Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

“What I Cannot Create, I Do Not Understand”


“What I Cannot Create, I Do Not Understand”

That’s what was on Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman’s blackboard when he died:

I found this image in an article at Scientific American titled Hunters of Myths: Why Our Brains Love Origins.

The entire article is somewhat interesting, but here’s what I think is the really important and useful part to teachers, and the paragraph that accompanied the blackboard photo:

…when we explain something to someone, we understand it better ourselves. It’s called the self-explanation effect and has been demonstrated numerous times in the real world. For instance, students who explain textbook material perform better on tests of that material than those who study it twice. Students who are trained in self-explanation perform better on math problem-solving tests—and are better able to learn new mathematical concepts. And how’s this for a story: when Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman passed away in 1988, after a struggle with cancer, these words graced his blackboard: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” His final injunction to his students and the world.

I think this paragraph reinforces the importance of creating opportunities for our students to teach their classmates, as I’ve previously described (see Teaching Students To Teach (& What School Reformers Are Missing) ).

Of course, students could “explain something” to the teacher, or in a paper that would just be seen by a teacher. But I think that lack of an authentic audience reduces its value and effectiveness, not to mention all the real-world skills that having to actually teach develops (refining storytelling techniques, picking up on “cues” from others, putting themselves in the “shoes” of a teacher).

What has been your experience of having students teach others?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Pingback: “What I Cannot Create, I Do Not Understand” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… « megustanpinguinos

  2. How do you address students who do not wish to engage this way? My students are constantly given the opportunity to collaborate and discuss with the intended purpose of strengthening their understanding but so many (not all) are ambivalent.

    • Christopher,

      If you’d like, I’d be happy to answer your question at my Education Week teacher advice column. Let me know if it’s okay to use your name, or if you’d prefer to anonymous or use a pseudonym.


  3. Creativity is not only the ability. It also has to do with awareness and stayingpower.
    The graphical description would be a triangle with Awareness on top and ability an stayingpower ( or stamina) at the downcorners. This is known as the BC Triangle on creativity.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree! I actually illustrated this as part of my masters thesis when I got my education degree.

  5. Thank you for posting this on blog.


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  7. Students teaching others: huge part of Montessori education! 100+ year old philosophy recently being justified with brain research!

  8. I learned an incredible amount in my high school computer science course, without any extra attention from the teacher, because after I finished my work, she would task me and other “fast” kids to help the other students with their programs. Everything I really know about programming I learned in that class.

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