The Feynman Technique

April 22, 2o2o

If you look at the history of schools and why they were set up in the first place, you will discover that for decades, traditional schools have followed what is widely known as “factory model education”. Schools were primarily designed with the purpose of shaping students to meet specifications laid down by society. It may have worked in the past when societies needed enormous swathes of workers for factories tasked to follow orders obediently without questioning authority. But we are long past the industrialization era. Reformation in the education sector is therefore long overdue. We are all products of a curriculum that has systematically rewarded rote learning over conceptual learning for years. It is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it stands as a major obstacle to becoming clear thinkers.

All this time while we were in school, we strived to become the best of the best exam takers. Now that we no longer find ourselves within the comfortable tenets of our school, we are outside our comfort zone. We are forced to think for ourselves. There is no more grading. The world is a playground of ideas, each pushing for a place in our head. We should be constantly un-learning and re-learning. But first, we need to develop a framework that will allow us to comprehend a foreign concept inside out. The Feynman Technique, named after one of the greatest physicist Mr.Richard Feynman, is a framework for learning and mastering a subject faster. He identified a series of actions to assess our knowledge of a topic and improve our learning. I have broken down the Feynman Technique into four digestible steps –

1. FIND OUT WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW

Take out a blank sheet. Write the name of a subject at the top of the piece of paper that you want to conceptualize. It could be any topic and is not only restricted to science or math. Write down everything you already know about the topic and more importantly the things you don’t quite know yet. Focus on the latter. Needless to say, there are possibly many things that you don’t even know that you don’t know. In other words, the “unknown unknowns”. Don’t worry about that. We will have plenty of time to come back to it later again. Pour your heart out outlining all the “known unknowns” you can think of for the time being.

2. EXPLAIN IN SIMPLEST WORDS

Try explaining the concept entirely in your own words and as simply as you possibly can. It’s useful to imagine that you were preparing notes for a kid. Clearly, you have to be careful to avoid any convoluted words or unnecessary jargon. Relying heavily on complicated words put a veil in our lack of understanding of the fundamentals. It is easy to feel like an expert on a subject because of a cognitive bias known as The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

A quick test to check if that is the case is to see if you can strip something down to its bare bones. If you can’t, you haven’t understood it well enough. What we want to do here is destroy the illusion of knowledge. As you come across concepts that you do not fully understand, be aware of the knowledge gap. Note it down. Don’t assume that the reader is on the same page with you regarding their understanding of the concept. This will force you to go ground-up with the explanation.

3. CONNECT NEW CONCEPTS WITH OLD

Now that you have a more clear sense of what is it that you do not know, start your research. You have the knowledge of all of humankind at the tip of your fingers. Find out all the available information on the subject that you can find and speed read through them. If it aligns with your existing ideas, flip through. When you come across a point of contradiction, note it down. If there’s a piece of information that you can’t make sense of, note it down separately. Once you have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject, you might be able to place the information appropriately. These are stepping stones in mastering learning with the Feynman Technique.

Look for relationships between interconnected ideas that you find during your research. Is it all arbitrary or does it have some form of a relationship or a pattern? Are you able to identify the boundaries of your knowledge regarding the subject? Organize your thoughts into a simple narrative. Imagine it as a conversation with your friends. Can you put the ideas into more practical examples to make the concept relatable to your friends? It is one of those rare situations when infinite regress of recurring questions and answers will actually be beneficial.

4. ACT AS IF YOU ARE TEACHING A KID

Go back to your original sheet. If you have done solid research, there are likely to be fewer things that you don’t know. Don’t bring the jargon with you from the source materials you have researched. As the level of understanding grows, you will find yourself in a position to ask more fitting questions to assess your knowledge on the subject. Repeat the process until you have established a solid ground. Try to explain the concept now using simple analogies that you have learned with the Feynman Technique.

Putting yourself in the shoe of a teacher forces you to claim some authority over a subject. Forming coherent analogies should come naturally to you if you boil a concept down to its essence. The ability to construct accurate analogies demonstrates mastering learning with the Feynman Technique. Readout your explanation and look out for sections where technical words might have crept it. Your explanation should have no place for them. Your ability to convey a concept as simple as you possibly can ultimately test your knowledge on the subject. Repeat the process until you have laid out a strong foundation of understanding on the subject.

© Amitabha Dey. All rights reserved.