Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education


Date of this Version



Essays on Teaching Excellence: Toward the Best in the Academy (2008-2009) 20(6)

A publication of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education


Copyright 2009, Cassandra Volpe Horii. Used by permission


“If I’m going to explain this theory, the question is, are you going to understand it? Will you understand the theory?” - -Richard Feynman, 1979 Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures

In this way, Richard Feynman, recipient of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics and renowned teacher, author, and bongo player, introduced scientific explanation as an interesting problem with understanding as its testable outcome. Making quantum mechanics understandable to an audience of non-specialists is no easy task. Feynman had his audience in stitches, on this occasion, after noting that advanced graduate students in physics often “do not understand it either, and that’s because the professor doesn’t understand it.”

Observations of excellent scientific explanations provide a useful functional anatomy—a study of their structure in relation to how they work. The best explainers of science tend to align the structure of their explanations with how learning works. By using this anatomy to build explanations on small scales (the single concept, the fiveminute problem) and large scales (the hour-long lecture, the semester-long course), we can also produce more understanding, and less turning away, for our students.