Richard Feynman is considered to be one of the most important physicists of all time. He was a pioneer in quantum electrodynamics, won a Nobel Prize, and contributed to solutions to many physics-related questions and problems. Though much of his work would be unintelligible to most of us, it has at its core a simplicity that merits our attention. Feynman believed that even the most difficult concepts needed to be broken down to their simplest forms, expressing concise thought and using easily understood language. His premise is that once you identify a subject you want to learn about and try to make it easily understood by a child (using plain language and making the lesson as brief as possible) you can then identify what you don’t know, go back and review your information sources, and provide a clear explanation of a more complex idea.
Do educators strive to do as Feynman suggests? Do we make ideas simple so that they are accessible for students? Do we help them see the simplicity of an idea rather the fret about the challenge that lies ahead? When approaching a math problem that looks difficult, I will often think about a way to solve it and then apply that principle to a problem with smaller and more manageable numbers to see if it works. If it does, I go back to the harder problem and work to solve it. In teaching this approach to students, they quickly learn that they don’t have to be intimidated by the size of a number. The beauty of math is that it will work with numbers of any size. Break it down. Make it simpler. See where the problem exists and work to solve it with “easy numbers” and then move on.
Too often in education, we do the reverse of what Feynman is suggesting by making simple ideas more complex. Schools often take a simple concept and try to help students understand the difficulty or challenge that lies ahead. We create complexities and ask questions – not to promote further questions and understanding, but instead to point out there is a lot of work ahead or remind students of what they don’t yet know. When, instead, we strive to help students identify the common elements in a problem or concept, we are building connections that allow them to gather information and make sense of their world. We open doors rather than erect barriers. Paths are followed, some veering left, others right and still others moving straight ahead. The beauty is in the search.