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Self-education and Deep Learning

October 18, 2013


One of things that really stood out to me while reading James Gleick’s wonderful biography of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (entitled Genius) was that people like Feynman possess an intellectual curiosity that has to be satisfied. They don’t wait for teachers to give them answers to questions they pursue those answers on their own. In Feynman’s case, it was a particular kind of knowledge that attracted his attention. He wanted to know how the world worked — how it was put together. As Gleick explains, “pragmatic knowledge was Feynman’s specialty. For him knowledge did not describe; it acted and accomplished.”


You couldn’t call Feynman a renaissance man because, “unlike many of his colleagues, educated scientists in a cultivated European tradition, Feynman did not look at paintings, did not listen to music, did not read books, even scientific books.” The remarkable thing, Gleick notes is that Feynman “learned anyway.” He explains:

“[Feynman] pursued knowledge without prejudice. During a sabbatical he learned enough biology to make a small but genuine contribution to geneticists’ understanding of mutations in DNA. … He taught himself the tricks of mental arithmetic, having long mastered the more arcane arts of mental differentiation and integration. He taught himself how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects like radio knobs, how to keep track of time in his head, and how to make columns of ants march to his bidding. He had no difficulty learning to make an impromptu xylophone by filling water glasses. … When he was engrossed in the physicists’ ultimate how-to endeavor, the making of the atomic bomb, he digressed to learn how to defeat the iron clamp of an old-fashioned soda machine, how to pick Yale locks, and then how to open safes — a mental, not physical, skill. … He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance.”

When Feynman wanted to learn about something, he went all the way. Robert Frost once wrote a poem about people walking along the shoreline looking out to sea. “They cannot look out far,” he wrote of those standing on the beach. “They cannot look in deep.” [“Neither Out Far Nor In Deep“] That simply wasn’t Feynman’s way. He was able to see far and, when he couldn’t, he dove in deep. During a sabbatical in Brazil, he taught a basic course in electromagnetism at the University of Brazil in Rio. Feynman found the experience disturbing because the Brazilian educational system was based on memorization rather understanding. Gleick writes that, in Feynman’s eyes, what they were doing was teaching “words about words.” Gleick insists, “Feynman despised this kind of knowledge.” He continues:

“[Feynman] resented more than just the hollowness of standardized knowledge. Rote learning drained away all that he valued in science: the inventive soul, the habit of seeking better ways to do anything. His kind of knowledge — knowledge by doing — ‘gives a feeling of stability and reality about the world,’ he said, ‘and drives out many fears and superstitions.’ He was thinking about science meant and what knowledge meant.”

Feynman would have undoubtedly been disgusted by the “No Child Left Behind” approach to standardized learning. Naveen Jain, Entrepreneur and Founder of the World Innovation Institute, probably captures Feynman’s feelings as well as anybody. He writes, “No two children are alike — nor do they learn best the same way. Some children learn logically, some learn conceptually, some learn visually and some learn experimentally. Put simply, our education system is currently teacher-centric, as opposed to student-centric. And please don’t get me started on ‘No Child Left Behind.’ It might as well be called ‘All Children Left Behind.’ This system of standardized, rote learning that teaches to a test is exactly the type of education our children don’t need in this world that is plagued by systemic, pervasive and confounding global challenges.” [“School’s Out for Summer: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century,” Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2013]


When Feynman was growing up, there were not as many distractions for children as there are today. There were no televisions, no iPods, no tablets, and no smartphones. Children’s natural curiosities and imaginations were the driving forces behind both education and play. For immigrant children, like Feynman, education was seen as the best way to get ahead in the world. And the men we now call geniuses threw themselves into gaining knowledge on their own. At a recent conference I attended in Jersey City, NJ, called “The New Know,” Dr. William Byers, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Concordia University in Montreal, called the kind of self-education that Feynman enjoyed “Deep Thinking.” He believes that the only way that anyone will have one of those glorious “ah-ha” moments is by engaging in deep thinking. Unfortunately, with all of the distractions mentioned above, getting students to engage in deep thinking is becoming increasingly difficult.


Deep thinking is a type of critical thinking. Wikipedia defines deep thinking as “a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false.” The article continues:

“The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition. There is a reasonable level of consensus that an individual or group engaged in [the] strong way of critical thinking gives due consideration to establish:

  • Evidence through observation
  • Context skills
  • Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
  • Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
  • Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

“In addition to possessing strong critical-thinking skills, one must be disposed to engage problems and decisions using those skills. Critical thinking employs not only logic but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness.”

The best opportunity we have of getting students engaged in deep learning that leads to understanding is to involve them in projects that require them to look far and dig deep. That was one of the reasons that I recently helped found a non-profit organization called The Project for STEM Competitiveness. In a previous post [Teaching STEM Subjects Using a Mission to Mars], I discussed how the organization is supporting a program at my child’s middle school. Education is a serious subject and deserves serious attention beyond the endless budget and tax debates that inevitably arise. That’s one reason that I have chosen to make education a recurring topic on this blog site. One of the best things about education is that it never ends. We never stop learning. You don’t need a formal classroom to engage in the process — geniuses like Feynman taught us that. Feynman summed up his philosophy in the title of his book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. We need to let our children discover the pleasure of finding things out. When they do, they will be lifelong students.

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