Powerful Ideas

School and Powerful Ideas Part 1

In a graduation address given at the 1974 Cal Tech Commencement, Richard Feynman described how to find out whether or not an idea is “crazy”: 

“during the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas…Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science.” (Feynman, 1999, p. 205)

The method (or really the methods) of science has made possible the world in which we live because it has allowed us to find out which ideas don’t make sense (that is; ones that are not powerful) and discard them so that we can spend our energy working on ideas that do make sense; that is, on powerful ideas. 

Alchemy turned out to be a “crazy idea” so people stopped spending time and energy there and instead spent their energy on the idea that all matter is composed of atoms, an idea that turns out to be very powerful and has resulted in chemistry.

In science, ideas are not “true” or “false;” instead, they are either powerful (they impact experience) or are not powerful (they have no impact on experience).

The American philosopher and psychologist William James  stated the case more formally:

“True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False  ideas are those that we cannot.” (James, 1907, p. 131)

The ideas are true (powerful) only to the degree that they are validated or verified by seeing the impact of the idea on experience. The key point is that something isn’t true/powerful because it is said to be true (by a book or a teacher) but because it has been verified by experience. 

As Feynman says: 

…science creates a power through its knowledge, a power to do things. You are able to do things after you know something scientifically. (Feynman, 1999, p. 99)

The whole collection of tested and found to be true ideas that make up physics, or biology, or chemistry are powerful ideas because they empower those who understand them.

The application of this to education is clear.

We might define schooling as empowering young people with these powerful ideas. Or, put another way, school is the place where students acquire powerful ideas.

The difficulty in teaching that aims at the acquisition of powerful ideas is that by their nature powerful ideas cannot simply be passively accepted, they must be acquired actively. 

Work in the laboratory and the shop develops the habit of observation and thus an appreciation of nature’s complexity as well as an understanding of the how inadequate verbal renderings to the experience of the real thing. (James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology, 1925, pp. 36-37)

What happens in experience trumps the mere say so or “because I said it” no matter how distinguished the pedigree of the speaker.

Even in science class when there are labs and hands-on activities, evidence  suggests that students are often not engaged in acquiring powerful ideas. They are hearing about them from their teacher or reading about them in the textbook. 

Ironically, the evidence suggests this is because many teachers believe that the testing of an idea only serves to confirm what authority (the textbook or the teacher) has decreed. In other words, tell them that such and such is a powerful idea. Perhaps, then let the students try it out. 

In the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education,

roughly 40 percent of science teachers at each grade level [elementary, middle and high school] agree that teachers should explain an idea to students before having them consider evidence for that idea; and more than half indicate that laboratory activities should be used primarily to reinforce ideas that the students have already learned. [emphasis added] And despite recommendations that students develop understanding of concepts first and learn the scientific language later, from 70 to 85 percent of science teachers at the various grade ranges indicate that students should be given definitions for new vocabulary at the beginning of instruction on a science idea.” (National Science Survey, 2012)

Science is at bottom a method that requires respect for experience.  When the respect for experience is undermined by authority, whether of the textbook or the teacher, it is no longer science.

In part 2 I will suggest some ways to remedy the problem.

Works Cited


Feynman, R. P. (1999). The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. (J. Robbins, Ed.) Cambridge, MA, United States of America: Perseus Books.


James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. iBooks.


James, W. (1925). Talks to Teachers on Psychology. New York, New York, United States of America: Henry Holt and Company.


Banilower, Eric, et.al (2013). 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. Chapel Hill, NC.


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