I have never had the pleasure of meeting Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988). Reading the Wiki entry on Feynman is both humbling and delightful. What a prodigious brain, what a sensibility, what delight he takes in being alive and learning. But to get a better understanding of who he is, you need to watch an interview of his The Pleasure of Finding Out Things. It is 50 minutes long. I have spent too many hours watching that video. Here was a kindred spirit, I thought to myself, when I first saw that video on public television many years ago.
Watch that video. I am doing so right now as I write this. Here is a bookmark: around time-stamp 6:15, he talks about the distinction between knowing a thing and knowing the name of the thing, which his father taught him. That idea keeps bouncing around in my head. Much too often our education system concentrates on naming things and not so much on understanding the nature of the thing. Feynman was an absolutely amazing teacher because I think he was an absolutely amazing student. It was from his father that he learnt to observe and after observing, ask questions.
This is very important and I wish to highlight it. First you observer, feel puzzled, and then you ask questions. And the amazing thing is that you can ask questions that nobody knows the answer to. Watch the video around the 7:00 time stamp to see what I mean. He notices how the ball moves and asks his father why it does what it does. His father’s answer is illuminating. He starts his answer with “Nobody knows …” and then teaches the young boy a deeper lesson that merely naming something is not sufficient.
He was a moral person. His contribution to the success of the Manhattan Project caused him pain eventually because he believed that his continuation with the project even after Germany has surrendered was an immoral act. Only a morally courageous person has the capacity to judge an action of his as immoral.
Around the 20 minute time-stamp, he talks about how the freedom he had to do what was fun for him and was not under any pressure to do “good work” that he was relaxed enough to do the work in QED which won him the Nobel Prize.
I take that lesson very seriously. You cannot produce stuff of any value when you are under pressure. Nobody can think deep thoughts while fighting fires. That is why those who went up the mountain as mere humans, after a few years came down the mountain as sages. Academic freedom is important and so is financial freedom. Why doesn’t India produce fundamentally good work? To a large extent, I believe, it has to do with the environment in which Indians in India have to do things which is the equivalent of fighting fires: worrying about where the next meal is coming from.
Feynman talks about science and what it means to him. His attitude is one of wanting to find out what the world is like. He says that he is not frightened of not knowing and is comfortable with doubt and uncertainty. He knows that he doesn’t know and is not ashamed to admit it. It is an attitude that is fertile with the possibility of learning because it affords one the joy of finding things out.
My interest in that interview arises to no small extent from what he says about teaching. I interpret his position to be that the process of learning is not “one size fits all” and therefore different methods and techniques will work on different people.
Which brings me to my favorite topic: how can education be made more effective? By making the system more flexible, more “learner-centric,” more broad to appeal to the broad spectrum of talents and interests that people exhibit. The technological tools exist today which can make possible a fundamentally different method of teaching and learning.
I am aware that I am learning all the time. I am sure that I did some learning during the many years I spent in formal educational institutions. But I am convinced that I learnt much more afterwards. As someone said, “learning is what happens when you are busy doing something else.” That I think is the key. If you are busy doing something that interests you, then as a side-effect you will learn.
For the past few days, I have been scouring the web for content on Physics. It is part of the work that I am involved in: figuring out what is out there available on the web that can be aggregated to form the comprehensive core of an education in Physics. While doing that, I have learnt a lot more than I had anticipated. It will take days for me to simply begin to state what wonderful things I have learnt, and so I will not even begin to do so. There is simply too much stuff out there.
I did a search on del.icio.us tag “physics” and found 21,895 links. Just going through the first few pages of links has given me more things than I could reasonably do in a week. It is a problem of plenty, of an absolute affluence of information. Where there is a problem, there is an opportunity. But more about that later.
For now, just a few examples. Want an amazing physics textbook absolutely free? Here is the Free Physics Textbook . Want to do physics simulations? Go do it at MyPhysicsLab or at the Interactive Physics Simuation site.
In a very strong sense I envy the kids of today who have access to the web and can afford the time to learn from the stunningly large repository of content. Thirty years ago, the average kid could have had the experience of watching Feynman’s interview while sitting at home. Today that ability is nothing special to those who have a broadband connection and a computer.
When I was growing up, I was lucky to have good science teachers and I suppose some adequate textbooks. But I can well imagine that had I had the content and the tools available absolutely free on the web today, then I would had a lot more fun learning, and consequently learnt my lessons better.
But what about the hundreds of millions who don’t have computers and don’t have broadband connectivity? What can we do for them? The technology is there but the affordability is not. It is too expensive in time and money to identify and access the phenomenal amount of educational content and tools. The answer to that problem is a no-brainer – which is why I have figured it out. 🙂