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Feynman on learning science and a disrespect of honors

March 7, 2011
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A while ago, I watched part of TEDxCaltech, which was one big homage to Richard Feynman. While there were lots of great presentations (many of which are now online), I was most struck by two bits of video featuring Feynman discussing how anyone can do science, and his feelings about the lack of value of awards. It took a heck of a lot of searching and watching of Feynman, but I finally tracked down the two bits that most interested me.

First, Richard Feynman explains how anyone can do physics.

 

Second, Richard Feynman explains why he doesn’t like honors.

 

Both of these videos have me thinking. Does my class give students the message that anyone can do science if they’re willing to work hard at it? My school (a very high achieving independent school) is very heavily tracked into three levels in most courses (AP, Honors, and Regular—a term I hate), starting as early as the 7th grade. Does this approach help students to believe Feynman’s words that they too can be a mathematician, even if they find themselves in the regular math track in 9th grade? There’s certainly an argument to be made that it can, by giving the students an opportunity to work in a setting that might better meet their current needs might very well foster the confidence and attitude they need to reach the very highest levels of their subject. But do we allow students to make these leaps? Do we celebrate those who do? It seems all to often I hear stories from alumni at my school, and previous schools I taught at, who start by telling stories of how their being tracked into regular math or science left them with the impression that they couldn’t do math or science, and consequently, they went on to success in some other field.

And Feynman’s perspective on awards is equally empowering. I can imagine the disdain he would have had for me as I molded little Nobel Prizes of clay to give to my students back in my first year of teaching. I love his take on awards, and wish I could help my students to see this perspective more, especially in the environment they grow up in that seems obsessed with external rewards. Does my curriculum really help students to celebrate the joy of discovery? And by that, I mean does it allow every student to take pleasure in finding things out on his or her own, and give students the time they need to do so? These are good questions to ponder going into spring break.

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