the world, including in Yemen, Belize, Nepal, Tunisia, Cape Verde, Micronesia, Vanuatu, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and also here in the United States at the University and in surrounding communities.
When you learn someone is in Delta Omega, what does that mean to you?
Two words come to mind - devotion and excellence.
What advice do you give to new graduates looking to make their mark in the public health field?
A former student of mine said it best when asked at a recent gathering of UMass alumni, “Who made a difference in your life while a student at UMass?” One alumnus, who completed both his undergraduate and Master’s degree here at UMass and is pursuing his Ph.D. with Boston University, testified that “Dr. Gerber taught me to think outside the box and helped me unbound my dreams.” This testimony bears directly on my belief in Adult Learning Theory vs. the Banking Approach to education. One of the first questions I pose to students upon meeting them is, “If you could do anything after you graduate, I mean anything, what would it be? Don’t hold back – dream!” What did Albert Einstein say? “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.” I truly believe this.
The field of public health seems to be ever-changing and often invisible to the public it serves. What thoughts do you have on ensuring excellence and quality in such a dynamic and often underappreciated field?
My approach to working as a public health professional is framed in the following, “How do we support, teach, and facilitate people including ourselves to live healthier lives as individuals and create healthy communities?” When someone asks me what do I hope my students learn, I explain, “As long as the human race lives with the mental model ‘the Earth was created for us’ we will continue to try to control the Earth and all its resources, and eventually we will die no longer existing as a species. In this case, perhaps, the next species that dominates this planet will do a better job than us. But, if we can move to the mental model ‘the Earth was made for all living things’; we will have a good chance of changing the way we live and surviving as a race.” How will this be accomplished? I honestly do not know, but as a public health teacher I believe the first step is for us to recognize these two very different mental models and their implications and at the very least start the conversation. The field of public health must move even more towards being a profession that is willing to work together with other professions, for it is only in dialogue with others that we will truly help establish a healthier world.