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.