Six ‘Easy’ Pieces? Richard Feynman and the Undergraduate Lectures

Richard P. Feynman was a Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist, who made great contributions to physics and the popularity of physics through his books and lectures. Among many other useful activities he developed Feynman diagrams, which provided a useful pictorial abstraction of the rather complicated mathematical expressions that govern the behaviour of subatomic particles.

Trust me when I tell you that this is easier to understand than the expressions.

This is a great tool in many ways because it makes the difficult more easy to understand, the abstract able to be represented in a (closer to) concrete manner and, above all, humans like pictures. Feynman was very interested in teaching as well because he felt that students could offer inspiration and because teaching could be a diversion when the well of theoretical physics creativity was running dry.  He was an opponent of rote learning and any approach to teaching that put the form before the function. He loved to explain and felt a strong duty to explain things clearly and correctly, with an emphasis on a key principle that if he couldn’t explain it at the freshman level, then it wasn’t yet understood fully.

In the 60’s Feynman was asked, by Caltech, to reinvigorate the teaching of undergraduates and, three years later, he produced the Feynman Lectures on Physics. I’ve read these before (I used to study Physics – I know, I seem so nice!) and so have many other people – it’s estimated that more than 3 million copies have been sold in various languages. I picked up a copy of the ‘cut-down’ version of the lectures “Six Easy Pieces”, recently re-published in Penguin (AU$ 9.95! Hooray for cheap books!)

Reading the 1989 Special Preface to the original lectures, re-printed in “Six Easy Pieces”, a strange fact emerges, which is that Feynman’s lectures did not necessarily succeed for their target audience, the undergraduates, but instead served to inspire the teachers. As Goodstein and Neugebauer noted, while the class started with 180 undergraduate students, many of the students dreaded the class and, over time, dropped out. While the class remained full, it was because of the increased occupation by faculty and graduate students.

In the original preface, by Feynman, he appears to have noticed that something was amiss because he reflects on the fact that he didn’t think it was a great success. One problem was that there was no feedback from the students to him to tell him how he was doing, whether they were keeping up. (Feynman provided very little outline and all of the homework assignments were created by other professors sitting in the class, furiously noting what had been covered and then creating the other work for recitation.) Feynman’s aim was to challenge and interest the best and brightest, he sought to not only direct the lecture at the smartest in the room  but to present work so that even the most brilliant in the room would be unable to cover it all. Feynman’s preface contains terms such as ‘sufficiently clever’, which may seem fine to some but to me indicate clearly that he, an astoundingly smart and still empathic human being, had at least an inkling that something had gone wrong between his vision and what happened in the classroom.

At the end of the preface, Feynman reflects, in a rather melancholy tone, “I don’t think I did very well by the students”. He is concerned that, based on the way that the the students handled the questions in the examination, that the system is a failure. A colleague points out that maybe 12-24 students appeared to really get it but you don’t have to be a very good mathematician to release that 24/180 (a nudge over 13%) is not the best rate of transfer. As Feynman gloomily responds (quoting Gibbon):

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous”

Feynman finishes, with his characteristic insight, that the direct individual relationship between student and teacher is paramount, where the student discusses things and works with, and discusses, ideas. That it is impossible to learn very much by sitting in a lecture. But he sees himself torn between what he sees as the right way to proceed and the number of students that we have to teach.

And, 49 years later, we, the inheritors of Sisyphus, are still trying to push that same rock up the same educational hill. Richard Feynman, a grand communicator and superlative thinker and scientist, tried his hardest to make the lecture work and even he couldn’t do it. He had mountains of support and he was unhappy with the result. He is clearly articulating all of the ideas for which we now have so much evidence and, yet, here we still are with 1000-person lectures and students who might be able to plug some numbers into formulas but don’t necessarily know what it means to think inside our discipline or discuss ideas in a meaningful dialogue.

From a personal perspective, Feynman’s Lectures on Physics are one the reasons why I gave up physics. I was struggling to see how it all fitted together and I went to seek help. (I was also a terrible student in those days but this was one of the rare occasions when I tried to improve.) One of my lecturers told me that I should read Feynman’s lectures and because it was designed for undergrads, if I couldn’t get that, I wouldn’t be able to catch up – basically, I didn’t have the Physics brain. I read it. I didn’t get it. I sorted the world into “physicists” and “non-physicists”, with me in the second group. (This is probably not a bad outcome for the physics community and, years later, while I can now happily read Feynman, it certainly doesn’t excite me as much as what I’m doing now.) I imagine that Feynman himself, while not lamenting me leaving the field, would probably be at least mildly perturbed at such a weaponisation of his work. From reading about him, his books and prefaces, I believe that he expected a lot of his students but he never actually wanted to be unpleasant about it. His own prefaces record his unease with the course he produced. He has no doubts about the physics and the aim – but his implementation was not what he wanted and not what he believed to be the best approach.

So, when someone questions your educational research supported ideas for improving learning and teaching, grab a copy of “Six Easy Pieces” and get them to read all of the preface material. Feynman himself regarded a lot of areas in educational research as cargo cult science, which applies as well to any poorly constructed scientific experimentation, but it is quite obvious that on at least some of the most important issues regarding knowledge transfer, he had a deep understanding and commitment to improvement, because of his direct experience with undergraduates and his ability to openly criticise himself in order to improve.

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