Surely You’re Joking: Feynman on Learning, Textbooks and (un)Common Sense

October 13, 2010

“First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense.”
-Richard Feynman, 1952

The concept of real learning can be easy to describe but difficult to achieve.  The work of Richard Feynman provides an interesting case study of the value starting with ‘Why’, and where to take things from there.

Why’, ‘What’…. then ‘How’

The name Caltech tends to conjure the image of highly talented, motivated students, but in 1960 it was clear there was a problem. The standard two-year introductory physics course offered to freshmen and sophomores was actually dampening their enthusiasm.  The classes offered the usual necessary foundational topics in physics, but for students who walked the university in with visions of quantum mechanics, it was more than a slight let-down.  There was not a lot of connection made between what was presented in classroom lectures and where modern day physics was heading.

Feynman recognized that what was missing was the ‘Why’ – the meaning, the reasons, the endgame, if you like, that stemmed from these foundations.  Without a sufficient ‘Why’ the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ are destined to go astray.  So from 1960-1962 he delivered what are now known as his Lectures on Physics.   They were presented to the entire introductory physics class, but the content was geared to spark the curiosity of the most advanced students (with the intent being that practice problems within their recitation sections would shore up practical understanding for others).  The lectures often presented, if sometimes only in a summary manner,  concepts beyond the students’ current understanding, giving them a window into where their studies could take them.  It was the kind of window that a standard, linearly presented course in physics did not provide.

The  Lectures were not (at the time) an unqualified success.  Feynman recognized that the somewhat spontaneous nature of the lectures meant that there was not time for sufficient front-end preparation of practice problems that were to be provided by the instructors of the recitation sections.  Advance preparation is always a key “cost” to consider when looking at non-linear, inquiry-driven learning; it is also key to its success.  Despite the need for better preparation to allow for more effective practice problems, those students who ‘got’ the concepts were inspired and motivated in ways they would not have been otherwise (as were the many graduate students and professors who attended the lectures).   In principle Feynman’s Lectures were on the right track, in practice, he was aware of the improvements and changes needed to make his approach effective (better opportunities for practice and support).

Surely You’re Joking… Evaluating Textbooks

In the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, there is a memorable chapter regarding a time in the 1960s when Feynman was asked to help review math textbooks for the State of California’s school system.  The whole story is worth reading (being both disturbing and entertaining) and can be found online.   The experience proved to be a bit of a shock for Feynman as he went through book after book. All the texts tried to embody the kind of real learning that Feynman himself strove to provide, but each one was guilty of a serious shortcomings: inaccuracy, poor terminology, and ridiculous problems.

The root of the issue for all the texts was a sort of artificial rigor that was created to meet a list of criteria, as opposed to lessons rooted in true fundamental understanding and applicability.  Additionally, despite the names of ‘experts’ listed as authors of textbooks, the actual mass assembly process used by publishers tended to involve many authors of limited knowledge and skill; the names experts were every bit as much window-dressings as were the aspirations to suggest the course was rigorous and correct.  It is an example of expediency and costs driving content.  Creating meaningful learning takes time, effort, and deep understanding of a concept.  (Sadly, having been on committees that review Math and Science texts, I can vouch for the fact that little has changed in the intervening decades.)

Feynman immediately recognized the lack of both substance and of meaningful practice in the books.  In this case, the ‘Why’ for learning was: to meet standards generated by state bureaucracy.  This made it unlikely that the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of learning were going to to be any more meaningful; if there is no real goal, it’s unlikely there will be meaningful practice; expedient checking off the boxes becomes the priority goal, taking precedent over deep learning.

Three Easy Pieces

When comes down to it, providing the opportunity for real learning is quite simple, at least in principle:

Remember the Why
Context matters.  ‘Why’ you are learning something drives everything else from motivation (it’s your ‘elevator pitch’), to sense-making, to methods.

Front End Preparation
Good learning requires sufficient front-end preparation that students have worthwhile opportunities to practice and learn.  This is how they make understanding their own.  Lack of advance preparation leads to a lot more box checking and micromanagement.  Yes, it’s more work at the beginning, but if the goal is learning, not just ticking things off the list…

Rigor Needs to Be Real, Not Just Window Dressing

Rigor for rigor’s sake can lose track of the ‘why’ and become another form of “box-checking”.  When you know the ‘why’ you have the chance for meaningful teaching based on deep knowledge.


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