Most historic figures have myths attached to them and certainly Albert Einstein is no exception. Among them, Einstein failed math in high school and did his famous work on relativity in “splendid isolation”. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography on Einstein, one can see the social influences that shaped Einstein in his early years and how it enabled him to make advances in physics that others could not. And much of that is rooted in modern educational theory.
Jean Piaget’s research on child development concluded there are four stages of development. The final transition usually occurs around age eleven when a child moves from a concrete understanding of the world to an ability to solve abstract and hypothetical problems. The age this transition occurs can vary with each individual and also with the subject matter. Contrary to the struggling student myth, Einstein began thinking in abstract terms at a very early age. A compass given to Einstein at age five demonstrates this. Rather than thinking of the compass in concrete terms, that is, a mechanical device that points north, Einstein conjectured on the invisible magnetic field that caused the compass to always point north. And this trend continued in Einstein’s early life.
During the 1930’s, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! column stated Einstein failed math in high school and has remained part of the Einstein lore. Truth is, Einstein had learned calculus by age 15. And physics? Einstein was at a college level by age 11. How did this myth begin? More than likely from Einstein’s days as a student in Germany’s authoritarian educational system. Einstein thought little of rote learning, and was not afraid to make his teachers aware of that. In today’s parlance, that bit of acting out probably gave the impression of a troubled student. So what was it in Einstein’s background that allowed him to advance so quickly in his studies?
The second pillar of modern educational theory is Lev Vygotsky’s theory of learning by social interaction. Part of that theory is the concept of the zone of proximal development. Here, a student is placed in contact with a more skilled partner to help master a subject. In Einstein’s case, his parents provided the first zone of proximal development. Hermann Einstein, Albert’s father, partnered with his brother Jakob building electric generators and lighting. This surrounded Albert with a technical/scientific background from the get-go not unlike, say, Bill Belichick growing up in a household with a football coach as a father. Pauline, Albert’s mother, was a pianist and Albert would play the violin most of his life to catch a break from physics.
At age 10, Einstein was introduced into another zone of proximal development in the person of Max Talmud, a 21-year-old medical student who had dinner with the Einstein’s weekly. Talmud introduced Einstein to many subjects including geometry and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Talmud’s greatest gift to Einstein may have been Aaron Bernstein’s 21 volume People’s Book on Natural Science. Bernstein encouraged constructive learning techniques, in particular, thought experiments such as what it would be like to ride along a light beam. These thought experiments played a crucial role in Einstein’s relativity breakthroughs and his attempt to describe the theory to the public in his book, Relativity: The Special and General Theory.
As one might imagine, Einstein raced out of Talmud’s zone of proximal development in short order. Not unlike the first time a student realizes they have raced ahead intellectually of their teacher. Nonetheless, Talmud served as a rich pipeline of learning resources for Einstein. In some sense, Talmud was Einstein’s version of the internet without all the negative distractions. This resource enabled Einstein to think in ways that provided insights to solve problems other physicists were not able to. Young Albert Einstein also possessed a fierce streak of individuality.
Self-identity is typically formed during high school years, but can be delayed beyond college. By all indications, Einstein’s self-identity was molded by his family and his ethnicity. Of the four general parenting characteristics, the Einsteins would fall into authoritative (not to be confused with authoritarian). This engaged parenting style typically endows a child with high self-esteem and confidence, which certainly Albert Einstein possessed. As a Jew in Germany, Einstein was an outsider in German society (as Isaacson notes, only 2% of Munich’s population was Jewish) and this reinforced Einstein’s contempt for the German authoritative educational system. The Swiss educational system was another story.
Fed up with Germany, Einstein moved to Switzerland at age 16 and spent a year at the Aarau Cantonal School. This school favored a constructionist educational philosophy where students build their own knowledge rather than simply accepting what was told to them by an authority figure. Part of the instructional technique at Aarau included an emphasis on visualization of mathematical concepts based on the ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who also valued student individuality. Einstein thrived at Aarau and its visualization techniques played a significant role in Einstein’s breakthroughs in relativity.
