Worlds within worlds

6th January 2006 at 00:00
For Nobel winner Richard Feynman, it all started with a walk in the woods.

Peter Loxley sniffs out the roots of enthusiasm

How can we teach science in ways which fire children's imaginations and enhance their wonder at the natural world? I looked at the work of Nobel prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman.

In his book, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he discusses his childhood experiences. His interest in science was fostered by his father from an early age. When he was a child, he would often walk with his father in a wood and together they would talk about all the things around them.

On each walk they would focus their attention on the behaviour of different animals or plants. For example, on one occasion his father pointed to birds pecking at their feathers and asked his son why he thought they were doing it. Richard suggested the birds' feathers must have got ruffled and they were re-arranging them.

"When would the feathers get ruffled?" replied his father.

"When he flies," responded Richard.

They looked for birds which they saw land, to check if they pecked their feathers more than other birds. They did not, so they concluded that Richard's answer was probably wrong. When Richard ran out of ideas, his father took the opportunity to explain about parasites. Of course, this had been his plan all along, but he wanted to raise Richard's curiosity and create a need for a scientific explanation.

From then on Professor Feynman's world was changed forever; it was now inhabited by a whole range of weird and wonderful tiny creatures which he had not previously known existed.

On their frequent visits to the wood, Professor Feynman's father would tantalise him with different questions and wonderful visions of how nature works. According to Professor Feynman, these scientific insights were "wonderful pieces of gold" which changed the way he saw the world.

For him, the pleasure of learning science came from the wonder and awe of finding out that the world is not as we first perceive it to be. The excitement of unveiling nature's secrets with his father remained with him the rest of his life and was his stated reason for becoming a scientist.

There is no magic formula for effective science teaching, but clearly the sort of enthusiasm that Professor Feynman's father had for talking about the subject is invaluable. Research suggests that primary teachers value "hands-on" activities but give little time to exploring ideas through talk.

It is important to remember that children cannot discover scientific ideas for themselves. The world is full of phenomena and events which cannot be directly observed and science has its own way of visualising and explaining them. To share with children science's evocative visions of nature, teachers need to be accomplished storytellers with a passion for talking about how the natural world works.

As Professor Feynman points out, scientific ideas are beautiful things which make the world look very different. If the world does not look different to children after a science lesson, then perhaps we need to ask ourselves if indeed we have kindled their imagination and a sense of wonder in the natural world.

Peter Loxley is senior lecturer in science education, University of Northampton'The Pleasure of Finding Things Out', by Richard P Feynman, (Penguin Books: London 1999)


* Think of scientific ideas as new ways of visualising the world. Before teaching a scientific idea (vision) think of ways that children can imagine it. For example; pictures, models and role-play.

* Introduce new ideas in familiar contexts which enable children to use their own words to describe them.

* Use a puzzling event to raise their curiosity and create a need to provide a scientific explanation.

* Involve children in seeking evidence to show the new ideas make sense.

* Encourage children to describe, through drawings and in their own words, how their view of the world has changed as a result of their science learning

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