The need for science tutors, according to a Nobel prize winner

The best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher--a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things.

--Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics

A science tutor can be a dangerous profession. This morning I put a knife through my skull again: I took yet another look at Feynman's lectures on physics. If you're curious about Feynman, you can read some of his witty quotes here.

Richard Feynman was a legend in his time, and anyone with even a passing interest in physics should look at his book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! But the fabled Lectures are far more challenging. I've never managed to work through them all, but I always take something new away from them, every time I try.

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This time around, all I had to do was read the Preface.

There are gems of wisdom in those four and a half pages, enough to keep a science tutor satisfied for months, and you don't need to know a thing about Calculus to understand him.

In the Preface to his most popular work, Feynman readily admits to failure!

In the early 1960s, Feynman was a young physics professor at Cal Tech (If you're a fan of The Big Bang Theory, just picture Sheldon or Leonard living in the 1960s) when he was asked to give an introductory 2-year course in physics to all incoming freshmen.

He devoted his energy and considerable talent to teach physics as it had never been taught before.

Feynman had a powerful method of teaching. His lectures were theatrical, full of humor and real-life demonstrations of the ideas he wanted to convey. The lectures were recorded and transcribed, and more than 50 years later they're still a revered classic.

Sounds great, except that  very few freshmen really benefited from the lectures at the time. Instead, they're something only a true enthusiast will willingly slog through. This is not as bad as it sounds.

Feynman really discovered that students teach themselves. As a student, you have everything you need to learn anything you want. If you're curious and passionate about a subject, you'll learn as much as you can whenever you can. Even if you're not too keen on a topic, you'll learn it if you understand its usefulness in some area of your life or career that's important to you.

Basic information is easy to Google. Good ideas come from inside you. You only need one thing that you don't already have: A companion with the same or more enthusiasm for the subject.

Let's say you were a young physics student in the early 1960s. If you could attend Feynman's lectures, you would write down everything he told you, and go over your notes religiously for weeks afterwards. You would pore through textbooks to work out the problems he presented, and eagerly look up anything you didn't understand. In a year or two you would be an expert by most people's standards.

But this is nothing compared to having Richard Feynman as a personal tutor. Or even just having an ordinary guy who gets excited about differential equations.

As a teacher and a science tutor, this bugs me. In my day job I almost never get to work one-on-one with a student who genuinely wants to learn about biology. My time as a tutor is much more rewarding, and it's also much more valuable to society.

We spend millions of dollars on public education, and most of this money is wasted. I wonder what would happen if kids were giving a chance to just run free and learn about anything they wanted to learn. The would pick up a lot of language, math, and science almost by default. Then all they would need is someone to guide them a little bit when they got stuck in a rut. Someone to bounce ideas around with, as they created new things. A tutor would be able to do this.

Feynman was a great teacher, but he knew the value of a companion, especially a tutor.

A good tutor may be far more valuable than a good teacher.

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