Key Learning Techniques #2: The Feynman Technique
Updated: Mar 29, 2022
In the mid-twentieth century, Richard Feynman was one of those rare theoretical physicists who was not only very knowledgeable of his subject but was also very good at communicating it to the rest of the world.
His success was due his usage of simple words that everyone could understand.
In fact Feynman believed that complicated words were often used to cover up a lack of understanding.
Some say it was because he profoundly understood the complex ideas of quantum theory that he was able to explain them to almost anyone, even to school children.
Yet although Feynman’s contribution to Theoretical Physics is unquestionable, I would argue that cause and effect here are not so clearly defined: Could he communicate clearly because he understood profoundly. Or did he understand profoundly because he communicated clearly?
The reason I ask is because one learning technique that bears his name is based on the benefit of explaining your ideas using simple words.
The full Feynman Technique has an exhausting 4 steps which can take days of work if carried out thoroughly (I include them at the end of this blog). It can be a little cumbersome and time consuming, but if you’re pushing forwards the boundaries of science, it might be just what you need.
For the rest of us, however, a simplified 3-step version is still very useful and goes like this:
1: Explain the concept you want to learn as if explaining it to a classmate.
2: Make a note of any points you struggle with and review them.
Just by doing this, the strength of your understanding will rapidly improve far beyond what you’re able to achieve just by attending a class/lecture, making notes and reading.
So rather than reading and rereading the points which you’re trying to learn, reduce the amount of time you spend rereading and use it more wisely by explaining what you think you’ve understood so far to someone else.
You’ll soon discover what you genuinely do understand, what you don’t, and what bits you can’t even remember.
You can stop reading now.
If you do want to go even further, keep reading.
Step 1: Write it all down
Supposing you’ve already got something you want to learn (coffee production, the water cycle, Kanban), write down an explanation of everything you understand about it as if wwould be read by a 12-year-old child. You might need a large sheet of paper for this and colour-code your sentences. This age is important because at around this age, children are able to understand relatively complicated ideas but tend to still lack the complicated vocabulary.
Step 2: Voice your ideas
This is where you now find a real 12-year-old or similar (I find octogenarians are a good substitute) and without showing them your notes, and without referring too much to them yourself, explain your subject matter to them as if you were teaching it. Remember, stick to simple words and use familiar metaphors as much as possible. Stay away from long multisyllabic words (such as ‘multisyllabic’) especially those that end in ‘tion’, don’t use jargon either. Encourage your 12-year-old (or substitute) to ask as many ‘dumb’ questions as they can think of. This should make it clear if there are any gaps in your understanding.
Step 3: Apply feedback
This is where you take the feedback from Step 2 and include it in your sheet from Step 1.
Add, subtract and adjust.
Add any points that are missing for the other points to make sense.
Subtract anything that is confusing or unnecessary.
Adjust anything that needs adjusting to make everything crystal clear. You’re looking for a simplicity which could almost be described as beautiful.
Step 4: Final Run
Once you have completed the previous 3 steps you should be now ready for the final run which would be to present your expertise, sit your exam or argue your case confident that your have a solid understanding thanks to a theoretical physicist.
KLT 1: The Ebbinghaus Method