Feynman on Education

In reading Richard Feynman’s book “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman,” I came across a passage that struck me as very relevant to our world today. In this passage, Feynman details a lecture he gave at the end of his stay in Brazil as visiting Professor at the Center for Physical Research in Rio. While in Rio, Feynman was able to get an inside view of how their system worked. His talk (and this mini-story in general) points out how memorization is not at all true learning. Feynman, who I have come to see as a huge proponent for learning by doing, also mentions the joy and almost necessity in having experiments as part of a science course.

To me, his words really hit home. I know from experience the feeling of “knowing” a material but failing entirely to see the the solution to the same problem when presented differently from how I “learned” it. And Feynman’s “smack down” of the education system in Brazil, in my mind, can now apply to the system in the U.S. Tests and lectures are structured so that lots of students only study the minimum that’s going to be on the test and even then, forget that soon after. This is not the way to go about searching for success. Once fully comprehended, concepts should appear pliable. Any which way it’s presented, true knowledge can answer it.

This kind of deep understanding comes from real examples. In the book, Feynman disses the publisher of the Brazilian science textbook, for having faked the single simple inclined plane experiment in the book. To me, examples with no possibility of ever occurring in the real world are just as bad as this faked experiment. Experiments are there to help students make connections for themselves by seeing the concept in action. As a student, examples that require me to actually test it out, help me to see for my own eyes the conclusions. This concreteness then makes it much easier to remember and understand.

So let’s make Feynman proud and add (or expand) hands-on learning in our classrooms. Because learning by doing is powerful.


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