There are four simple steps to the Feynman Technique, which I’ll explain below:
- Choose a Concept
- Teach it to a Toddler
- Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
- Review and Simplify
If you’re not learning you’re standing still. So what’s the best way to learn new subjects and identify gaps in our existing knowledge?
Two Types of Knowledge
There are two types of knowledge and most of us focus on the wrong one. The first type of knowledge focuses on knowing the name of something. The second focuses on knowing something. These are not the same thing. 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. In fact, he created a formula for learning that ensured he understood something better than everyone else.
It’s called the Feynman Technique and it will help you learn anything faster and with greater understanding. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to implement.
The Feynman Technique
There are only four short steps to implementing the Feynman Technique.
Step 1: Choose a Concept
Now this can be anything from gravity to world history. It works for everything. Now take out a blank sheet of paper and write the subject you want to learn at the top.
Step 2: Teach It
Write out everything you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to someone else. Not your smart friend but rather a toddler. This may sound silly but this part is incredibly important and has worked wonders for me learning new things.
When I used to learn new subjects I would explain them with complicated vocabulary and jargon. The problem with this approach is that I was fooling myself. I didn’t know that I didn’t understand. And often, because I was using the right vocabulary, my lack of understanding was obscured from my teachers.
When you write out the idea from start to finish in simple language that a toddler can understand (tip: use only the most common words) you force yourself to understand the concept and you get a clear understanding of where you might have some gaps.
Step 3: Go Back
In step two you will inevitably encounter gaps in your knowledge where you’re forgetting something important, not able to explain it, or simply have trouble connecting an important concept. This is valuable feedback and where the learning starts to happen. When you get stuck go back to the source material and re-learn it. For example, if you’ve got a biology test coming up and you’re having problems explaining evolution in simple terms, open up the biology book and start re-reading the section on evolution. Now close the book, take out a new blank piece of paper and explain the sub-idea (in this case evolution) that you were having problems with using the Feynman Technique. Once you can do that return to your original sheet of paper and continue.
Step 4: Review and Simplify
Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes. Review them to make sure you didn’t borrow any of the jargon from the source material. Read them out loud. If the explanation isn’t simple or sounds confusing that’s a good indication that you’re understanding in that area needs some work. Also try creating analogies.
Not only is this 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. (Elon Musk calls this thinking from first principles.) This leads to a much deeper understanding of the ideas and concepts. Importantly, approaching problems in this way allows you to understand when others don’t know what they are talking about.
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.