The following article was first published in Customizing Life: Personal development - One day at a time.
Richard Feynman was a world renowned and widely successful theoretical physicist, even managing to win the Nobel Prize in 1965. He was a brilliant guy.
And Feynman developed his own personal method for deeply learning and internalizing topics. Now known as the Feynman technique, it’s a simple process, containing 4 repeatable steps:
Step 1 – Study
The first step is easy. In fact, anyone who’s reading an article about learning processes is probably already doing it.
All you have to do is choose a topic and start studying.
Naturally, this makes perfect sense for educational based study, but it can also work equally well for other skills such as sports. Simply write down all of the things you know about the skill on the piece of paper. Try and break it down into its core components and seek to understand it as a whole.
As an example, we’re going to be using the game of chess.
With that in mind, applying step 1 to learning chess would be simple. You’d simply have to start learning the rules and basic strategies. Keep in mind that you’ll need to know enough that you can teach someone else in step 2.
Step 2 – Teach
Once you’ve completely covered the topic, it’s time for step 2. You’re going to teach it to someone else.
If you’d rather avoid actually teaching someone, you can just teach it to an imaginary audience. But the Feynman technique works much better if you use a real person. They’ll be able to give feedback and let you know when something isn’t clear.
Ideally, the person you’re teaching will ask questions and probe you, trying to find holes in your knowledge base. This might feel a little uncomfortable, but it’s exactly what you need in order to proceed to step 3.
Continuing with the chess example, step two would require you to teach someone else to play chess. You’d need to be able to explain the games’ objectives, rules, how the pieces move and some basic strategies to win.
As your student asks questions, you’ll inevitably discover holes in your knowledge – questions that you can’t answer. But this is exactly what you want.
Step 3 – Fill the Gaps
As I mentioned, step 2 will uncover some gaps in your knowledge.
Step 3 involves going back to studying, but with an intense focus on these gaps. The aim of step 3 is to remove these weaknesses and turn them into areas of strength.
What holes in your knowledge were uncovered in step 2? If you couldn’t quite remember how a piece moved, how a rule works or why a particular strategy is effective, then this is a weakness that needs to be focused on.
Now, you can go back and study exactly what you need to know. Recover the rules and search for information regarding the effectiveness of the strategy.
Step 4 – Simplify
Ideally, you’ve already greatly improved your understanding of the target skill. However, you’re not done. Now you need to simplify the content.
This step is extremely effective at building your cohesive understanding of a subject. To be able to cut away clutter and explain something so clearly that even young children with limited vocabulary can understand, is extremely difficult. Attempting to do this, forces you to not only deeply master the information/skill but to also grasp how all of the different elements join together.
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
– Albert Einstein
You now have a much better understanding of chess. But could you explain it in such a simple, clear way that others will certainly understand? Probably not. Chess is a complex game with many rules and strategies involved. To be able to explain this to a child who’s never played and have them understand, is a difficult task.
Break it down into its simplest form. Attempt to express this in a short, clear way. It’s easier said than done.