May 3, 2021

The Feynman Technique

Today I finished up an assignment for my PGCert degree (in Medical Education) where I highlighted the work of an ‘educational thinker’.

For this assignment, Richard Feynman came to mind. 

If you’re an avid reader of my newsletters, you might have noticed that I shared some videos about him a couple of weeks ago. 

In fact, I’ve been pondering his work and impact for some time now.

Feynman was a Nobel-Prize winning theoretical physicist who lived between 1918 and 1988. He pioneered quantum computing and even introduced the concept of nanotechnology.

Amongst other things, Feynman was a great educator. His popular physics lectures earned him the title “The Great Explainer”, with his research and teaching being renowned globally.

I chose to examine ‘The Feynman Technique’ for my assignment, an ode to how he was said to approach the understanding of new and complex ideas.

The Feynman Technique.

The Feynman Technique
Image from doist.com

The Feynman technique is a 4-step process:

1 — Choose a topic you’re interested in learning and write it at the top of a blank page.

2 — Write out everything you know as if you were trying to teach it to yourself. Alternatively, you could try and teach it to someone else.

3 — Identify the gaps in your understanding and go back to fill those gaps.

4 — Polish your understanding through analogies and simplifying your explanations, so much so that you could then teach it to a child.

What’s So Great About It?

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
 — Richard Feynman

The Feynman technique links understanding with teaching, whether it be through teaching one's self or others.

Whilst some see this mental model as a tool to approach understanding, I also see it as praise for the benefits of teaching.

In both areas, the technique focuses on a true ‘bottom-up’ approach to learning, building upon first principles.

It encourages an active approach to challenge true understanding through breaking down complex concepts into simple, clear language that even a child could understand. 

In a world full of jargon, I too welcome simplicity.

It rings true to what Albert Einstein is attributed to have said: 

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you probably don’t understand it yourself.”

Whilst most teaching strategies focus on the learner, the Feynman technique does the opposite, challenging the prerequisite that the teacher truly understands what they are teaching.

The Feynman Technique begins and ends with teaching.

It’s wonderfully paradoxical — teach something you don’t understand in order to understand it better.

So, if you want to understand something, teach it.

And once you understand it, you’ll become a better teacher, too.

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