Monday, March 14, 2011

INSPIRING: Looking at the World From Another Perspective - Richard Feynman Style

Thanks to both Stacey Johnson and to for inspiring this post:

image fro Deviant Art:Breath by mechtaniya
Richard Feynman was an accomplished teacher, traveler, painter, bongo drummer, and Nobel Prize winning physicist. He discovered the cause of the tragic 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, worked with Einstein and others on The Manhattan Project, pioneered quantum physics, and, was clearly -  an outstanding "character".  He knew how to stop and smell the roses. In his books and video clips, one of the things Feynman talks about is his relationship with his parents and his perception of learning and education.  I would like to share some of his stories and humbly translate them into modern-day parenting suggestions.

Richard's Story Part I: Conversations with his father (future posts will continue the story): Meaningful interactions with his father:
  • His father would bring home little bathroom tiles of different colors and put them on Richard's highchair to play with.  The goal was for Richard to play with them in an effort to recognize, construct, and compare patterns.
  • Application:  patterns are everywhere, and we constantly decoding them.  There are patterns in phonics and reading, patterns in math, patterns in science (for example genetic code and DNA).  The more experience kids have making and interpreting patterns, the easier it will be to use and integrate them in and out of school.
  • When reading about Tyrannasaurus Rex he took Richard outside and pointed to the second floor of the building next door saying "that" is how tall TRex was.
  • Application:  The more personal learning is made, the easier it will be to integrate, learn, and remember.  By relating TRex's height to the height of the building, Richard's dad helped him better understand how large he really was, how scary he was, etc.
  • When walking together, his father would ask questions like, "Why do you think birds peck at their feathers?" to help Richard learn to observe and critically analyze the world around him.
  • Application: Observation is essential in science, in social interactions, in learning.
  • Richard talks about how his father would always read to him from the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  'Everything he read would be translated as best he could into some reality...what it really means.'

The Point: We all want to motivate and prepare our kids for school and life through 'lovely, interesting' interactions.  We want them to discover and savor the wonders of the world around them.  We want to give them as many "ooh and ahh" experiences as possible.  This not only helps them in school (as I hope to have demonstrated above), it teaches them to explore, to think, to learn, to love.

How can we do this as parents and teachers?

Take advantage of resources around you: go to museums, parks, historical sites, nature trails.

Look for patterns in the world around you: traffic patterns, sidewalk patterns, tiles, gardens, the way things are arranged on shelves.  Talk about the patterns.
  • Are they pleasant?  
  • Is there some mathematical pattern behind them? 
  • How might you make them more appealing?

Take walks together and:
  • Look for small things, or large things, blue things or yellow things... look at patterns, look at cloud formations and what they remind you of... Teach your kids to observe things they might normally overlook.
  • Talk about "the path not taken" create scenarios where a second path might take you. 
  • When you see animals and plants, talk about them. Brainstorm why they have specific colors, sizes, resources and why this might be so important.
  • If you live in a city talk about traffic, cars, sidewalks, signs...
  • When asking questions, don't always give answers.  Let your child brainstorm.  You may or may not want to ask more questions to help them navigate towards the solution.  Just know that learning is actually more effective when there is some dissonance - when the learner has to actively think and construct solutions.
READ together!  Read picture books, novels, poetry, comics/graphic novels, plays... and talk about them:
  • Talk about the settings, the characters, the dilemmas they face.  Brainstorm possible options and story lines. 
  • Talk about the resolutions:  what they mean to the characters, how realistic are their solutions.
  • Discuss, for example, how a book might have been written from a different character's perspective. How might the story be different if it took place in a different location or in a different era.
  • When reading graphic novels look at the patterns.  How do the panel (sizes, shapes, borders) change.  Why?  Does the background color and art of the panels change?  Why?

As Richard Feynman notes in his book (Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman):

“That’s the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions:  no pressure – just lovely, interesting discussions.  It has motivated me for the rest of my life…” 
Richard Feynman, 1988.

Again, my thanks to Stacey - please visit her blog at:(Dreams Like This  Let me know how you provide "lovely interesting discussions with your child.


  1. Great post and excellent ideas. I remember learning to let children find answers instead of giving them - it's not only more constructive for them, but more rewarding for us!

