Richard Feynman is one of the most respected, accomplished, and famous theoretical physicists to ever walk this planet, perhaps just behind such names as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Sheldon Cooper.
During his lifetime, he pioneered the field of quantum computing, was integral in the realm of particle physics, became a key figure in the Manhattan Project, introduced the world to the concept of nanotechnology, and won the Nobel Prize in Physics, among other things.
Needless to say, Richard Feynman was a well-learned individual.
However, one of his greatest characteristics was his ability to transmit the knowledge he had to others in a way they could grasp. In fact, Richard Feynman was nicknamed “the great explainer,” and for the rest of the world outside of science, his simple learning method, the Feynman Technique, may be his greatest contribution to society.
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What is the Feynman Technique?
The Feynman Technique is a simple learning method and 4-step process for understanding any topic or concept quickly and effectively. These steps in the Feynman learning technique can be summarized as follows:
- Identify the Topic
- Teach It to a Child
- Review Your Explanation
- Simplify & Refine
That’s the gist of Feynman’s technique, and we’ll go into detail and give you some examples in just a moment.
Essentially, the Feynman Technique can be quickly described as such: In order to really understand something well, you must be able to explain or teach it to a child. Or, you might paraphrase the Feynman Technique using the words Albert Einstein may or may not have said (sources disagree): “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Well, that’s the Feynman Technique in a nutshell, really.
As the biographer James Gleick wrote in his book, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman:
“In preparing for his oral qualifying examination, a rite of passage for every graduate student, he chose not to study the outlines of known physics. Instead he went up to MIT, where he could be alone, and opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About. For the first but not the last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject. When he was done he had a notebook of which he was especially proud.”
What’s the Feynman Technique Process Look Like?
Now, let’s go a bit deeper into the Feynman method of learning and explore each of the steps involved.
Step 1: Identify the Topic
The first step in the Feynman learning process is to think of a subject you’d like to learn or a topic you think you’d like to test yourself for understanding. Be as narrow as possible; a topic as broad and abstract as “quantum mechanics,” for example, will lead to broad and abstract understandings, usually.
Rather, go down a few rungs on the hierarchical ladder, because a good knowledge of the foundational concepts will give you a much better understanding of the overarching domain. For example, rather than quantum mechanics, you’d be better off testing your knowledge on one of quantum mechanics’ fundamental concepts, such as superposition, the uncertainty principle, or coherence.
Then, you write down everything you know about that narrower topic. Before you move on to Step 2, you can read up and learn more about it, or you can test your knowledge as is.
Step 2: Teach It to a Child
The next step in Feynman’s system on how to learn things quickly is to teach what you know about your chosen topic to a child.
Now, you don’t have to find an actual child, of course. Rather, explain your understanding of the topic to someone else in as simple a way as possible, so simple even a child could grasp the concept.
Generally, aim for your explanation to be understandable to a 6th-grade-level (10–11 year old) student. This means you must use plain, non-jargony language, as well; the benefits of aiming to explain your knowledge of something to a young person forces you to simplify your wording, remove or additionally explain adjacent concepts, and use your own words.
If you wanted to simply test your understanding, you could just explain the topic to yourself, perhaps by writing it down, in a way that a child would easily be able to get what you’re saying.
Step 3: Review Your Explanation
The third step in the Richard Feynman Technique is to go over the explanation you just gave. Here, you want to ask yourself a few questions, such as:
- Is my explanation of this topic easy enough for a 6th grader to understand?
- How solid might my own grasp on this topic seem to this person?
- Are there any gaps in my knowledge or in my explanation of my knowledge?
- Did I use any complicated language or domain-specific vocabulary?
- Is there anything you’ve forgotten?
- How difficult was it for you to provide a simple explanation on the topic?
- How happy are you with your explanation and the topical knowledge behind it?
Answer these questions about your handle on the subject, and move on top Step 4.
Step 4: Simplify & Refine
The final step in the Feynman Technique prepares you to loop back to Step 2, if needed. In Step 4, you need to admit any knowledge gaps, complicated language, and other issues found in Step 3 and refine your explanation.
If you’ve found that your explanation or your own grasp on the topic need work, re-learn the subject or brush up on weak areas. Reread any source material to fill any gaps in knowledge, and perhaps study additional literature for the possibility of learning the topic from a new perspective.
If the problem with your explanation was more that it wouldn’t be understandable to a young audience, refine it down to the essentials. One ideal way is to use simple analogies, as analogies provide a way of communicating a complicated subject using easy-to-understand concepts used everyday. However, try to come up with your own analogy rather than using one you came across during your study of the topic; this will force you to use your actual understanding rather than simply relying on memorization.
Once you feel you have a better comprehension of the subject matter and related material and think you’ll be able to impart this knowledge more plainly, return to Step 2!
Is the Feynman Technique the Best Way to Learn?
The Feynman Technique is considered to be a simple learning method for understanding things quickly and easily. However, it’s really more like a self-assessment method to test your understanding of something you learned rather than a full-fledged method of learning. Either way, it is quite a useful concept to know for understanding anything, whether you’re in high school, college, in the professional world, or during your everyday life.
One of the main benefits of the Feynman learning process is that it denies memorization from playing a large role, if you do it right. While memorizing material is a prerequisite for learning anything, it doesn’t itself imply understanding. Using analogies and simple language to explain your chosen topic to a child, however, goes much further in proving your topic knowledge.
Finally, the easiest way to learn something new is to have an interest and to explore it deeply. As I end this article, I’ll leave you with a few great Richard Feynman quotes about knowledge to ponder:
Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.
Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.
You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
The highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion.
I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.
I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.
Well, that’s all on this article about the Feynman Technique as a learning method, and we hope you found it interesting and useful! Got any questions, feedback, or other points to add about the Feynman method of learning? Let us know below in the comments, and thanks for reading!