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Richard Feynman on teaching

From Richard Feynman, "'Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!' Adventures of a Curious Character" (New York, 1986):

"I don't believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don't have any ideas and I'm not getting anywhere I can say to myself, 'At least I'm living; at least I'm doing something; I am making some contribution' -- it's just psychological.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don't get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there's not enough real activity and challenge: You're not in contact with the experimental guys. You don't have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you've got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it's the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer period of time when not much is coming to you. You're not getting any ideas, and if you're doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can't even say 'I'm teaching my class.'

If you're teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can't think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you're rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I've thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn't do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It's not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don't have to teach. Never."

-- Edward Tufte


One technique Feynman utilized was the use of "guest lecturers" for his courses. Among those are Charles Bennett, Geoffrey Fox, Norman Margolus, Tommaso Toffoli. Sometimes when Feynman would follow a guest in the next lecture he would tell his students "what the guest should have said" :-) I expect most paid attention.

Mead makes numerous Feynman references in his book, "Collective Electrodynamics" and authored several chapters in "Feynman and Computation." In Collective, Mead recalls a seminar that Feynman opened as follows:

"Einstein was a giant." A hush fell over the audience. We all sat, expectantly, wating for him to elaborate. Finally, he continued, "His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground." We all chuckled, and again waited. After another long silence, he concluded, "But thos of us who are not that tall have to choose!"

I believe he could teach. I think he loved it.

-- Gene Prescott (email)


Most physicists readily admit that the only subfields of physics they understand are (1) their area of research, and (2) the subjects they're teaching. Whether this teaching benefits the students as much as it does the teacher varies from teacher to teacher. In Feynman's case, his three book "Feynman Lectures" set is regarded as an amazingly insightful presentation of basic physics--if you already have a good working knowledge of basic physics. It is popular amongst grad students preparing for qualifying exams. It is also acknowledged that these books are not well suited for beginning physics students. Feynman's introductory physics courses themselves, on which the books were based, were apparently failures--James Gleick details this in his biography of Feymnan (Genius).

Physics education as a whole, though, isn't in much better shape; most physicists don't really know how to connect to students and the whole enterprise ends up being largely "sink-or-swim," in which those who can figure out the subject matter on their own are the ones who succeed. Physicists tend not to pay much attention to physics education research. To begin with, the discipline of physics values the notion that any result can be derived from "first principles": a few fundamental laws of nature and a lot of clever reasoning. So physicists are predisposed to start from scratch and try to re-invent the wheel if they should take an interest in physics education. The Feynman mystique also breeds amongst physicists the notion that all other fields of study are easy and trivial, so physicists are inclined to ignore the whole education research community.

Every couple of years, in any physics department, some professor will realize that the first-year physics students aren't "learning the concepts" and will decide that he is going to fix the situation. So he'll embark on a complete overhaul of the curriculum, based on his notion of how he learned physics and how he sees the whole enterprise. His efforts will work well for about a year--there's actually a theory in physics education research that says that any education reform idea works for the first year--and after that, everything will revert to normal until the next reformer comes along.

-- Tom Metcalf (email)


The Dec 22 issue of the New Scientist has links to a number of interesting videos from Richard Feynman lecturing in 1979 to a classic Ali G interview.

-- Simon Shutter (email)




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