The Feynman Learning Technique
All of us are being told that we will have to work until 70 years of age and hence will have to reinvent ourselves 2-3x during a five decade long career. What nobody is willing to tell us is how on earth we are supposed to rebuild our skillsets 2-3x during our career. How will we learn new skills and master new competencies again and again during our careers? Farnam Street comes to our rescue with a blog which summarises the key learning hacks of the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman. The blog begins by summarising Feynman’s technique: “There are four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique…The steps are as follows:
Step 1: Pretend to teach a concept you want to learn about to a student in the sixth grade.
Step 2: Identify gaps in your explanation.
Step 3: Go back to the source material to better understand it.
Step 4: Organize and simplify.
Step 5: Transmit (optional).”
The remainder of the blog summarises the five steps. So that you read the original article, we will focus only on the first two steps here because they appear to us to be very powerful.
“Step 1: Pretend to teach it to a child or a rubber duck
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 as if you were teaching it to a child or a rubber duck sitting on your desk…The idea is that explaining something to a silly-looking inanimate object will force you to be as simple as possible.
It turns out that one of the ways we mask our lack of understanding is by using complicated vocabulary and jargon. The truth is, if you can’t define the words and terms you are using, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. If you look at a painting and describe it as “abstract” because that’s what you heard in art class, you aren’t displaying any comprehension of the painting. You’re just mimicking what you’ve heard. And you haven’t learned anything. You need to make sure your explanation isn’t above, say, a sixth-grade reading level by using easily accessible words and phrases.
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. You can better explain the why behind your description of the what.”
Moving on to step 2 which is identifying gaps in the explanation you came up with in step 1: “Areas where you struggle in Step 1 are the points where you have some gaps in your understanding.
Identifying gaps in your knowledge—where you forget something important, aren’t able to explain it, or simply have trouble thinking of how variables interact—is a critical part of the learning process. Filling those gaps is when you really make the learning stick.
Now that you know where you have gaps in your understanding, go back to the source material. Augment it with other sources. Look up definitions. Keep going until you can explain everything you need to in basic terms.
Only when you can explain your understanding without jargon and in simple terms can you demonstrate your understanding.”