Was Richard Feynman a Great Teacher?

Bill Gates recently published a blog post The Best Teacher I Never Had with an attached video extolling the virtues of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist and Caltech professor, as a teacher. Was Richard Feynman a great teacher?

One of Feynman’s main claims to greatness as a teacher is the two-year introductory course in physics that he taught to freshmen and sophomores at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) from 1961 to 1963 that gave rise to the three volume set of red The Feynman Lectures on Physics that generations of Caltech freshman dutifully purchased each year. These are now available online.

Feynman_Lectures_1981_small

Here is James Gleick and David Goodstein in Gleick’s biography of Feynman, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, on Feynman’s famous two-year “introductory” course in physics:

The course was a magisterial achievement: word was spreading through the scientific community even before it ended. But it was not for freshmen. As the months went on, the examination results left Feynman shocked and discouraged.

Gleick, James (2011-02-22). Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (pp. 362-363). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

and a little further on:

Another Caltech physicist, David Goodstein, said long afterward, “I’ve spoken to some of those students in recent times, and in the gentle glow of dim memory, each has told me that having two years of physics from Feynman himself was the experience of a lifetime.” The reality was different:

As the course wore on, attendance by the kids at the lectures started dropping alarmingly, but at the same time, more and more faculty and graduate students started attending, so the room stayed full, and Feynman may never have known he was losing his intended audience.

Gleick, James (2011-02-22). Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (p. 363). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

This is Richard Feynman’s own assessment of his course from his preface to the print edition:

The question, of course, is how well this experiment has succeeded. My own point of view — which, however, does not seem to be shared by most of the people who worked with the students — is pessimistic. I don’t think I did very well by the students. When I look at the way the majority of the students handled the problems on the examinations, I think the system is a failure. Of course, my friends point out to me that there were one or two dozen students who — very surprisingly — understood almost everything in all of the lectures, and who were quite active in working with the material and worrying about the many points in an excited and interested way. These people have now, I believe, a first rate background in physics — and they are, after all, the ones I was trying to get at. But then, “The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. ” (Gibbon)

Richard P. Feynman, 1963

Bright Red Paperweights

When I attended Caltech, all incoming freshmen were required to attend an orientation on Santa Catalina island off the coast of Southern California. The typical Caltech freshman at the time was a math and science overachiever, a class valedictorian with several science and/or math prizes and a math SAT in the mid 700’s, often from a top public or private school such as the Bronx High School of Science. At the time, Caltech had a horrendous dropout rate with about thirty percent of incoming freshmen leaving Caltech, mostly for other schools. The orientation seemed in part an unsuccessful attempt to deal with this problem. Caltech claims the drop out rate is much better today.

As part of the orientation, we were divided into small groups and assigned an upperclassman to give us the inside scoop on Caltech. Our group leader gave us the inside scoop on the Feynman Lectures: “yes, you will buy the Feynman Lectures because everyone does, but you will find them utterly useless for learning introductory physics. They will just sit on your bookshelf.”

Yep, that is exactly what happened. To give Feynman his due, once you have learned a lot of physics and reached graduate school or beyond, the Feynman Lectures contain many interesting points that you can now appreciate, discussions of subtle nuances of physics, and so forth, much like Gleick and Goodstein’s comments on the original class at Caltech. But introductory physics they are not!

Was this good teaching? No. Not if the goal is to impart knowledge successfully to students.

What Caltech actually did was to teach the first year physics course from a standard physics textbook — not written by Feynman — that was required, but strongly encouraged the freshman physics students to buy the Feynman Lectures as an optional extra set of physics texts.

Correspondence Courses

When I attended Caltech, the university was notorious for “correspondence courses” in which big name faculty would deliver awful, boring, generally uninformative lectures and students would not attend but instead send tape recorders in their place. Yes this did happen. It is referenced in the 1985 movie Real Genius, very loosely based on Caltech during this period but with various Hollywood exaggerations, which features scenes of a professor lecturing to several tape recorders and then later the professor’s tape recorder lecturing to the students’ tape recorders in an empty classroom. No I never saw a professor send a tape recorder to give his lecture.

Richard Feynman passed away in 1988 and he was still active at Caltech during the period that I attended the school. Notably he did not teach the standard undergraduate courses although he occasionally gave a guest lecture. He did host an informal get together with undergraduates known as Physics X in which undergraduate Caltech students could ask him questions, but this was certainly not a standard physics, science, or math course for undergraduates and gives limited evidence of his skills as a teacher of college level physics.

