There are four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique:
- Choose a concept you want to learn about
- Pretend you are teaching it to a student in grade 6
- Identify gaps in your explanation; Go back to the source material, to better understand it.
- Review and simplify (optional)
If you’re not learning, you’re standing still. But how do we get feedback on what we’re learning? And how do we go about learning new subjects and identifying gaps in our existing knowledge?
Two Types of Knowledge
The famous Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something, and it’s one of the most important reasons for his success. Most of us focus on the wrong type of knowledge. The first type of knowledge focuses on knowing the name of something — what it’s called. The second focuses on actually knowing something — that is understanding something.
Feynman created a formula for learning that virtually ensured he understood something better than everyone else. It’s called the Feynman Technique, and it can help you learn anything with greater understanding. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to implement.
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
— Mortimer Adler
The Feynman Technique
Step 1: Teach it to a child
Take out a blank sheet of paper. At the top write the subject you want to learn. Now write out everything you know about the subject you want to understand as if you were teaching it to a child. Not your smart adult friend, but rather a 12-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.
It turns out that one of the ways we trick ourselves is that we use complicated vocabulary and jargon and it masks our lack of understanding.
When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas.
Some of this will be easy. These are the places where you have a clear understanding of the subject. At other points, you will struggle. These are the points where you have some gaps in your understanding.
Step 2: Review
Only when you encounter gaps in your knowledge—where you forget something important, are not able to explain it, or simply have trouble thinking of how variables interact—can you really start learning.
Now that you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms. Only when you can explain your understanding without jargon and in simple terms can you demonstrate your understanding. This is the work required to learn, and skipping it leads to the illusion of knowledge.
Identifying the boundaries of your understanding also limits the mistakes you’re liable to make and increases your chance of success when applying knowledge.
Step 3: Organize and Simplify
Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes. Review them to make sure you didn’t mistakenly borrow any of the jargon from the source material. Organize them into a simple narrative that you can tell. Read it out loud. If the explanation isn’t simple or sounds confusing, that’s a good indication that your understanding in that area still needs some work.
If you follow this approach over and over, you will end up with a binder full of pages on different subjects. If you take some time twice a year to go through this binder, you will find just how much you retain.
Step 4 (Optional): Transmit
If you really want to be sure of your understanding, run it past someone (ideally who knows little of the subject –or find that 8-year-old!). The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.
Not only is the Feynman Technique a wonderful recipe for learning, but it’s also a window into a different way of thinking that allows you to tear ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up.
When you’re having a conversation with someone and they start using words or relationships that you don’t understand, ask them to explain it to you like you’re 12.
Not only will you supercharge your own learning, but you’ll also supercharge theirs. Importantly, approaching problems in this way allows you to understand when others don’t know what they are talking about. (See Batesian Mimicry)
Feynman’s approach intuitively believes that intelligence is a process of growth, which dovetails nicely with the work of Carol Dweck, who beautifully describes the difference between a fixed and growth mindset.