Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Real Geniuses Keep It (as) Simple (as possible)

(This blog entry is part one of a half-dozen reflections that steal teaching ideas from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, atomic bomb developer, colorful personality, and pretty darn good teacher.)


Prof. Feynman during Special Lecture on Motion of Planets
(Energy.gov - public domain)
It would be easy for an accomplished professor to overwhelm students (particularly undergraduates) with a barrage of brilliant, baffling bombast. But good (in both the skilled AND ethical senses) teachers are interested less in inflating their own esteem, and more in helping move students along in their academic journeys. This idea was refreshed in my mind during my summer reading of Richard Feynman's undergraduate lectures on Physics.
Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he told the faculty member, "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it." (Intro to Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher.)
Make no mistake about it: Feynman could never be accused of wielding Occam's Razor to the point of reductio ad absurdum. He understood that complex intellectual issues couldn't be reduced to a simple summary, but that there should be a process that facilitates the learner to approach these issues by steps:
"Not satisfied to learn physics in four years, you want to learn it in four minutes? We cannot do it in this way…. one needs a considerable amount of preparatory training even to learn what the words mean. No, it is not possible to do it that way. We can only do it piece by piece." (Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.)
One collection of his lectures on physics is titled "Six Easy Pieces," which, in some sense seems like a cruel joke, (He thinks this is EASY?) - but on the other hand, it makes sense. To someone devoted to learning Physics, these steps are the easiest way to approach the most complex topics in subjects like Quantum Mechanics.

As teachers, we should not assume we are successful if we are so "challenging" that students leave class feeling lost. Rather we must provide some scaffolding steps to take students up levels so they can engage the more complex issues of our field. But the steps must require some climbing - and must lead up to the objectives of the field of study. And, yes, we can tell them these are the "Easy Steps." And, even if they don't buy it as they climb the steps, when they reach the top, they will look back and see that this precept-upon-precept plan was the best way.