Feynman, Gen Ed, and more

While you’re reading Richard P. Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character, please share your ideas on the blog. Here are some questions you might respond to:

  • how does this book relate to this seminar specifically, or to General Education generally?
  • what connections can we make between Feynman’s ways of learning and ours or our students’?
  • how can we learn from Feynman’s interdisciplinary approaches to inform our discussion of the first-year esperience and general education?
  • how can Feynman’s approach inform our teaching?
  • how can we inspire in our students the kind of inquisitive love of learning that Feynman embodies?
  • what types of breakthroughs does the book present, and what can we learn by studying breakthroughs?

Please also be prepared to talk more specifically about breakthroughs:

  • What will be the next big breakthrough in your field? in your teaching?
  • What from the freshman experience will be most useful to your students in 10 years–that is, in their professional worlds?

See you on Friday, and on the blog before then!

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14 Responses to Feynman, Gen Ed, and more

  1. mark noonan says:

    In my view, Richard P. Feynman’s book is marvelous on so many fronts. It’s humorous, captivating, smart, refreshingly candid and has lots and lots to say about what it means to be a top-notch intellectual, academic, teacher, and magnetic personality all in one. His book has a lot to say to our group and university life in general. Foremost, I salute his advocacy of authentic teaching innovation and recognition of the importance of ideas and cutting-edge research. In addition, he is not afraid of making people feel uncomfortable, no matter their status, if he feels he has an important point to make. We need much more such courage in the university.

    His method of learning is very useful to students in that he never blindly accepts dogma, nor the ideas of people who profess to be the experts; rather he tests all ideas out. His courage to enter other disciplines from Mathematics, Music, Philosophy, Literature, and even Mayan Culture allows new insights in fields that in many ways may have become echo chambers. He demonstrates keenly how a specialty in a single field meshed with an interest and aptitude in many fields allows for original discoveries as well as what is equally important for a vibrant society, an interesting person.
    As Feynman shows, the best way to inspire students is to show how fun it is to be interested in the world of ideas and also to show how much good ideas matter. We live in a world in which bad ideas and pseudo-thinking dominate; the great professor shows students how to break the mold.

    I would say that the biggest breakthrough of book is to defend simultaneously the teacher in the classroom and the researcher and to show how both roles should reinforce each other. As he writes, “I would never accept any position in which someone has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.” We need to create a university that honors the student by doing a better job to honor the professor who thrives in the classroom as much as he thrives as a scholar.

  2. Jonas Reitz says:

    Following Feynman’s stories I found myself alternating between two emotional poles. To him, the world is a playground of new ideas, waiting to be explored — inspiring! And he is so fearless in the face of them — initimidating! Near the end of the book, he comments: “I got a big kick out of giving my talk on ‘Deciphering Mayan Hieroglyphics.’ There I was, being something I’m not again.” How can he be so willing to be something he is not? Of course, he has the confidence born of great success — but success can just as easily be a limiting factor, if it makes us unwilling to risk failure. He is happy to pursue experiences outside his comfort zone, approaching them humbly and with full acceptance of the possibility of failure, but with honest interest and a desire to see how far he can go. How do we cultivate this, first in ourselves and then in our students? I think this is one of the most important questions of this General Education Seminar, and I look forward to seeing what we come up with!

    As a start, I very much liked Mark’s comment above: “the best way to inspire students is to show how fun it is to be interested in the world of ideas and also to show how much good ideas matter.”

  3. I agree with Mark and Jonas regarding Feynman’s humor and his ability to take examples from everyday life to inspire new ways of thinking. Feynman also reminded me how intimidating academia can be for students both socially and intellectually. For our seminar, I think we should think about how theory and practice are connected in the classroom and how each inform the other. In the earlier chapters, Feynman provides insightful examples of the hands on approach to learning whether it be based on his experience waiting tables or fixing televisions. However, one of my favorite chapters is “Mixing Paint,” here Feynman is a Princeton graduate student and confronts his own anti-intellectualism by believing the experienced painters who tell him the mixing red and white paint will produce yellow, even though he knows better. I would like to see our General Education discuss teaching strategies that erase the artificial boundary between what counts for abstract knowledge in the academic world and what counts as “street smarts” in the so-called real world without necessarily privileging one over the other. Feynman’s wisdom (and humor), for me, lies in his ability and confidence to negotiate between Brooklyn and Princeton.

