What can a Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Tell Homeschooling Parents about Teaching?
Reading time: 8 minutes
Richard Phillips Feynman (pronounced like “fine-man”) was a Nobel prize-winning physicist. He was an American theoretical physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world.
What can a physicist tell homeschooling parents about teaching your children?
Actually—he was not only a scientist, but a leading authority on teaching. He had a different point of view on how to teach things and was an outlier in his thinking about education.
Let’s examine two of his ideas you should be using at home.
Idea One: The Feynman Technique
The Feynman Technique is both a learning strategy, and a way to determine how much you don’t know about a subject. It emphasizes the use of every day words and getting to the essence of the concept. It exposes the “illusion of knowing” that new learners may have.
This is his famous principle on how to really learn something. There are four steps:
These steps are explained in greater detail:
- Step One: Pick a topic you are studying. Or take a principle that you are trying to understand. You do this to find out how much you really know about it.
- Step Two: Explain it as if you were talking to a 5-year old. You can present it to someone, or simply try to explain it to yourself using simple words and concepts. You cannot use subject matter jargon or technical terms.
- Step Three: Identify gaps in your knowledge and make corrections. What did you struggle to explain? What was unclear? If you were presenting to someone, ask them to summarize what they understood.
- Step Four: Simplify and create analogies. Go back and improve your understanding. Repeat steps if needed.
Once a child can distill down and explain an idea in its simplest and most basic terms, you will then know they really understand it. This is a form of “recitation practice.”
Caution – At first look, the 4 steps seem too simple to be useful. But remember this is from a Nobel Prize winning scientist. The beauty of this learning strategy is in its simplicity. Try it yourself. Test the idea on a complex topic you think you know well. Go through the four steps with your youngest child. Can you do it? You might surprise yourself. Did you learn something?
Key Teaching Point #1: Use it in Your Classroom:
Coach your children to use the Feynman Technique to gain a sound understanding of a topic. Help them go through the four steps. Start using in your classroom, then transition to homework. At the end of a lesson with new material, have your child explain it in his or her own words, but not using the same words you taught. Give them time to jot down ideas and prepare. Another approach is to have your older children explain a new concept to your younger ones. Listen for understanding and point out the gaps in knowledge. Celebrate every time you discover “the illusion of learning” as good news. Teach your children to value this.
There is a 2-minute video you can watch with your child that will explain this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkm0TNFzIeg
Idea Two: Avoid Empty Definitions as Explanations
Feynman believed it was essential to teach knowledge in a direct and straightforward manner, without unnecessary words. This applied to everyone—first graders–college students—and even other scientists.
For example, he was horrified by how standard teaching materials taught concepts such as “friction.”
Why do shoe leather soles wear out?
To this question the standard classroom explanation was “friction.” While this is essentially a correct answer, in his mind, this answer did not represent real learning or real knowledge. It merely repeated what was heard or noted down.
Contrast this by looking at Feynman’s much richer explanation:
“Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off. That is real knowledge. To simply say, ‘It is because of friction,’ is sad, because it’s not science.” – Feynman
He felt the explanation that friction “makes things wear out” was tautology – empty definition. He points out that specialized language should not be introduced until after basic understanding of the topic has been established.
Key Teaching Point #2: Work Backwards
When teaching new information, skip over the term and essentially work backwards with your lessons. Be flexible on how you use your instructor guides. Don’t start your lesson by saying, “I am going to teach you about friction.” Start by saying something the children can relate to — “I am going to teach you why the bottoms of your shoes wear out so quickly.”
The idea is to first teach the concept to your children using everyday language. Explain the concept and gain understanding first. Later, you can provide the special labels, such as “friction” on something, knowing they already understand the idea. This has the additional benefit they will more readily remember the concepts.
Test your children’s knowledge this way: say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.”
If they cannot, then this means they don’t understand it.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman
Footnote: It is useful to know that like Einstein and Edward Teller, Feynman was a late talker. He had yet to utter a word by his third birthday. But he developed a lucid way to describe ordinary things. He was a collaborator on the Manhattan Project during WWII. He was a member of the Rogers Commission who investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He is still popular for his The Feynman Lectures on Physics, even though he passed away in 1988.