Sunday, July 05, 2009

Richard Feynman on Learning

Richard Feynman was an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He was an eccentric figure, and quite a few books have been written by him and or about him on the subject of his life. One of the most famous, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is now available for reading online, absolutely free. (If reading online gives you eyestrain, there's always Amazon.)

The book deals with a wide range of fascinating topics, from sex to business to art, but because Feynman spent most of his life in academia, it focuses on education. The book is primarily a collection of loosely-related essays, so you can skip the irrelevant parts if you don't find them interesting, but I recommend you read the whole book anyway. The following essays are especially relevant to education:
  • Lucky Numbers
  • O Americana, Outra Vez!
  • Judging Books by Their Covers
Lucky Numbers has a very interesting twist on the standard litany about the evils of rote memorisation. Feynman describes how he was able to best a Japanese man armed with an abacus because he had memorised more combinations of numbers and operations:
I realized something: he doesn't know numbers. With the abacus, you don't have to memorize a lot of arithmetic combinations; all you have to do is learn how to push the little beads up and down. You don't have to memorize 9 + 7 = 16; you just know that when you add 9 you push a ten's bead up and pull a one's bead down. So we're slower at basic arithmetic, but we know numbers.
Feynman's point is that it's understanding which matters the most, and that there is not always a conflict between understanding and memorisation. Sometimes, you need to memorise something to understand it. The abacus salesman had merely memorised how to work an abacus, without internalising any understanding of numbers and how they relate to one another. Because he worked with numbers, day in and day out, Feynman knew them like the back of his hand.

O Americana, Outra Vez! is a meandering essay on the time Feynman spent lecturing in Brazil, but it is absolutely worth reading because of its emphasis on the need for the right philosophy of learning. Much of it is still very applicable to the Malaysian education system:
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant. When they heard "light that is reflected from a medium with an index," they didn't know that it meant a material such as water. They didn't know that the "direction of the light" is the direction in which you see something when you're looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words.
This particular discussion caught my eye because it reminded me instantly of all the revision books students buy to supplement their textbooks and lectures:
So I came in, carrying the elementary physics textbook that they used in the first year of college. They thought this book was especially good because it had different kinds of typeface -- bold black for the most important things to remember, lighter for less important things, and so on.


I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: "Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..."

I said, "And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature -- what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can't.
Feynman hated the way Brazilians taught science; he refused to call it science at all. He felt the students were not learning anything meaningful about the natural world around them; they were just memorising words and numbers without learning how to relate these abstractions to the real-world concepts they represent.

Judging Books By Their Covers describes what happened when Feynman served on a board of parents and educators preparing the list of approved textbooks for the state of California. Feynman again found himself infuriated by the books, because they explained everything in a completely unrelatable manner:
I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything, "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything. Suppose it's "Wakalixes." That's the general principle: "Wakalixes makes it go." There's no knowledge coming in. The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word!

What they should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind "energy." Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy.
The whole book is a thoroughly entertaining piece of literature, and there is more to learning and academia in it than the bits and pieces I have just quoted. The opening essays which deal with Feynman's childhood in particular show how he himself first learned and developed an interest for science. I hope you find this book useful in thinking about the purpose of education, and how we should go about fulfilling this purpose.


Shawn Tan said...

Good one man!

In the M'sian context, you have also got to add in the work books. I think that students spend more time with the work books than the text books - drilling everything into their heads. However, that's also the only way that some people can learn.

Anonymous said...

Screw Feymann!!
The most critical,most important and crucial knowledge that every human beings on this planet should seek to learn and master are Business,Economics,Accounting,Management,Banking and Finance.

Money make the world go around!!!!

Coltz said...

I'm confused whether to identify the post above me as sarcasm.

Anonymous said...

Feynman is nothing but a human labour worker-slave.

His choice in life is either be owned,exploited and work or die starving.

Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geitner, and even Bernie Madoff should be the human idols that every Malaysians should look up to.

Anonymous said...

KM, Tony, & John,

Please blog about

Do check the graphs at

Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is interested, sugar crystals are triboluminescent. Sit in a completely dark room for about 10 minutes (your eyes have to adjust to the lack of light) with sugar in a clear glass and something to crush the sugar crystals with and you will see a faint blue glow -- it's fascinating!

Anonymous said...

jesus christ at the capitalist. who cares if a troll or not. there are these kinda ppl out there. lets assume not a troll tho.

you are arguing that all malaysia needs is greedy business ppl. then who is going to do the work? outsource? fk over ppl... christ.

change will come. i hope.

wat shits me is that these ppl have so much power