  4. The Feynman book , in my view, represents the benefits of a “curious” (as noted on the cover) nature. Constantly throughout the book, Mr. Feynman is presented with a situation that seems contradictory. For example, how some can someone make consistent money betting on horses, or in Las Vegas? Based on his knowledge of probabilities, he calculated this endeavor seemed improbable. However, upon further investigation, he realized there were other factors, and other types of bets, involved in the process. Mr. Feynman had the motivation to satisfy his curiosity. This motivation led him to do work (in these examples to spend time with the bettors) and finally reconcile the contradictory circumstance.
    The General Ed disciplines, perhaps more than technical courses, could be used to foster a sense of a curious nature. This nature could then be used to motivate students to learn, not because a test is pending, but to reconcile perceived contradictions. Notice Mr. Feynman was rarely “directly tested” on the new knowledge he gained by his exploits. Often in high school students learn with the sole goal of passing a test. This associates learning with a stressful situation. I have often chatted with mature adults who say “I would love to take a history course now”, but yet hated it in high school, or college. Why are they curious and motivated to learn now, but not in their previous educational environment?

  5. I found great pleasure reading Feynman’s interpretation of teaching, learning and most of all exploring. It was the explanation of his exploration that was most intriguing to me. Clearly he is an extraordinary person with great far reaching accomplishments, yet he expressed his unique fears of failing that eventually lead him to success in and out of the classroom. For instance, when he described his first thoughts on drawing in the chapter “But is it Art?” his past experiences made him uncertain that he could find success. His teacher encouraged him to try but then said “Of course you will need to work” (pg 261).

    His fear of trying to draw is represented over and over again in our classrooms when students are challenged to try something they have failed at in the past. It is our responsibility to our students to help them find the courage, patience and desire they must have to overcome their academic challenges and aspirations. If we can encourage them to overcome their fears they will then be able to do the work required to be proficient in an area they once feared or excel in areas that they have set forth high ambitions.

  6. “A good sense of humor and a healthy curiosity combined with a sound educational philosophy and a solid discipline of learning leads to excellence”, a quote from a colleague as we discussed Feynman’s book. In education there seems to be a fine line between instilling the importance of disciplined learning while at the same time not breaking the spirit necessary for curiosity and freedom necessary for lifelong learning.
    The book should help inspire the committee to initiate or re-establish the curiosity of our students built upon previous educational experiences. How far have our students come on this journey? Can we create an experience of questioning and curiosity related to their chosen fields through a unique 1st year experience based on inquisitiveness that incorporates the arts, sciences, humanities etc. – regardless of the preconceived notions of what their fields of study look like to them? Will a broad range of general educational experiences help to develop a life-long desire for curiosity? What are the ingredients for an appetizer that will stimulate the palate to seek more of the same?
    Unveiling his disappointment in the Brazilian educational system Feynman challenges our perception and understanding of what we are accomplishing in our classrooms. From his understanding of what education should be he was not able to comprehend how anyone could be educated by a “self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything”.
    Inspiring and advising our students will require faculty who strive for the same, fully immersing themselves in a problem until it is fully understood and believing that we all need to make mistakes, call them our own and learn what not to do. One suggestion for change is to look at how teaching art differs from teaching the sciences as a way of creating more curious students. Feynman suggests that art teachers do not push students into a particular direction but challenges them to ‘communicate how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit of how to go about solving problems. The incorporation of this idea into a structure of disciplined learning is a challenge for this committee and I am excited to be involved at this point in time.