However, Einstein’s professional academic career did get off to a slow start. In fact, he was working at a Swiss patent office in 1905 when he published four landmark papers on special relativity, mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2) the photoelectric effect (proving light acts as particles as well as waves) and Brownian motion (which established the existence of atoms). Einstein’s anti-authoritarianism during his college years at Zurich Polytechnic rubbed some of his professors the wrong way and he had difficulty obtaining good references. This has led to the myth of Einstein working in “splendid isolation” during this time. And in a sense, Einstein was isolated from the heavy hitters in physics. However, this may have been a godsend as those heavy hitters made discoveries that pointed towards relativity, but lacked the creativity Einstein possessed to put all the pieces together. In pursuit of this, Einstein found one more learning social component in Zurich.
Had Einstein been discussing the current problems of physics in academia after the turn of the century, he would have been hamstrung by the Newtonian concept of absolute time. That is, clocks run at the same pace for every observer in the universe. Einstein and a group of friends formed what they jokingly dubbed the Olympia Academy. Of the many topics discussed during these weekly sessions were David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s rejection of absolute time. This skepticism of Newtonian absolute time is the linchpin of special relativity, which states the speed of light is constant to all observers in the universe and time is variable as a function of velocity (times moves more slowly the faster you go, reaching a standstill at the speed of light). Special relativity also put the universal speed limit at light speed leading to general relativity, which redefined gravity as curvatures in space-time which ripple throughout the universe at the speed of light and not instantaneously via Newton’s gravitational fields.
So is there anything we can apply from Einstein’s education?
To begin, don’t expect your students to become Einstein – the human race is lucky to experience such a genius once a century. Great disasters are usually the result of many little things going wrong, great successes require many little things going right. Replicating Einstein’s education will not likely produce another Einstein anymore than putting a hockey stick in a child’s hand will make him a Wayne Gretzky. But to continue the sport’s analogy, Red Auerbach expressed a coaching philosophy that his job was to help his players reach their differing levels of maximum potential. To illustrate, I am the same height as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but my maximum potential as a basketball player is significantly lower. Rather than concern myself with that, with proper instruction, I should focus on reaching my personal potential level.
For example, if a student is struggling putting the ball in the hoop, rather than give a wedgie George Costanza style, have the player perform a thought experiment Albert Einstein style. Instead of traveling with a light beam, imagine moving along with a basketball headed for the rim. Take two scenarios, a shot with a low arc and one with a high arc. How does the hoop appear as you are headed with the ball towards it? The ball with the high arc “sees” more area in the hoop to enter, increasing the odds of making two points. It might not make the child into Larry Bird, but will move forward into reaching their full basketball potential wherever that may fall.
Techniques such as this allows a student to internally construct knowledge and not simply take a teacher’s word for it. And student’s can apply these techniques in other subjects. Also, the social component of learning cannot be ignored. Ridiculing, instead of providing instruction, for a poor performing student causes social isolation not only in that class, but can cascade throughout the educational experience. All the educational resources in the world cannot help a student who is socially isolated. And likewise, lack of community resources in the educational system can thwart good instruction. Teaching someone to fish may keep them well fed, but it only works if they actually have a fishing rod to use.
To maximize a student’s potential a rich social experience is required where ideas are passed back and forth as well as contact with more experienced learners. This does not stop after childhood. As the great economist Alfred Marshall noted, inexperienced workers are more productive when teamed with more experienced workers. This is also why industries tend to form geographic clusters such as Silicon Valley. In fact, despite his disdain for Germany, Einstein moved to Berlin in 1914 as that was the center of physics on the continent. The diaspora of Jewish scientists, including Einstein, in the 1930’s had the opposite effect of diminishing Germany’s physics research. Also, adequate resources must be available to apply what is learned. Can a student without computer resources expect to function well in today’s society? Finally, do not burden the student with unrealistic expectations. Focus on what the student can do, not what they cannot do, and use that as a base to build upon to reach their own level of maximum potential.
*Image on top of post is Einstein presenting a lecture atin Pittsburgh on December 28, 1934. Credit: AP/Public Domain.