Monday, December 18, 2006

Richard Feynman on Education

This is an old article from the Growing Without Schooling archives. Thanks to Jane on the unschoolkansas discussion list for bringing it to our attention.

Some thoughts from well-known physicist Richard Feynman, interviewed in U.S. News & World Report, 3/18/85:

…There’s a great deal of intimidation by intellectuals in this country of less intellectual people. It comes in the form of pompous studies and pompous words to describe ideas that are fairly simple or have very little content. If someone says they do not understand one of these ideas, they’re put down, which must be hard for those who don’t have too much confidence in their own intelligence. People think that all the experts know what they are doing.
But most experts, whether in the stock market, education, sociology or some parts of psychology, don’t know more than the average person. They may act as though they are engaged in real science. They do studies, follow certain methods and have results. They follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential.

…Take educational theory. How do you know that people in schools of education don’t know anything about how to educate children - not that anyone else knows, either? Well, are the schools improving? Have educational systems gotten better as the years have gone on? It’s very easy to see that the witch doctors are not curing most diseases.

…I sometimes feel that it would be much better not to educate our children in such subjects as mathematics and science. If we left youngsters alone, there would be a better chance that, by accident, the kids would find a good book - or an old textbook - or a television program that would excite them. But when youngsters go to school, they learn that these subjects are dull, horrible and impossible to understand. When I went to school, I didn’t learn that math and science were dull because I knew before I got there that they were interesting. All I saw was that they were dull in school. But I knew better….
I once sat in a committee in California that chose new schoolbooks for the state… The books said things that were useless, mixed up, ambiguous, confusing and partially incorrect. How anybody could learn science from these books, I don’t know.

What happens often is that state bodies decide what ought to be in the curriculum on the basis of what so-called experts think. This has a tremendous influence on publishers, who want their books to cover every single item on the suggested list. Publishers try very hard to follow what states want, and in the end, the books are poor. They don’t try to make subjects easier to understand. They try to make it easier to know what to do to pass the test and please the teacher. They’re involved in making sure that certain items are understood by children so that they can go on to the next course, which is designed in exactly the same way.
Someday people will look back at our age and they’ll think: "My goodness, how they tortured their children! Year after year they wen to these schools every day for hours. yet look how easy it is to teach. But they didn’t know how to do it back then…"

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