“Those Who Can’t Do, Teach.”
We've all had at least one teacher who seemed to be determined to prove this statement true.
Despite a lot of mediocre teachers trying to prove otherwise, some of the best teachers in the world are also the most knowledgeable. They know their stuff exceedingly well, hence why they're so good in passing the knowledge along.
The inverse isn't always true, though. The ‘best’ practitioners aren't always the best teachers. Quite the opposite, actually. We've all seen the Nobel Prize winners who are being interviewed, where they struggle to explain even the simplest aspects of their field without going into a 15-minute, jargon-filled rant. They know their shit, but it might as well be Chinese for all you and I care.
There are mercifully some exceptions to this rule; incredibly smart people at the top of their fields who are capable of putting things into layman's terms. One of my heroes is Richard Feynman, a Nobel-winning physicist and the founder of the field of nanotechnology. Above all, he has become known for one thing: his ability to teach. Besides being one of the brightest minds of his generation, he was also known for his ability to convey complex ideas to others in simple, intuitive language.
The best way to learn, he thought, was to teach. And so the Feynman Technique was born.
The Feynman Technique is learning method for faster learning and greater retention by explaining a concept in plain, simple language. It serves to help you learn nearly anything: to pick up on new concepts, remember and review old material or to study more efficiently and effectively.
Feynman believed in the inherent beauty of explaining something in its simplest form. Not letting his ego inflate, Feynman considered himself an ordinary person who studied hard. He believed that anyone was capable of learning even the most complex subjects. All that was needed was a good base to build on and clear, simple instructions. Case in point, his three-book series ‘The Feynman Lectures on Pysics’ are considered to be one of the most in-depth yet easily-accessible resources on learning physics, covering everything from basic atomic physics all the way to the quantum realm and astrophysics.
Richard Feynman's success wasn’t just the result innate intelligence. No mere fluke of fate making him a prodigy. According to him, it was the systematic way in which he delved into a subject. He forced himself to understand a given field inside and out. He would go out looking for things he didn't understand, where there were gaps in his knowledge.
Above all, he believed that you only truly knew a concept if you could easily explain it in layman's terms. To use a more modern analogy, if you can't explain it to a five year-old you don't know it well enough. (Side-note: the r/ExplainLikeImFive subreddit is an absolute goldmine) Once, when teaching an undergrad class, he struggled to explain some more advanced concepts. He very quickly realized that this was an indication of a lack of understanding:
“I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.” – Richard Feynman
Feynman understood that simply knowing the name and definition of a concept doesn't mean you actually know it. Just knowing something exists and what it's called imparts no knowledge that can be used in daily life. Only once you understand the what, the why, and the how can you apply the knowledge. You can apply the concept in different areas without being hide-bound by the precise frame of reference that you would have had if you'd just known the name and definition.
Just like Feynman tried to drill down further in search of what he didn't understand, we're going to be doing the same when using the Feynman technique.
We'll want to identify the areas that we haven't fully mastered yet and ideally want to be able to explain everything as if though to our 12 year-old niece or nephew. This is a very important point. It forces us to use plain, simple language without hiding behind nonsensical terminology. Once you can differentiate between small variables, understand their implications, and also succeed in succinctly explaining it, that's when you know you're truly mastered it.
At its core, the Feynman Technique is about explaining a concept, which helps us understand how much we actually know. There's a million-and-one different ways of using the technique - you could try teaching you younger brother quantum physics or making a YouTube video that succinctly summarizes your knowledge. For a great example, look no further than Wired's ‘Explain One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty’-series.
However, if you don't particularly feel like putting in the effort of making a highly-produced YouTube video, you're in luck. Here’s the simpler method you can do with just a piece of paper.
These are the four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique:
Normally you'll know this already. Whether it's the entirety of microeconomics or just San Francisco’s contribution to the WWII war effort, it's important to strictly delineate what you will be focusing on. You use the Feynman technique for almost any area of knowledge, even though Feynman used it primarily for math and science.
Go ahead and write down the topic at the top of your paper and note some of the big points you want to cover. There's going to be a lot of writing involved, so best be prepared.
Next step, write down everything you know about the concept. And I mean everything. Use plain English to lay out what you do and do not know. Pretend you are teaching it to someone else with next-to-no prior understanding of the field. Challenge yourself to illustrate some problems and provide anecdotes.
At times, you'll find you are using too much terminology and jargon. That's a sign that you're overcomplicating things. This very accurately pinpoints what you don't quite know. If you can't explain it simply, you don't know it well enough
Now we get into the meat and potatoes of the Feynman Technique. Review what you've written down. Try to find areas where you're not completely satisfied with your explanations. Are you using too many high-level concepts or are you talking around some critical areas where your knowledge isn't completely up to scratch?
Go back to the source material, paper in hand. Re-read, take new notes, and try to wrap your head around the areas you missed out on previously. Try finding alternative sources with different perspectives and anecdotes to make things stick. When normally learning from a book, try watching some lectures or listening to a podcast or two. At this stage, the most important thing is that you focus on what you don't yet know.
It's time for a second pass. Take your notes and rewrite them. Where there are areas with technical terms, rewrite them into simpler terms. Clarify further and further until the topic becomes easily graspable. Simplify the language you use and try to organize the notes into a simple narrative.
Analogies and simple language will make the material stick. Make sure your notes could be understood by someone without your preexisting knowledge. If the explanation isn’t simple or sounds confusing, it's a clear indication that your understanding needs more work. Only when you can explain your understanding without jargon and in simple terms can you demonstrate your understanding
As you can tell, the Feynman Technique is an iterative process. By going through the process again and again, you drill down further and clarify your thinking. There's no limit to how many times you can cycle through steps 2-4.
It's important to keep in mind what we're trying to achieve with the Feynman Technique: Simplicity.
Only once you truly understand something will you be able to explain it simply.
The Feynman Technique in and of itself did not make Richard Feynman the intellectual he was. Feynman truly, deeply, loved the act of learning. He was curious. He was not above asking “Why?” like little child. Most of all, he engaged with the material. He sought out the limits of his understanding and tried to push it further and further.
We can do the same. It's never been easier to engage with our learning. Next time you're learning something, try documenting it. Write topic summaries and share them with your friends. Tweet about your findings. Debate with people in your industry and those outside it. Write blog posts if that's your thing. (Hi guys!)
The Internet has made it incredibly easy for us to share information and to get feedback on our thoughts. Nobody can learn in isolation. Leverage this massively powerful tool we've got at our disposal.
Understanding something well is the result of countless hours of drilling down into the material, of figuring out where your knowledge is lacking. To then be able to turn around and explain something in layman's terms is the ultimate sign of mastery. Simplicity, after all, is the ultimate sophistication.
And in learning, simplicity is everything.