Via John Gruber, I was struck by this quote from David L. Goodstein in his book Feynman’s Lost Lecture:
Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”
First of all, I love what this says in general about the relationship between teaching and academic work. My high school English teacher Mrs. Galighani used to say, “If you’re not writing clearly, then you’re not thinking clearly.” Feynman takes this to the next level. If you can’t explain your research clearly to a smart novice in a manageable amount of time—say, the amount of time you have in a single lecture period—then maybe you don’t fully understand what you’re talking about. And not just you, but maybe even your entire field.
I’ve certainly found that to be true in both educational technology and educational research. I’ve read a lot of academic papers that sling a lot of statistical lingo to obscure the fact that they haven’t actually proven anything. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. I think some authors get so buried in the lingo and the details that they don’t actually realize that they haven’t proven anything. The same is true, by the way, with many of the theoretical papers in the constructivist camps that get all wrapped up in French literary theory and add the suffix “-atized” to every third word. Clarity is hard. Even Feynman didn’t know that he didn’t fully understand why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics—indeed, that nobody did—until he tried and failed to boil it down to a freshman-level lecture.
On the other hand, we get marketing copy or press summaries of summaries of summaries that completely lose the original thread, never mind the nuance. Again, I suspect in most cases the authors don’t know that they are dumbing down the research. They are working on deadline, with a word count limit, and a finite knowledge base.
The end result in both cases is the antithesis of enlightenment. If we are to move education forward, then there has to be a social contract between those who do the research and those who could use it in the classroom. Authors must commit to communicating clearly to laypeople—to reducing their research to the level of a freshman lecture. In return, people consuming that information must be willing to commit the time and effort that they would hope and expect from freshmen sitting in on one of their own lectures.
There is a role here for “media,” writ large. At e-Literate, we make an effort to make complex research accessible to laypeople who are willing to invest in reading an 8,000-word article. We also attempt to recover information that is lost in translation when academic studies get boiled down so far that there’s nothing left in the pot. But we’re not going to solve the larger problem with a blog. Academia needs to embrace the notion of education as an applied science, which means we need to generate both supply and demand for Feynman-style explanations of what we are learning about learning.