Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Feynman, R. (1999). The pleasure of finding things out: The best short works of Richard P. Feynman. J. Robbins (Ed.). New York, NY: Perseus Books Group.

Richard Feynman is a world renowned physicist and Nobel Prize winner for his work in quantum mechanics.  He also has a passion for science and curiosity that relates to my action research.  I was directed to this book from another book on curiosity that I have been reading and I really enjoyed Feynman’s stories of how his father cultivated this sense of wonder in him and how that has benefited him as a scientist.
This book is a collection of shorter works, interviews, and talks that Feynman gave throughout his lifetime before his death in 1988.  The first chapter struck me most.  It was a transcript from an interview that he gave on the BBC TV show Horizon.  The interview went in many directions, but early on he talked a great deal about his experiences as a little boy and how his father helped him to cultivate curiosity.

“We had an Encyclopedia Britannica at home and even when I was a small boy [my father] used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and we would read, say, about dinosaurs and maybe it was talking about the brontosaurus or something, or the tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, “This thing is twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across,” you see, and so he’d stop all this and say, “Let’s see what that means.  That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.”” (p. 3)

This quote stood out to me because the picture of the young Richard Feynman reading the encyclopedia with his father was so beautiful to me.  It brings me back to when I was a young boy and we had an encyclopedia at home that I loved looking stuff up in.  It is more than that though.  Feynman’s father encouraged him to wonder what those facts meant.  The facts themselves are boring and have little meaning, but translating them into his world suddenly makes them fascinating and makes learning fun.

In the same interview, Feynman gives two other examples of how his father educated him.  The first was an example of watching birds in a wood:

“Looking at a bird he say, “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese it’s a . . . in Italian a . . . ,” he says “in Chinese it’s a . . . , in Japanese a . . . ,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.  You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”” (p. 4)

He then goes on to talk about his father encouraging him to experiment with a ball in a red wagon to learn about inertia.  He finishes off by saying, “So that’s the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions, no pressure, just lovely interesting discussions.” (p. 5).

This is what I want learning to look like in my own classroom.  This ideas of delving into a topic through observation.  Looking at something and not being content with the mere facts, but going deeper and discussing what that means to us.  I see Inquiry Learning as the path to take in my class because it is essentially what Feynman’s father did with his son.  As I mentioned earlier, there is also this sense of wonder in Feynman’s stories.  We can look at something in the world around us and know nothing about it, but with a sense of curiosity we can look closer and develop our own understandings of it.

In a later chapter, Feynman is trying to answer the question “What is Science?”  He discusses when he first learned about the number pi.  “There was a mystery about this number that I didn’t quite undestand as a youth, but this was a great thing, and the result was that I look for π everywhere. [. . .] The idea that there is mystery, that there is a wonder about the number was important to me, not what the number was.” (pp. 176-177) This quote is just another example of the importance of curiosity and how it can motivate learning.  I think that that is the main reason for my interest in curiosity.  It is a form of intrinsic motivation that will encourage learning for the rest of my students’ lives.

The final quote that I think sums up best what I pulled from this book is in the same What is Science? chapter:

“I think it is very important - at least it was to me - that if you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them.  I learned then what science was about.  It was patience.  If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it (although possibly not every time). As a result, when I became a mature man, I would painstakingly, hour after hour, for years, work on problems - sometimes many years, sometimes shorter times - many of them failing, lots of stuff going into the wastebasket; but every once in a while there was the gold of a new understanding that I had learned to expect when I was a kid, the result of observation. For I did not learn that observation was not worthwhile.” (p. 182)

This quote hits the nail on the head on why it is important to have students be inquisitive and seek knowledge for themselves.  That ultimate reward of new knowledge can be greatly satisfying and therefore the habit of inquiry can be solidified in students and carried on through the rest of their lives.

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