There is a serious point in this. Many of the big name researchers at Caltech were terrible teachers for undergraduates. They skipped over key steps and concepts that they took for granted but which it was their job to teach in introductory courses. They failed to assign or perform adequate practice and drilling for basic concepts and methods that they were supposed to teach in undergraduate courses. They assigned quite advanced problems as homework and exam problems in introductory courses, problems involving subtleties of physics and other fields that students would not encounter or grasp until advanced undergraduate or graduate level courses. They used advanced problems as teaching examples in lectures in introductory courses as well. Many were simply boring — clearly not a weakness of Richard Feynman. Looking back, the terrible teaching was a major contributing factor to the high dropout rate at Caltech.

Students needed to recognize not only that the teaching was terrible, but also what was wrong and to perform a large amount of unassigned work to compensate for the gaps in the teaching for which their parents or in some cases the students were paying a lot of money.

Feynmania

Caltech heavily promoted Richard Feynman while he was still alive, convincing hundreds of Caltech undergraduates to purchase The Feynman Lectures each year as well as an unknown number of teenage and young adult readers of Scientific American in which Caltech regularly ran advertisements for the Lectures. After Richard Feynman passed away, he developed a larger cult following in the general culture — especially among nerds and would-be nerds — with the publication of a variety of books such as James Gleick’s Genius, documentaries and so forth, which has been called Feynmania by some.

Richard Feynman was also a shameless and highly-effective self-promoter as Bill Gates notes, quoting the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Caltech professor, Feynman colleague and rival Murray Gell-Mann: “Feynman was a great scientist, but he spent a great deal of his effort generating anecdotes about himself.”

There is no question that Richard Feynman could be a very entertaining speaker. I personally witnessed this at Caltech. However an entertaining lecture that interests an audience in science or a technical topic is not the same as a lecture that successfully imparts knowledge to an audience — true teaching.

Big name researchers are usually adept at promoting their research, making it sound cool, exciting, and worthy of funding. This often involves the use of catchy non-technical metaphors — space-time in general relativity is like a rubber sheet for example — with as little mathematics as possible (generally none) and colorful human interest stories, something Feynman excelled at. This salesmanship often does not translate into being a good teacher, certainly at the undergraduate level.

Conclusion

Was Richard Feynman a great teacher? Probably not at the undergraduate level. Is he a model that K-12 and undergraduate teachers and college professors should emulate, as Bill Gates seems to suggest? Reviewing the actual history of The Feynman Lectures on Physics and the 1960’s “introductory” course on physics taught by Feynman that the famous red books are based on, probably not.

There is a bigger picture issue here. Richard Feynman constructed an “introductory” physics course at Caltech suitable primarily for perhaps imaginary extreme physics prodigies like himself or how he pictured himself as an eighteen year old. It is an open question how well the actual eighteen year old Feynman would have done in the forty-three year old Feynman’s “introductory” physics course. Like many adults had Feynman lost touch with what it had been like to be eighteen? In any case, such extreme physics prodigies made up only a small fraction of the highly qualified undergraduate students at Caltech either in the 1960’s or 1980’s. An educational system designed by extreme prodigies for extreme prodigies, often from academic families, extremely wealthy families, or other unusual backgrounds rare even among most top students as conventionally defined, is a prescription for disaster for the vast majority of students and society at large.

When billionaires like Bill Gates with very unusual backgrounds (Gates is at least a fourth generation millionaire with a wealthy banker as his great-grandfather) and lives set out to reform education in highly disadvantaged areas such as rural Kentucky, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. far outside their personal and professional experience, are they like Feynman out of touch with their intended audience and imposing wholly unrealistic expectations and standards on “ordinary people” who can ill afford to contradict the world’s wealthiest people?

© 2016 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at jmcgowan11@earthlink.net.

Get more stuff like this

Get interesting math updates directly in your inbox.

6 Comments

  1. Shecky R February 1, 2016
  2. Howard Phillips February 2, 2016
  3. Tim Corica February 2, 2016
  4. Steve Jaffe February 2, 2016
  5. Mark February 20, 2016
    • Shecky R February 21, 2016

Leave a Reply

Join thousands of
math enthusiasts

Get free math updates directly in your inbox.