Richard Feynman – A Fine Man 📚
Feynman (pronounced "Fine-Man") was a groundbreaking physicist who made significant contributions to the field of quantum electrodynamics and revolutionised our understanding of particle physics through his development of visual representations of subatomic particles. His work earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965.
In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman also played a key role in the Manhattan Project and wrote a thorough report on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Feynman's extraordinary ability to explain complex ideas and convey his thoughts in a simple and intuitive way are unmatched.
In a nutshell, the Feynman Technique is a method for learning or reviewing a concept by explaining it in plain, simple language.
Traditional Learning Methods 🧠
One way to fool yourself is by imagining your know more than you do. You think you are an expert, where in fact, you know nothing. Noob!
When you learn something new, it's easy to believe you understood it. But do you really understand it? Have you understood the concept in its entirety or simply memorised some formulas, illustrations or full sentences just to regurgitate knowledge in a test or exam?
If you want to understand something well, try to explain it simply.
The problem with some of the learning techniques "taught" in school is that most of them are useless. You highlight random parts of texts, summarise without any purpose or...like I often did...read sentences multiple times until they stick.
Not really effective for retaining knowledge! 👎
The Feynman Technique in 4 Steps! ✍️
There are 4 steps to the Feynman Learning Technique, based on the method Feynman originally used himself.
In simple terms, these are:
- Choose a topic you are curious about
- Explain it as if you're explaining it to a 12 year old
- Identify gaps, refine, and simplify
- Organise & Review
Let's have a look at each of these steps in a bit more detail.
Step 1: Choose a Topic 📝
The easiest way is to take a blank sheet of paper and a pen and write down the subject you want to master. Write out everything you know about the topic as if you were teaching it to a child or a rubber duck sitting on your desk.
Now, it's important to note that you do not teach to your smart and nerdy friend, but rather a child which forces you to use simple vocabulary to understand the concept. Simple and clear. No obfuscation.
It's funny that when you see people in business environments mostly use complicated vocabulary and jargon, they almost never understand it. As a matter of fact: if you can’t clearly and simply define the words and terms you are using, you don’t really know what you’re talking about.
If you look at a car and describe it as “aerodynamic” because that’s what you heard others say, you demonstrate no understanding. You’re just mimicking what others say. You do not really know why it is "aerodynamic" or what that word means.
Simplicity forces you 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.
Some tips on how to make this even easier...
- Make it specific - Focus on one topic rather than an entire area such as "Engineering"
- KISS - Keep it Simple, Stupid! - Learn a smaller subject first and sketch images, infographics or formulas that come to mind - you can either create a mindmap for this or write down your thoughts in form of a list
- Hard is good! - Whenever we learn, we tend to skip over things we don't enjoy but rather love repeating the things that we already know to pat ourselves on the back. How I like to say: The best shortcut is no shortcut.
Step 2: Teach it to a Child 👶
This part is critical! It is the logical result and a litmus test of step one.
Run your notes and thoughts past someone who ideally has no idea what this subject is about. This not only tests your knowledge, but also the ability to convey new knowledge to others.
The style of presenting is quite irrelevant. You can read out what you’ve written, present it like a lecture or record a YouTube video on the topic and see how others like your explanation (probably the hardest).
All that really matters is that you attempt to transmit the material to a person or a group who is not familiar with it.
External feedback is invaluable for further developing your understanding, but also keeps you humble as you will see that the more you learn and know, the more you know what you don't know. Probably one of the best exercises to ground yourself.
Hearing what your audience is curious about will likely pique your own curiosity and set you on a path for further learning. After all, it’s only when you begin to learn a few things really well do you appreciate how much there is to know.
Step 3: Identify Knowledge Gaps 📈
Once you have explained it and took notes on your gaps, iterate on your explanation and make it less confusing.
Simple is beautiful. Complex is Chaos.
See what you do not understand yet and repeat until you have a simple explanation. Can you beak down a complicated term into simpler components?
Identifying knowledge gaps helps to...
- Intentional learning - by identifying where you and others are struggling, learning becomes active rather than just inhaling knowledge. You focus on what matters the most!
- Iterative learning - The forgetting curve hypothesises the decline of memory retention in time. So it's technically impossible to learn something once and remember it forever (there are some exceptions of course). The Feynman technique therefore rewards repetition & iteration. By repeating the learning process by filling the gaps and connecting the dots, you are more likely to engrave knowledge in your long-term memory.
Step 4: Organise & Review 🗄️ ↩️
The final step involves re-organising your thoughts to make it more presentable by filling the remaining gaps, find simple examples to support your arguments, and analogies . In order t reduce time on your end, testing your knowledge with other audiences will unveil new curiosities.
Nice side effect of this technique...
- A true confidence builder! If you are able to teach someone a topic you previously found too confusing, it not only boosts your confidence, but also the confidence of the ones you are teaching.
Potential Disadvantages 🚫
Although the technique appears to be a simple and highly effective, there are some things you should take care of.
The Notes-On-Notes Method 📝📝📝
Summarising information by taking notes on notes can be inefficient and time-consuming, and may not be the most effective way to retain information. Instead, techniques like active recall and spaced repetition can be more effective in helping you understand and retain the information. It may be more effective to simplify the information in a couple of rounds after initially attempting to understand it using the Feynman technique, and then convert it into flashcards for further review.
Time Consuming ⌛
The Feynman Technique can be time-consuming, as it requires you to take the time to thoroughly understand the material and then explain it in your own words.
Requires Effort 💪
Using the Feynman Technique requires a lot of effort and mental energy, as it involves actively thinking about and explaining the material.
May not Work for All Learning Styles 🧠
The Feynman Technique may not be suitable for everyone, as it is primarily a verbal learning strategy. Some people may prefer visual or hands-on learning methods.
Limited to Certain Subjects👇
The Feynman Technique is most effective for subjects that involve concepts and ideas, rather than purely factual or procedural information. It may not be as effective for subjects that require rote memorisation.
Real World Application 😨
To get the most out of the Feynman Technique, it's important to practice regularly - in the real world! That can either happen on-site or virtually via YouTube or another platform where you are teaching people.
Why use the Feynman Technique? 💡
With all the potential disadvantages in mind, the Feynman technique enables you to...
- Improve retention: By actively engaging with the material and explaining it to someone else, you are more likely to remember it long term.
- Increase confidence: By thoroughly understanding and being able to explain a concept or idea, you can feel more confident in your knowledge and abilities. This confidence can help you recall the information more easily when you need to.
- Identifies gaps in your knowledge: When you try to explain a concept and realise you don't fully understand it, you can then go back and fill in any gaps in your knowledge. This can help you better understand and retain the material.
The most important one for me is that it removes memorisation from our learning process. In school, you learn to memorise pretty much everything and quickly forget it all once you have finished your exams.
“I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here. I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” ― Richard Feynman
The Feynman technique is a highly effective way to improve your understanding of a subject and to learn more deeply. It is a valuable revision tool that every student should incorporate into their study routine. In fact, anyone looking to enhance their understanding, increase productivity, and improve performance can benefit from using the Feynman technique. It is a truly useful method that can be applied to almost any area of study.
You can even enhance the Feynman technique using flashcards or Notion to give your learning an additional boost. Unfortunately, things that you never learn at school.
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Keep engineering your mind! ❤️