Author Archives: Steve Pauls

The Feynman Technique of Learning: Part II

In part I of my blog, “The Feynman Technique,” I began discussing Richard Feynman’s method for learning something new.  Feynman’s personal mode of learning was based on constructivism, building understanding from first principles.  As I mentioned, all of us at the AIMS Center have been tasked with learning new concepts outside of our field of expertise related to “how children come to know” math and science, that are grounded in the constructivist epistemology. I have found the Feynman Technique to be quite useful when applied to my work. In this blog post I would like to share his method.

Feynman simplified his technique to four basic steps that I will describe in detail below.

Step 1 – Choose a topic or concept.

Take out a sheet of paper and write a single topic or concept at the top. This could be anything from Radical Constructivism to Spatial Ability, the Feynman technique works for any topic.

Step 2 – Write what you know as if you are going to teach it.

Now on this sheet of paper write out everything you know about the topic, as if you are going to teach it to someone else. But the key is to think about teaching this topic not to one of your colleagues, but rather to a toddler. As Richard Feynman said, “This may sound silly but this part is incredibly important in regards to learning new things”.

One of the big problems in science as well as science education, is not just the abstract concepts but also the complex and different vocabulary that comes with each discipline. Each different set of vocabulary tend to obscure understanding within and between different areas. The issue is complicated even more by the overlap of our common everyday language with our science vocabulary. The result is that it is extremely difficult to elucidate an individual student’s understanding. But if you force yourself to write out in simple, common language an explanation directed at a toddler’s level, you can quickly get a clear indication of gaps in your own understanding.

Step 3 – To go forward you need to go back.

Once you have identified the inevitable gaps in your knowledge and missing connections between related concepts, you can use this as a feedback loop to direct your focus to where new learning needs to begin. When a sub-concept is hazy go back to the source material and re-learn it. Once the connections come into focus take out a new sheet of paper and once again try and explain this partial concept in the simplest terms. When you can do that, then you can return to your original paper and continue down the list.

Step 4: Review your notes and simplify, simplify, simplify.

So, what do you have now? You have a hand-built set of notes that reflects an accurate portrayal of your conceptual understanding of a topic or concept. Examine what you have done and carefully read your notes out-loud to be sure the explanation is simple, straight-forward, and clear. Clarity is the key. If possible, try and create simple analogies describing your concept. If you can write out and express out-loud a concise explanation or analogy of the material without jargon, then you have a much greater chance of being able to translate these complex ideas to someone else.

The Feynman Technique is a simple recipe for learning that we all can use in and out of the classroom. It takes discipline, dedication, and time but the reconstruction of ideas from the ground up I believe will lead to deeper understanding of the material you are studying. How different our classrooms would be if all our students (and teachers) were to apply this technique to learning.  I plan to continue to use the Feynman technique in the future as I continue to explore the research being done in science education and as I begin to work with research associates here in the AIMS Center.

The Mind of a Child

Understanding the mind of a child is a difficult if not impossible task and yet an elementary school teacher has the unenviable responsibility of doing just that in a classroom full of children. Historically, as far back as Aristotle, the human mind was thought to be an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with… Continue Reading

The Use of Questions Within the Classroom

I have a confession to make, this past weekend I attended my very first mathematical education conference! Being the “science guy” I have gone to quite a few science, STEM, and education type conferences throughout the years, but never one focused around mathematics. But this weekend I presented with Chris Brownell at CMC-North Mathematics Education… Continue Reading

Attitudes Towards Play in the Classroom

There has been renewed interest among science educational researchers over the past decade in the power of “play” in the classroom. One of the researchers that I have been following is Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University. She is one of the founders of the Ultimate Block Party which brings together companies, makers,… Continue Reading

Perception as a Human Endeavor

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading a lot about the intricacies of human perception and how we interact with the world around us. Or maybe I should qualify that statement and say how we “think” we perceive the world around us. A child’s perception of reality and learning in the classroom is… Continue Reading

Thoughts on Sir Ken Robinson, Changing the Metaphor of Education

At the beginning of October, I was fortunate to hear Sir Ken Robinson as one of the keynote speakers at the 2016 California STEM Symposium in Anaheim. This two-day conference consisted of over 3,000 teachers, coaches, and administrators sharing a collection of integrative ideas in the interdisciplinary area of STEM education. The underlying emphasis of… Continue Reading

Early Learning in Science Education

Long before a child ever begins their formal education they are developing “personal ideas” about science in the physical world around them. Infants and toddlers begin their exploration of their surrounding world by observing, testing, and discovering – learning by using their available senses. One might even describe their propensity to do this as habitual,… Continue Reading