Rarely do educators reach the fame and celebrity status that Richard Feynman had throughout his life, fame that continues to linger even decades after his death. A legendary physicist and Nobel laureate, he revolutionized the field of quantum electrodynamics—practically rewriting it. Nevertheless, he is most fondly remembered not for his physics but rather for his contribution to science education.
His most extraordinary educational work, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, arose from an undergraduate course at Caltech. Feynman taught only once, a course of such magnificent quality that Caltech recorded each lecture and took pictures of every diagram he ever made. Driven by the need to overhaul an old-fashioned syllabus and present grander, newer ideas to maintain the interest of new undergraduates in physics, his teaching style won him the “Great Explainer” title. Bill Gates, among many others, has remarked that Feynman was the “best teacher [he] never had” Rarely do educators reach the fame and celebrity status that Richard Feynman had throughout his life, the fame that continues to linger even decades after his death. A legendary physicist and Nobel laureate, he revolutionized the field of quantum electrodynamics—practically rewriting it. Nevertheless, he is most fondly remembered not for his physics but for his contribution to science education.
But enough of how great Richard Feynman was:
What set him apart? What gave him the gift of being what Caltech faculty dubbed “an extraordinary teacher of teachers”? Well, it boils down to his learning philosophy. Feynman particularly despised memorization. For him, science was a process of discovery, not a seemingly disjunct series of facts to be memorized.
Especially evident in his experience teaching Physics at a Brazilian university, he remarked on
the abilities of students to remember everything about the concept of polarization without knowing what it meant. Feynman hated to see science vitiated in such a manner, with students lacking any ability to recognize or apply what they’d learned in the real world. This was the key to his teaching, prioritizing the quality of education over quantity; inquiry-based courses instead of content-based ones. We’re lucky
enough as IB students to be studying syllabi that emphasize precisely this from teachers who genuinely care about developing our natural curiosity into scientific inquiry.
Furthermore, he believed in cultivating a solid intuition and looking at things through first principles rather than taking people’s words at face value. Scientific knowledge is an accumulation of knowledge, but just like any other knowledge, it is also an accumulation of biases and prejudices. To accept information without questioning it defeats the purpose of science, which is, as Feynman put it, “the result
of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting experience from the past”. Feynman practised what he preached. This led him to investigate the Challenger space shuttle disaster beyond what NASA officials had already disclosed. More than anything, though, Feynman emphasized that anyone could learn science and be a scientist. He sharply rebuked the idea that there existed ‘natural’ talent for science, often reminding his idolizing fans, of which there were many, that he was only “an ordinary person who studied hard”. This, at least for me, is my biggest takeaway from Richard Feynman. It is a takeaway that has, does, and will always motivate me and generations of science students to continue learning from this beautiful area of knowledge. It is a testament to Richard Feynman and all science teachers who keep captivating us with the natural world’s secrets.
Ideally, I would end with just one quote, but this great man has so much wisdom to gain, so I’ll leave you with a few instead.
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible”.