  7. Viviana says:

    I would like to start by congratulating the professor who had the idea of recommending this book for this seminar. I have to admit that I have lived Feynman’s experience (page 279-284) regarding interdisciplinary seminars where people just talk and nothing happens in the end. However since I have never been involved in any seminars with such a large time span at NYCCT I considered it would be a good idea to get to know what the other professors think about general education in general and how it relates to their field. I also wanted to make a change in the way courses are approached in our department and therefore went over my preconceptions and became part of what I think is going to contradict my previous experience and also Feynman’s impressions about interdisciplinary seminars.
    Like Feynman, I have also taught Electromagnetics for many years at CCNY and when I first prepared the notes for that course it took me 10 hours for each 1 hour of teaching. Why? Because I was tired of those classes I used to take as an undergraduate student where we would fall asleep in the class and not make any sense of the abstract concepts flowing over us as a river without leaving any drop of water on anyone. So I tried to get away from this method of teaching where we teach and students have to accept the dogma(like what Mark said earlier) and wanted to push students to make connections to what is around us every minute of the day and try to prove the concepts themselves. I am telling you that this way of teaching is the most rewarding. You can see the students’ faces with their eyes wide open amazed at the fact that what they thought as being something very hard to comprehend relates to such a simple phenomenon (a simple example is the curl theorem used to solve for magnetic fields which is nothing more than the water vortex going down the drain, and there are so many more examples). It was so much easier for them to solve electromagnetic fields problems once they visualized every term in the mathematical expressions.
    I have found myself in Feynman in so many situations as I was reading his book. Once again it was such a good idea to recommend us this book.
    Feynman’s way of teaching is very passionate and playful in the same time as everything he has done through out his life. His passion in teaching came from trying his best to make students understand the physical phenomena behind the mathematical expressions. I also agree with Peter when saying that his humor is between Brooklyn and Princeton. You need to be able to get to the student level and teach him the concepts at his level and not yours as a professor.
    Going to the third question, I believe that my field (electrical engineering) is related to applied math and physics, to chemistry and biology, and since all findings have to be reported it is also related to writing and communication. (There was a funny joke going around in my student years: What is the resemblance between a police dog and an engineer? They both have smart eyes but they cannot verbally express themselves). So it is needless to say how important it is for students to have good knowledge in fields that are outside their “comfort zone” (as Jonas was saying earlier)
    But as Jonas said: how do we foster this in our students? how do we make them understand that all the knowledge coming from fields outside their major is very important for their future career? Talks in the class (there is barely enough time)?, Alumni talks? Field visits to companies performing work in the students’ areas of interest? One of the keys to success to many scientists has also been their interdisciplinary (at a short scale) nature. By the way, I don’t know if you had the chance to see Ofey’s drawings (http://www.museumsyndicate.com/artist.php?artist=380 ), they are really good.
    As regards the fourth question I think I have already answered it by answering the second question.
    Breakthroughs? The answer would be to teach the student independence in studying the topics of whichever course we cover. One of the best things we can teach our students is how the students can teach themselves. If 10 years from now any of our students comes over a concept which he/she forgot already (which will most likely happen) he/she should be able to make the connections and go to the right books where they can find the answers to their questions. It is important to make our students make connections and nurture in them the curiosity Feynman had for science.
    Since I have been talking so much, I’ll stop here now and see everyone tomorrow.

  8. Shelley says:

    When I first read this book 10 to 15 years ago I was completely captivated by Feynman’s insatiable curiosity, his fearless determination to try his hand at EVERY challenge that crossed his path, his boundless energy for ‘work’ and for adventure . . . his JIOIE DE VIVRE! As I finished the last chapter for the second time yesterday, I was impressed by Feynman’s discussion of INTEGRITY. He speaks of scientific integrity, about “bending over backward” to examine and present, for example, all evidence AGAINST your theory, as well as for it. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other[s] . . .” What a dictum for life!

    With Mark, I hope we can inspire our students to value good ideas and avoid “pseudo-thinking,” and inspire ourselves to hold fast the value of TEACHING to our own scholarly and creative development. With Jonas and Karen, I hope we can inspire fearless willingness to risk failure. With Peter and Doug, I believe the hands-on experiences will be the key to instilling courage and confidence. And with Maria, I was struck deeply by Feynman’s critique of the Brazilian education system. I fear we are headed in the same direction . . . but, NO! Our goal for the seminar is to bend this trajectory.