  2. Great post! I once read that parents are supposed to be our children's ambassadors to the world - to acquaint them with it and to guide them as they explore it. (What always amazes is that while we set out to teach our kids, we learn as much - and sometimes even more - from the experience!) :D

  3. Very intriguing post. This kind of deep knowledge about the world that comes from the early encouragement to find patterns in the world seems to me something that must come from intense one-on-one time. You reminded me about a time in grade school when I missed the lesson on long multiplication. So, instead of following prescribed rules, I delighted in constructing an elaborate, full-page formula to a problem. It was great fun. That is, until the teacher looked at my work (the answer was correct) and said, no, you didn't need to do that. Just do this. I still don't know why I got that answer right, but I do know that I stopped delighting in math at that point.
    This is a great clip - he is truly a delight to listen to. You raise some key points about how to effectively put his message into practice. Thanks!

  4. Thank you... for the inspiration and your insight and your kind support!

  5. Meryl, Great post and I find myself doing these things with my boys all the time. Bug hunting is the best and we look at the small things to see the bigger picture. I have awarded you a "Bloggy". Go to my site to pick it up!

  6. Patti Frankel

    Just a quick email to say that.
    I looked at your site. You are doing some wonderful work. I heartily agree that pattern recognition and analysis is vital. In my world, I help people learn to recognize the deep structure, archetypal patterns at work in their lives and in the world at large. So I really enjoyed the Feynman piece. He was so great, wasn't he?

    Thanks again. And may you see something today you have never 'seen' before, and know it to be a source of Wisdom and Beauty.

    Patti Frankel

  7. I am enjoying your perspective. I am a believer in having interesting, never forced conversations with my children. I'm always on the look-out for "teachable moments". Two mornings ago a flock of robins filled our front yard. They had been gone all winter, but on this morning they had returned. It was a magical moment for my three young children and set off a discussion about seasons and migration. Pretty cool!

  8. Meryl - you make a strong and valid point. I love talking with, and playing with my kids (a boy and a girl who will both be 11 years old this coming Sunday!) and beside teaching them things, I love how they show me the world, too.

    Part of the reason I write the way I do is who I am. Part of it is because I want them to be as proud of me as I am of them.

    There's always been an openness for exchange of ideas - just like my parents were with me.

    (Guess I'm lucky, huh?)

  9. Holy cow I love your blog. I love love love it. Bravo to you and all the wonderful inpsiration to give to my many sides -- as a mother, as a writer, as a teacher. I'll also be back...FREQUENTLY. Cheers!

    -- Christine Wolf

  10. Very interesting, intelligent man.
    When I think Challenger, I automatically think O-rings.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  11. Yep. That was a pretty powerful scene at that hearing! Thanks for commenting.

  12. Meryl, some wonderful work you are doing here.
    Thanks for the link to your site.


  13. A great post, - the teaching of awareness and concept are so very important.

  14. inspirational.
    thanks for the motivation.

  15. This is great, I have been doing most of them with my 3 year old. Good luck with your Friday presentation, it's my Son's BD 3/18.
    If you have time on Thursdays, I invite you to join the Thursday Two Questions to meet other writers on this meme. Thursday Two Questions

  16. Amazing man! Thanks for sharing this very interesting post!
    Léia - Bonjour Luxembourg

  17. I love a blog with CONTENT! Thanks.

  18. BTW, doesn't seem as though you need much guidance re getting into the swing of things at ABC Wed - visit, comment on others' sites, as you can. It'd be nice, though, if you can link somewhere to ABCW in your weekly blogpost. Thanks.

  19. I had only heard of his reputation as a wonderful teacher, but now having seen the clip realise what an inspiration he must have been. The greatest gift of a parent is curiosity.

  20. very informative post,

    please visit my entry I is for Invitation, thanks!

  21. Interesting and informative material!

    Thanks for joining.

    ABCW Team

  22. Great post! Very Interesting for I day;o)
    Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment;o)

    Happy day****

  23. I wish all parents could be as sensitive in their relationships with their children. Sadly, so many children entering school for the first time can barely speak, let alone formulate and articulate any thoughts.

  24. I think sometimes we are so concerned about students passing city/state/national exams, we lose track of actually shaping minds, teaching them to think, evaluate, expand and explore. Hence one of the reasons I just love reading Richard Feynman's books.

    Thanks for the comment.