There is a world of difference between rote memorisation and real understanding. And just about anyone who has passed through a typical education will agree.
After I concluded my degree in economics, I found myself reflecting on this reality. Exam preparation loaded up the medium-term memory circuitry with facts and theories, ready to be discarded as the reality of their uselessness prevailed in the outside world.
But if I had forgotten so much so quickly after, had I really understood the principles I’d written about in exam rooms – even while the concepts were fresh in mind?
One of the fundamental problems with mainstream western education – and granted, there are exceptions – is its emphasis on drilled repetition for the purpose of navigating exams. It leads to a cycle of pre-exam binge and post-exam purge, which fails to truly foster improved understanding and thinking.
While we might call this process “learning”, it most certainly isn’t.
What Is the Feynman Technique?
Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, knew all about this difference.
Feynman was famed not just for his ground-breaking research on quantum electrodynamics and particle physics, but for his ability to synthesise and explain the complex in simple terms.
Such was the impression that Feynman’s teachings and writings left, his learning methods are now crystallised in a mental model known as the Feynman technique.
Key Concept – Mental Models: A mental model is any theoretical tool that helps us think better and simplify complexity. These include general thinking concepts like second-order thinking and inversion, as well as knowledge of cognitive biases that predictably affect our decision making.
The Feynman technique centres on the idea that stared any audience member in the face as he delivered one of his famous lectures. That is, the ability to take the complex and make it simple in one’s own terms, without compromising the central idea at hand.
The Feynman technique has 4 steps:
- Choose a concept and learn about it
- Pretend (or really) teach it to a child
- Review gaps in your understanding
- Refine, organise, and tell powerful stories
Let’s explore each of these steps in more depth.
Step #1: Choose a concept and learn about it
The process of self-learning begins by choosing a concept of interest and putting pen to paper.
Write the subject at the top of a piece of paper and then write down everything you know about it, perhaps in bullet points. Note, there are no hard rules here. It’s simply about getting our existing knowledge down on paper.
As you encounter new information, or if you are starting from zero knowledge, gradually add this information to your notes.
Step #2: Pretend (or really) teach it to a child
Once you have consolidated what you know onto paper, it’s time to play the teacher.
Imagine that you are explaining the concept to a child for the first time. You can do this by pretending (perhaps imagining a student in front of you) or you can teach it for real to your children (or to an adult). You can use a whiteboard, talk in a funny accent, whatever works.
How you deliver it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that you teach.
As we write things down, we can easily fool ourselves into a delusion of understanding. But as we try to simplify and teach the concepts, the experience can reveal blind spots in that understanding.
The purpose of Step 2 is to encourage the unpacking of complexity and reveal these blind spots. As these gaps appear, we should briefly note them down in readiness for Step 3.
Step #3: Review gaps in your understanding
After teaching the concept, you can then review the identified gaps in understanding. Slowly, this is putting the jigsaw pieces together in the learning process.
Go back to the books and fill in the gaps. Re-read information that you weren’t clear on and increase your depth of knowledge.
Don’t expect to master the topic on the second look through the information. For complex topics, you will need to repeat the steps in the Feynman technique many times. Each time, the teaching will reveal new gaps.
Step #4: Refine, organise, and tell powerful stories
The ultimate objective of the Feynman technique is to have such a high-quality understanding of the topic that you can explain it in the simplest of terms, without compromising the central idea.
To achieve this, of course, we need to take everything we have gathered in Steps 1, 2 and 3, and refine and organise it.
Think about how the concept can be taught to a child in both the simplest and most compelling terms.
Simple is good, but simple and memorable stories are better. They provide associational hooks that make the concepts “stickier” in our memories. They also make the complex easier to digest for laypeople.
Use concise, simple language. Remember, you are teaching the concept to a child. Cut out the jargon and get to the substance. Use relatable examples and analogies.
Embrace imagery and multi-sensory learning. The more senses involved in explaining your simplified view of the complex, the more likely you are to learn it – and teach it effectively.
Bring all this together and then repeat Step 2. You will be amazed at the improvement in your understanding.
The Key Takeaway: Explaining Breeds Understanding
If you take just one lesson from the Feynman technique, make it this: Explaining breeds understanding.
While rote memorisation might help us begin to understand, it doesn’t come close to teaching what we believe we understand.
Teaching forces us to ask ourselves questions that memorisation never could. It forces us to question our knowledge and calls out our ignorance. It drives us back to the drawing board for refinement and simplification.
There is a reason why Feynman earned the nickname “The Great Explainer”. It’s because he recognised the power of simplicity and the role of explanation in reaching that simplicity.
So, the next time you seek to learn a subject, ask yourself if you want to memorise it or truly understand it.
If you want to understand it, you have a lot of explaining to do.