How would you like to have been young Albert Einstein’s teacher? Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography, “Einstein. His Life and Universe” provides some intriguing glimpses of the great physicist’s early education that should be of interest to anyone involved in teaching gifted and naturally curious young people.

Popular myth holds that Albert Einstein was a poor student in early life. Apparently not so, but it appears he was certainly an uninspired and disengaged student. In fact, he failed to gain entrance to the Zurich Polytechnic on first attempt, failing to pass the general section of the entrance examination, which included sections on literature, French, zoology, botany and politics (as might be expected, he did well in the science and math sections).

As is the often the case, this apparent setback turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it caused him to decide to prepare for the entrance subjects by enrolling in a school in the village of Aarau, located in northern Switzerland. This school, as it turned out, embraced a very different educational approach based on the philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a Swiss educational reformer who believed strongly in individual discovery and in encouraging students to use visual imagery in their learning process. He pioneered a number of approaches that might sound familiar to us because

Pestalozzi memorial in Zurich. “Founder of New Primary Education”.

they’ve strongly influenced pedagogy, particularly early childhood education, over the years. For example:

  • He stressed that instruction should be progressive, moving from the familiar to new concepts
  • He believed in making allowance for individual differences
  • He felt learning should be rooted in performance and lived experiences, thus emphasizing participatory activities such as drawing, writing, projects and field trips.
  • He advocated (shockingly at the time and perhaps still for medical schools today) formal teacher training in education

It appears young Einstein found himself much better suited to the approach at Aarau. Isaacson quotes Einstein’s sister Anna’s observations:

“Pupils were treated individually…more emphasis was placed on independent thought and punditry, and young people saw the teacher not as a figure of authority but, alongside the student, a man of distinct personality”

Einstein himself is quoted as remarking:

“it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.”

The use of visual imagery in the learning process seemed to particularly resonate with Einstein. It was at Aarau that he first utilized visualized thought as a means of conceptualizing and actually trialing this theories. “In Aarau I made my first rather childish experiments in thinking that had a direct bearing on the Special Theory.”

As he went on to carry out the “thought experiments” that eventually led to the development of his most significant scientific contributions, he actually avoided the

Albert Einstein in 1904 (age 25) while employed at the Patent Office in Bern.

conventional academic university environment, which he found too restrictive and inflexible. Instead, he chose to take a fairly undemanding job in a patent office, largely because it provided him time alone each day to think and document his evolving theories. In a remarkable few months in 1905, while employed in that way, he developed no fewer than five remarkable papers that literally changed how we perceive the physical universe, including early works on quantum theory and special relativity. His doctorate was granted based on that work, as was his Nobel Prize.

Einstein, one might argue, is unique and it’s not reasonable to consider educational approaches for the masses based on such an example. It’s also very reasonable to observe that education, particularly at professional schools, must necessarily involve the learning of factual information and skills. Medical schools, in particular, have an obligation to ensure their graduates possess critical knowledge and can competently perform certain tasks. Consequently, a certain degree of pedantic delivery and directed instruction may be unavoidable.

Valid points, to be sure, but I would raise two further considerations. Although Einstein was clearly a remarkable exception in many ways, the drivers of his educational process were qualities that are not unique but, in fact, common in our students – curiosity, imagination and a pervasive desire to understand the world around them.

Secondly, it’s entirely possible to deliver factual information and have high performance expectations without stifling those critical personal drivers. Einstein’s teachers at Aarau obviously succeeded, not by diminishing the standards expected of him, but by additionally providing the latitude and encouragement to explore personal interests and learning. This required, on their part, a certain degree of open mindedness to novel and unconventional ideas, a willingness to engage the student as an individual with valid and fresh thoughts, and the humility to concede that their approaches may require individual modification.

In medical education, we face these educational challenges on a regular basis. Our students, without question, need to acquire considerable factual information and technical skills. They understand and accept that responsibility. As their teachers, we share with them the responsibility to ensure they meet certain minimal standards of competence. However, they are multi-dimensional, highly-motivated and thoughtful young people who develop interests and ambitions beyond these minimal standards, and we need to support them in those pursuits as vigorously as we support the core curriculum.

In educational parlance, this is termed “Independent Student Learning”, but if expressed simply as provision of unscheduled time students are free to use as they wish, the essence and potential of the concept is poorly served. It requires openness to new and innovative approaches to learning, even if outside standard curricular objectives. It requires institutional support and even encouragement for what might be termed “personalized” learning. It requires a (sometimes uncomfortable) engagement of what might be considered “destructive” innovation.

At Queen’s we have a number of examples of student initiated learning that illustrate nicely the potential advantages that can arise from such innovations for both students and the school. The Barry Smith Symposium, now in its third year, was conceived by two students (now graduates), Drs. Adam Chruscicki and Steven Hanna. Dr. Alyssa Lip, also a recent grad, was instrumental in the development of our wellness curriculum and Wellness Week, which has been embraced by other schools. The Queen’s annual Global Health conference which has been running now for many years by successive classes arose from student interest, supported by engaged faculty. This past week, Maggie Hulbert and Ashna Asim of the first year class have come forward with an idea to develop an event to explore the role of the humanities in medical education that we’ll be jointly exploring, likely as a new symposium event available next academic cycle.

For their part, students must accept the reality that medical education will require them to learn considerable material and demonstrate they have done so effectively. As faculty, we should support them in doing so, but also welcome support broader pursuits that both stimulate their genuine interests and can bring benefit to our school.

By doing so, we’ll hopefully avoid driving imaginative and motivated young people to the Patent Office.


Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)

Associate Dean,

Undergraduate Medical Education