Thursday, August 10, 2006

Richard Feynman on the textbook review process

My wife's post about how poor public school textbooks are reminded me of Richard Feynman's account of reviewing textbooks for the State of California.

Before reading the account it helps to know who is Richard Feynman. Briefly he was a very accomplished physicist. He is one of the top names in physics. As his section in Wikipedia says Feynman is known for "expanding greatly on the theory of quantum electrodynamics, particle theory, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium."

And to have the full context for understanding his account of the textbook review process it helps to know that Richard Feynman was also well known for his ability to teach physics. He had that rare gift of being able to understand hard, complex ideas, and then teaching them in such a way that others could comprehend the concepts and principles.

In his book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! he wrote a chapter on evaluating school textbooks. His account is well written and it is worth reading the whole chapter. Here are a few snippets:

Richard Feynman wrote about how he would get so angry when reading the books. "The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for "sets") which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous -- they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by "rigor." They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child."

After Richard Feynman plowed through various books he would go to committee meetings to evaluate and rate the books. Richard found out that sometimes he was the only one who read the books. In fact a blank book had gotten a high rating by a number of committee members.

He recieved a lot of attention from book publishers. They would offer him gifts. For example he said: "Another thing like this happened when one of the publishers sent me a leather briefcase with my name nicely written in gold on it. I gave them the same stuff: 'I can't accept it; I'm judging some of the books you're publishing. I don't think you understand that!'"

I read this account several years ago. When I went to Google to find it again, I found it on The Textbook League's web site. At the end of the chapter the TextbookLeague has a postscript, here is part:

"We don't know of any other case in which state functionaries have given high marks to a book whose pages were blank, but all the other follies and outrages described in Feynman's narrative are familiar."
"During the past ten years we have studied adoptions operated by state agencies in California and elsewhere, and we have seen -- again and again -- the same practices that Feynman observed in 1964. As a rule, state textbook-adoption proceedings are bureaucratic shams. As a rule, the evaluation committees assembled by state agencies are manifestly unqualified to appraise textbooks or to render any meaningful advice."

and later the postscript says:

"If a state agency really wanted to obtain legitimate evaluations of textbooks, the agency could achieve this by using a process that is very well known: Send each book to a knowledgeable reviewer who will appraise it, who will write a report to set forth and explain his appraisal, and who will sign his name to his report. This is the process employed by the book-review editors of newspapers, magazines and professional journals throughout the land. It works, and it can be repeated to any desired extent: To obtain several appraisals of a given book, simply send the book to several reviewers."
"As a rule, however, state agencies don't want legitimate evaluations of the textbooks that publishers submit for adoption, because the agencies are allied with the publishers. "

When you hear in the news about again the decline in American public schools, remember at least part of the problem is the process by which the textbooks are selected.

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Anonymous said...

Hi -- I read a book called "Lies My Teacher Told Me" (forgot by whom), and it spoke to this problem of error-riddled textbooks. It's a really great read. BTW, where in the Bay Area are you? I'm moving to Walnut Creek from NY in a few weeks. (Hubby got a job in SF w/ a startup).

Janine Cate said...

I've heard of that book. I've been meaning to read it.

Janine Cate said...


Send me an email (it's listed on my profile). Then we can compare notes on our locations.

Andrew Pass said...

If you find that your students have textboks that have mistakes in them, you can point the mistake out to them. Tell them that just becasue something is written down does not make it accurate. You could then assign students a specific paragraph in their textbooks to either prove or disprove. This activity would really teach the importance of scrutinizing what you are reading and thinking critically.

Andrew Pass

Janine Cate said...

Because teacher training is not very academically rigorous, it is very unlikely that the teacher would know that the information in the text book was incorrect.

Anonymous said...

Hello. Many of the problems of textbook evaluations are, indeed, political. However, another part of the problem can be overcome by adequate training. Feynman focused on the errors in content. Nothing (included Wikipedia, cited in your post) is error-free. Anything constructed by humans is necessarily an approximation of perfection. But errors in content are only a small part of the problem. We have to consider, too, how content is delivered.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post to the Carnival of Education.

Mark Montgomery
EdVantage Consulting

Anonymous said...

Well said, Andrew Pass Educational Services. I didn't learn to think critically, skeptically or how to read between the lines until I was at University even though my dad was supportive so much that he taught me to read before I entered pre-K. I have to think this is purposefully done to stop complaints from the parents that want their children to not question what they're told to think.

DavidLJ said...

Well said.

I do like the suggestion that teachers can use errors in books to teach children that "just because it's written down doesn't make it true." On the other hand, for this to work you have to have teachers both intelligent and well-informed enough to spot errors, and confident enough to check them, and then to stand up on their hind legs and say what's wrong.

I went to school in small villages where if a County Councillor had problem -- with a law, or a fact, or a problem that came up in local government -- they'd naturally ask one of the teachers. The teachers, in turn, would know who was trustworthy. "Ok, that's the sort of thing Mrs. Cassidy would know..."

Problem is, women can get jobs in universities, and companies, and... and... now. All the smart ones aren't stuck teaching me in Grade V.

Until we can pass that simple test, "Would your elected Representatives ask your Grade School teachers for help writing laws?" we're in trouble.

And we're still at the mercy of the textbooks that get through these cursory, or worse, screenings.


Henry Cate said...

Thanks David, you make a great point.