    On so many levels Feynman illuminates ideas relevant to us as educators (in no particular order):
    – the value of patience and persistence, whether in radio repair, physics, or picking up girls!
    – the value of making your own tools and therefore truly understanding how they work (in the comparison of research at Princeton, where they made their research instruments, and MIT where they purchased the best and latest, p.62).
    – the difference between memorizing facts and UNDERSTANDING (the abacus, p. 196 ff), and the role of memorization in education in various fields (e.g., in biology vs. physics, p.72), and in the Brazilian education system (p. 211 ff)
    – on the folly of assuming that others (‘experts,’ etc.) are correct, or know more than you do (p. 58, the Metaplast Corp; p. 313 ff on being an ‘expert’; p. 254-5 on always checking your assumptions; p. 69-70 on sitting with the philosophers)
    – how students might deal with unwelcome ‘gen ed’ requirements (p. 45 ff)
    – the first instance of the ‘computer disease’ (p. 127)
    – on speaking truth to power (p. 133)
    – on the motivating force of understanding the end goal (read: ‘practical application,’ ‘relevance to the here and now,’ e.g., p. 127 at Los Alamos)

  9. Ezra Halleck says:

    • How does this book relate to this seminar specifically, or to General Education generally?
    Feynman had a passion for education which went beyond his own field, as evidenced by his involvement in elementary textbook selection.
    • what connections can we make between Feynman’s ways of learning and ours or our students’?
    Feynman let his curiosity guide much of what he did. As emphasized in the book, it led to an interesting life outside his profession. As evidenced by his large contributions to his field, his methods and explorations led to significant results.
    • how can we learn from Feynman’s interdisciplinary approaches to inform our discussion of the first-year experience and general education?
    Feynman did research in biology some of which could have led to significant contributions in that field. Perhaps we can show that critical thinking and the scientific method are skills that can be applied to many areas of academia, not just in the course in which they are learned.
    • how can Feynman’s approach inform our teaching?
    Feynman had a clear understanding of the difference between formal education and rigorous education. Students must be able to apply what they learn.
    • how can we inspire in our students the kind of inquisitive love of learning that Feynman embodies?
    We can work in course activities, both in and outside of the classroom, which require exploration.
    • what types of breakthroughs does the book present, and what can we learn by studying breakthroughs?
    Feynman’s earning of the Nobel prize began with a study of rotating objects which had unexpected applications to quantum mechanics. Breakthroughs and significant advances often require thinking outside the box.
    Please also be prepared to talk more specifically about breakthroughs:
    • What will be the next big breakthrough in your field? in your teaching?
    Have no idea what will be the next breakthrough in math, perhaps a solution to the Riemann Hypothesis. For my teaching, my next big breakthrough will to learn how to organize students to do wikis in small groups.
    • What from the freshman experience will be most useful to your students in 10 years–that is, in their professional worlds?
    What will be most useful is the logical thinking upon which mathematics is based. How can results from one area of math apply to other areas. How does a mathematical subject like geometry get built up from just a few beginning assumptions (axioms).

  10. ASSESSMENT (aka test)

    1. How do we foster engagement and curiosity from inside the classroom to outside the classroom and then back again? (10 pts.)

    2. Would you rather have your students learn safecracking or bomb-making before they graduate? (10 pts.)

    3. How do we deal with the discomfort and intimidation, which is the collateral damage of real learning, before the discomfort is brought to the attention of the Chair or the Dean? (10 pts.)

    4. What is the answer to the question, “What do you want, Professor?” when the student is given an open-ended problem to solve in which the answer itself is supposed to be open-ended? (10 pts.)

    5. A mathematician, an English professor, and a health-care professional have designed a seminar to support strong gun-control laws. How do they get PSC-CUNY and the NYCCT administration to agree to equitable pay for shared-time teaching? (10 pts.)

    6. What did Mr. Feynman drink in the Alibi Room in Buffalo, New York? (10 pts.)
    a) excuses
    b) just plain coke
    c) the milk of human kindness
    d) Black and White, water on the side

    7. Is the above question (6) a model assessment question in a gen ed course? Why? Why not? (10 pts.)

    8. List five (5) ways to honor the professor who thrives in the classroom but may slip up on committee assignments and student evaluations. (2 pts. each)

    9. Was Mr. Feynman joking? Yes/No (10 pts.)

    10. Any questions? (10 pts.)

    EXTRA CREDIT: If your father, mother or you is a magician, give yourself ten (10) extra points.

