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Learn Better – the Feynman Way

24 March 2021

As most of you know, I am committed to a philosophy of life-long learning. It’s exercise for the brain – learning keeps the mind active, supple, and growing, and the benefits spread throughout all aspects of life.

A friend recommended I check out The Feynman Learning Technique; first, I checked out Feynman – was he someone who might know what he was talking about, or was this just a time-waster?

Well, Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a man who was building makeshift fuses and repairing radios at the age of 11, who worked on the Manhattan Project, who mastered multiple disciplines (because the world was too interesting to limit himself to one), traveled the world and taught himself numerous languages, is definitely someone who knew how to learn.

And his learning technique is worth pursuing and worth writing about, in my opinion.

How does it work? There are four steps:

  • Step 1: Contemplate teaching the subject you’ve been applying yourself to – to a 12-year-old. Write your explanation out on a blank sheet of paper, using words and concepts a child that age can comprehend. Because it turns out we often use advanced jargon to disguise our lack of thorough understanding. If you can explain the subject in simple words and concepts, you have it down. If not, you don’t.
  • Step 2: Review what you’ve written, and identify the gaps you’ve left in the explanation (they will be there!). It’s filling in those gaps which solidifies our learning of the subject and its concepts and precepts. Go back to your source material; augment those sources with others on the topic. Remember, it’s wiser to be honest – especially with ourselves – than to pretend we know what we don’t. When we’re honest, we minimize the mistakes we make.
  • Step 3: When you’ve filled in those gaps, organize your notes into a story you can tell from the start to the end. Where your explanation is confusing, make sure you can simplify it – remember, your target student is a sixth-grader. If you can’t, go back to your sources again (Step 2) until you can.
  • Step 4: Now, when you have a clear, coherent, and comprehensible narrative, teach your subject to someone. This step is optional, but why not test yourself and be sure you can convey what you’ve learned? You can tell your narrative to your team, like a presentation. You can ask a friend to dinner, asking for her help – a few minutes to explain the subject to her. You can volunteer to speak at a local school or a retirement home. Whichever you choose, ask for questions and feedback – and revise your explanation in writing to ensure you have addressed every item. Do this for yourself to ensure you have maximized your own understanding.

This technique can also enhance our ability to distinguish those who know what they’re talking about from those who don’t.

When an acquaintance discusses a topic in a way which confuses you, ask them to explain it as if you were 12. If they can do that, it’s likely you can trust their knowledge. If they can’t, smile, thank them, but don’t trust – except in the fact that you’ve supplied them with a tool which will help them learn going forward, if they use it.

Have you used any techniques to promote better learning, more thorough understanding? What were they, and how did they help you?

Please click here to email me directly – I am always looking for ways to improve my learning, and would love to know how you do it.

Until next Wednesday –

Peace,

Eric

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