The Feynman Technique of Learning: Part I

As we usher in 2017, I cannot help but think about how quickly the rate of time seems to have increased as I have gotten older. Certainly part of the perceived change is my current frame of reference; time of life in regards to my family and the professional duties between FPU and the AIMS Center. The past year has been all about learning new things outside the 20-year old “box” I have built for myself as a science professor. I have done a tremendous amount of reading and thinking about science education, cognitive science, and how children begin to process and understand. Learning something new is taxing within any field and in that regard an article came across my desk concerning the Feynman Technique on the best way to learn something new that I would like to share.

Richard Feynman was a brilliant Nobel Prize winning physicist who was known for his love of learning across disciplines. He was a true renaissance man, exploring (and mastering) an amazing number of different fields in his lifetime.  Feynman had very much a “constructivist” view to learning that developed from his rather unconventional childhood.  Feynman related in his writings the conversations he would have with his father during long outdoor walks.  His father would often pose questions rather than deliver knowledge about the world around them – questions that forced Feynman to ponder, explore, and construct a knowledge foundation for himself.  In his Nobel speech Feynman attributes this early learning, constructivist style to his success in later in life.  Feynman’s intuitive, questioning approach to learning was related to the fact that he thought that intelligence is a process of growth, an idea that also meshes nicely with Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset.

Feynman’s success was due in part to the fact that he made the distinction between two types of knowledge, one type is knowing something deeply and the second type is knowing the name of something. Feynman realized that these types are not the same thing and that most of us focus on the wrong one when learning, especially in schools. Based on this idea Feynman created his simple four step technique to help learn anything much quicker with deeper understanding.

Step 1: Choose a topic or concept.

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

Step 3: Go back.

Step 4: Review and simplify.

In part II of this blog I will explain Feynman’s four simple steps in greater detail. I have been intentionally vague in listing his technique because I want you to think about your own personal steps in regard to learning. How do you approach a new subject? What steps do you go through? How did your teachers expect you to learn a new concept when you were in school? Which of the two types of knowledge do you think we emphasize in schools? How do you expect your students to go about learning a concept that is new to them? Before reading the second part of this blog, I would like you take a little time and think about these questions. In Part II, I will discuss the details of the Feynman Technique and how it can help you learn a new concept in four simple steps.

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