Richard Feynman on Teaching Math to Kids and The Lessons of Knowledge

Richard Feynman :Exploring Richard Feynman’s Insights into Mathematics Education and Lifelong Learning” The legendary science researcher Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was well-known for his sharp insights and clarity of thinking. 

He was famous for more than his work in attempting to earn the Nobel Prize, but also for the clarity of his explanations of everyday things like why trains remain on tracks while they travel through a curvature, why we search for the emergence of new laws in science and the way rubber bands function.

Feynman understood the distinction between knowing the name and actually knowing the name of something. He was frequently prone to tell the Emperor that they didn’t have clothes, as this fascinating instance in James Gleick’s novel Genius The Science and Science of Richard Feynman illustrates.

The process of educating his children was a cause for him to consider how the teaching elements ought to be used. At the time that the daughter Carl had reached the age of four, Feynman was “actively lobbying against a first-grade science textbook that was proposed to California education.”

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It began with images of a wind-up mechanical dog and a dog and a motorbike, for each one, the same question was asked “What is it that makes it go?” The proposed answer-“energy makes it move” Energy is what makes it move”– angered him.

It was a tautology, he said–a meaningless definition. Feynman has been a professional in understanding the complexities of energy, suggested it’s more beneficial to start an introductory science class by dismantling a model dog and revealing the niftyness of the ratchets and gears. 

A first-grader being told that “energy creates motion” isn’t any more useful, he added rather than stating “God creates it to move” or “moveability causes it to be move .”

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Feynman offered a simple test to determine if the idea is being taught or just definitions: “Without using the new word that you just learned, attempt to translate what you’ve learned in your native language. Without using the word energy, describe to me what you have learned about the dog’s movements.”

The other explanations that were offered were equally bad: gravity makes falls, and friction causes the material wear away. You weren’t exempt on your education simply because you were in the first grade and Feynman’s explanations have not only attracted all the interest of his viewers–ranging from Nobel winners to first graders–but gave a real understanding.

 “Shoe leather gets worn out because it is rubbing against the sidewalk, and the small bumps and notches in the pavement grab bits and drag them off.” This is the essence of knowledge. “To simply say, “It is due to friction it’s sad because it’s not science.”

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Richard Feynman on Teaching Math to Kids and the lessons of Knowledge 2.

Selecting Textbooks for Grade School

In 1964, Feynman made the unique choice to be a member of the public commission responsible for deciding math textbooks for the state’s grade schools. As Gleick describes it:

Traditionally, this was an unofficial position that brought many tiny perquisites by textbook authors. A few commissioners– as Feynman realized, had have read a lot of textbooks, but Feynman was determined to read them every single one, and ordered hundreds of books delivered to his home.

It was the time of math that was new in the textbooks for children: including advanced concepts like sets theory, and even non-decimal number systems, into the elementary school curriculum.


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