University professor and Chemistry Laureate Bernard Feringa is a firm believer in that all children have a talent, it just needs to be found and encouraged.
Let’s talk about your own childhood. You were the second of ten siblings and you were brought up in a farm. How has your upbringing affected you?
“It was absolutely wonderful being such a big family. Growing up on a farm was a continuous adventure, because we were a self-sustaining farm; we had cattle, pigs and chickens. My father was also growing crops and everyone in the family helped at the farm. We all had our own duty and there was always action, such as small baby calves being born. All these things that you were intensely involved in, made you ask yourself questions. How can I understand how nature operates? How is it possible to grow these beautiful sunflowers from small seeds?
My father and mother never got the opportunity to study further than elementary school. Even so, I think they easily could have gone to higher education. They were very interested in stimulating us, answering questions and debating with us. We had many books at home even in this remote area. In a farm with so many kids, uncles and aunts living in the neighborhood; we were a big family making our own adventures. That gives you a feeling for creativity and discovery. I think that is where it all started. Asking questions, being creative and imagining.”
You often say that universities should be playgrounds. How can we make sure that this is the case?
“I’m a strong believer in challenging students at all levels – to think, to discover and to go beyond the current knowledge. I think this is true for students at all levels, it starts already in kindergarten. The universities have a special role here, because academic training and science should go beyond the current horizon. I think that we shouldn’t forget that we shouldn’t train our students for today or tomorrow; we should train them for 10 to 20 years from now. Because then they will be the innovators in our society, then they will be the persons that make a difference. If we want to create an inclusive society, it’s really important that we train our students for tomorrow. That means that they have to be able to surpass the border of our current knowledge. This is what I mean with playground, that you have sufficient space to think, to discover and to be free to make mistakes. But in particular to make the next steps, be creative and not limited by what should be done. Because a lot of things happen by accident and suddenly you get a major breakthrough or new insight. Schools should encourage students to ask questions and be creative.”
What is it that you like so much about teaching?
“I really enjoy the transfer of this beauty of knowledge; insights, questions, things that we don’t know, or the limitations of what we know. Also, this pleasant feeling of understanding something, even if it’s very difficult. I think that you share with your students the opportunity to transfer some knowledge, but also get a lot of things back by asking questions and discussing. Across all fields, from natural sciences to humanities, you have knowledge and insights built upon generations and decades. I think it is wonderful to be able to share that with young people that have an open mind and want to learn and are eager to know what we already know and what we don’t know.
At the universities we have to transfer a lot of knowledge and teach students the basic skills and techniques. But it’s also our duty to go beyond that – to ask them questions about what we don’t know and what improvements can we make for the future. The way we do surgery in the hospital now, it might be taken over by robots in the future, how are we going to deal with that? Or will we be able to make fuel for airplanes? These are challenging and tough questions but to share those with the students is really nice. Most of all, I think the beauty of knowledge and the excitement of insights and discoveries is fantastic.”
How important do you think it is to have great teachers in school?
“I often ask an audience if they remember a teacher from their school period. Everyone always remembers a bad teacher, and particularly an excellent teacher. You always have one or two excellent teachers that made a difference and inspired you.
When I came to high school I didn’t know anything about chemistry and physics, as you don’t study those topics that much in elementary school. But I had a teacher that was really great. He challenged us and did a lot of experiments with us. He was such a great stimulating person that made me decide to go into chemistry because I loved the colours and smells and to the ability to do reactions and make something. You need inspirational persons that both tell you basic information but also give you this flavour of excitement. To me it made a big difference. I value great teachers a lot and I think we should invest more in our teachers; to encourage, stimulate and help them. I value this because I think that it makes a difference in our society if you have good teachers at elementary school and onwards, even if the students come from a household where education isn’t the norm.
I think every kid has a talent. Some kids become a carpenter or car mechanic. Others become teachers or painters. For teachers to stimulate that talent and encourage each kid is so crucial. You cannot expect this from all parents, because some parents never had that capability. But the teachers can recognise that, despite the fact that this kid comes from a family that has no opportunities, they have a talent.
I think the role of good teachers shouldn’t be underestimated. If you train and educate your teachers well, they will educate and stimulate your kids to reach their highest potential. Because without any doubt, every kid has a talent that we should encourage. Teachers play a crucial role there, in my opinion.”
What challenges have you found when it comes to teaching right now during COVID-19, how are you coping with that?
“After my Nobel Prize, I held lectures at high schools to talk about the importance of teaching and about my work. But now I can’t do that anymore. I’m now in the lab where we work in shifts. That’s a bit difficult, especially when you work in chemistry, or physics or natural sciences. I think practical training is crucial. But it is tougher to do experiments because some people might have limited access, and with the large number of people in research labs it’s difficult to give all the experimental training that we want to give. That’s an issue I’m a bit worried about, because we want to train them at the right level before they finish.
The second issue is that most of the lectures are online. As a teacher, I must say that there are good courses on the internet, and it’s good that you have filmed lectures that can be reviewed. But I think the interaction in class with the students is really important. I like to discuss with my students, to be in the midst of them and to ask questions. When teaching online you sit in front of the screen, don’t see the faces of the students and receive questions in the chatbox. There is no direct contact. Last week, I was allowed to have a physical lesson with a group less than 20 people. I was really happy during those two hours. The students seemed happy too to attend a live lecture again.
For me, it was a delight, because I could talk with the students, I could ask them questions, I saw their eyes glittering and that is a great feeling. You can also improvise because you feel if they understand you or not. You can see a raised hand and a student asking something, and that is the kind of interaction that is really important for teaching. There are a lot of advantages with computers. But I’m strongly advocating that we don’t forget to also have physical contact with students, because asking questions and discussing is so important for teaching.”
Do you think that education is inclusive nowadays or do you think that this is something we should improve? If so, how can we improve that?
“That is difficult to say but we still could improve in some sense – to make it inclusive for everybody so we stimulate and challenge every kid and get the best out of each kid. I think we shouldn’t forget that a lot of children learn not only from a book or screen but also by doing practical things, especially in the natural sciences.
There is a tendency that practical research and conducting experiments in lab settings is becoming less important. I think practical learning is crucial, because a lot of kids learn by practical exercises and solving problems. That is also part of the inclusiveness for some kids. There are several aspects to this but I think schools should be a place where the talent of each student should be stimulated. Each student irrespective of background, gender and social situation should get the possibility to let their talent grow. I don’t like that schools offer better and worse education depending on where the school is located – we should have a certain minimum standard and it should be inclusive.
I grew up in a tiny village, where nobody ever went to university, certainly not from my family. My brother and I were the first to attend higher education. Without the stimulation from my teachers and parents, I would have never been there. It is so important that we give kids this opportunity. I was so lucky that my parents stimulated us a lot but it’s not the same in every family. Getting stimulation from different sides is crucial. I know, from personal experience, how difficult it can be, and how important it is that kids get that. It is the basis of their future.”
Bernard Feringa took part in the 2020 Nobel Week Dialogue.
First published December 2020