  11. There are so many aspects of the book that are relevant to our discussion in this seminar–far more than I realized when I recommended the book, which is always a wonderful situation for a teacher. A couple that strike me as particularly important for our students:

    Feynman criticizes the rote learning of the Brazilian system, pointing out the flaws of the educational model that requires memorization rather than learning. Yet he also tells several anecdotes in which he reveals how a certain bit of information that he has memorized comes in handy, such as in “Lucky Numbers” when he’s talking with the abacus salesman and just happens to know that there are 1278 cubic inches in a cubic foot, so he can quickly approximate the cube root of the randomly selected number. What I like so much about this example is that it shows the value of memorization–that when combined with the ability to think abstractly, it can prove very valuable. Our general education classes need to encourage both types of learning, the one that helps students expand their knowledge base and the one that helps them use that knowledge base.

    There is a moment in the book when Feynman is in Japan and talks about wanting real-life examples of the problems he is trying to solve, which highlighted this idea about trusting your own knowledge that others have mentioned. Here, rather than having to doubt what others have to say, such as red+white not making yellow, it’s more that he wants to draw from the trust he has in his own observational skills. That is, his scientific brain and his worldly brain should come to similar conclusions, and if they don’t, that’s a problem worth figuring out. This is a wonderful model for us to keep in mind as we re-envision our general education classes as living laboratories, that we should remind students that their expertise as people in the real world has a place in their classroom lives. In doing so, students can not be more aware about their classroom experiences but hopefully can also view their lived experiences critically, scientifically, etc.

    Would anyone consider assigning an excerpt of Feynman’s book to their students–do his examples here set up lessons that you want to cover in class? I might incorporate a short section as a model for students when we discuss process writing.

  12. Paul C King says:

    This is one of my favorite books and this makes my third read of it.

    I think many of his criticisms of the Brazilian system are still with us today. Students who memorize quickly forget when the test is over. Perhaps the problem is the way we evaluate students? It is the pressure to perform well on these “exams” that pushes students to memorize and not to understand.

    This is one of the reasons I prefer to teach courses that require the students to demonstrate hands on knowledge of a subject. When I taught swimming and my students pushed off the wall you knew right away if they had learned how to apply the lesson.

    • This question of how to get students to learn material rather than briefly memorize it for an exam showed itself yesterday when city schools were closed despite it being a Regents exam day. Mayor Bloomberg insisted that if students had learned the material, they would be fine taking the Regents in June instead of January, that they shouldn’t even need to study again for it because they had already learned the material. I couldn’t believe my ears–yes, of course students should learn material more permanently than just what they would need for an exam now, but how will that be reinforced? Does Regents exam prep inspire that type of long-term learning? Will the spring semester courses reinforce fall-semester material? I like that example of the swim test–it ensures students have combined all the lessons of the course into one performance. I wonder, though, how students would perform if they weren’t allowed in the pool from now until June–would they start to forget some of the important techniques?

  13. Sean Scanlan says:

    I have enjoyed reading the book, and I learned a lot about a scholar who is, in many ways, very different from me. Or so I thought that I was very different from Feynman. First, his field of science is different from mine (English), but as I read on, he displayed a generous curiosity to other fields quite far from his home base of physics. That reminded me of my own interdisciplinary desires. Second, his seemingly natural genius is vastly different from my own need to slog through every difficult task. Nothing is that easy for me, and this reminded me of my students. Are my students natural geniuses who get it on the first try, or are they more like me and need to dedicate a lot of time to the problem? Third, I do identify with the idea he repeats often–that he is a “faker.” Sometimes I can hardly believe that I get to do what I’ve always wanted: teach English. And, I wonder when somebody is going to say “I’m sorry Mr. Scanlan, but you’ve got to be joking, you are not are real English teacher, you are only pretending to be one.” Feynman doesn’t need the acceptance of authoritative bodies to do his work and teaching, he becomes the teacher in that moment because he is given the opportunity. And I like the idea of being able to shift from one discipline to another. I think our students could gain from the notion that they can do many things well. Either we are all fakers, or there is no such thing as a fake.

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