The Feynman Technique and Learning EXPOSED

Introduction

I am going to convince you why you should implement the Feynman technique when you want to learn something new. This is a blog post where the Feynman technique and other learning techniques are EXPOSED! I will be promoting the concept of lifelong learning but I have never given you any tools on how you can practice this principle. This is my very first attempt to guide you and help you with your learning struggles. I can relate completely to the feelings of frustration that can come along with learning an entire new concept even though learning new skills can help you build leverage and outpace other people in the same field.

“Escaping competition by combining unusual skills is one of the easiest and most robust strategies how to win in life.” @hustlingstudent

Coding is the domain I am going to dive deeper into. I truly believe that coding is one of the fundamental skills to learn if you want to thrive in this fast changing world. Maybe you do not need to learn how to program yourself but you need to understand the principles applied in programming. When you program, you will need to problem-solve. Problem solving can be used as an effective method in education to help student reach better grades.

I encourage you to start new project. You should not shy away from learning new skills to improve your general understanding. Your brain is still malleable even when you become older. There is something called ‘neuroplasticity’ which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Most likely after this blog post you will form enough neural networks that encourage you to create and learn. [Reference to blog post about the consumption diet]

What is the Feynman Technique?

Who was Richard Feynman?

He was an American physicist who won the Nobel price in 1965 because of his work on Quantum Electrodynamics.

He also was a great physics teacher who stressed about the importance of truly understanding a concept before you start solving problems. Memorizing is not effective for truly understanding a concept.

You may know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but in the end, you will know absolutely nothing about whatever the bird is. So, let’s look at the bird and see what it does – that’s what counts. I learned early enough the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something

How do you use it?

The Feynman Technique is used to get a better and deeper understanding of more complex problems. The basic premise of the technique is that you need to be able to teach the concept to a child of 5 years old. When you cannot explain it in simple language, you will be probably be covering up your incompetence. These in-competencies are the weak areas you have to conquer. You can practice the Feynman Technique when you follow the next couple of steps:

  1. Write the name of the concept on a piece of paper.
  2. Explain the concept like you were teaching it to someone. Work out at least two examples.
  3. Review your explanation and revise. Go back to your notes to correct your weak points and learn more.
  4. Rewrite sections with too much technical terms.

Remember that this process is going to take some time to go through. You cannot expect to understand a more difficult concept in a matter of minutes, hours or even days. I will be using the principle on a very simple example. The true power though of the Feynman Technique is to learn very complex and abstract ideas like you would find in science, mathematics, and statistics.

Does the Feynman Technique work?

To be completely honest, it depends. It will depend on how you use the technique and on which subjects you will be using it to. It has definitely some promising effect but I must advice you to first try it for yourself. Learning is a very personal experience which is not a one-size fits all. I can not state if this technique will work for you but there are some reasons to believe it could work.

It is necessary to look at the results of observation objectively, because you, the experimenter, might like one result better than another. Richard P. Feynman

The best thing about it is that is takes us back to the simplified way of learning when we were 5 years old. With this technique, it is possible to unravel difficult concepts and understand them on a deep level.

What is the generation effect?

I recently came across a very interesting article while I was doing my research for this article. The following statement was made in this article:

Information is better remembered when it's created by your mind instead of when you read it passively.

This supports the idea of the Feynman technique. When you explain a concept to somebody else, you need to create your own examples, you need to make your own connections between previous knowledge, and newly learned material. You just cannot read something passively and accept that you will be able to apply the Feynman technique.

There is always another way to say the same thing that doesn’t look at all like the way you said it before. I don’t know what the reason for this is. I think it is somehow a representation of the simplicity of nature.

Richard P. Feynman

Reasons why active learning works?

It is thought that this process of active learning may induce your semantic learning which is represented by general facts and knowledge. It could also be that there happens to be encoding on the level of the mind which does not happen when you just read passively. I guess we all remember the times we read something but forgot about it almost a few minutes later. While if you had the intention to tell about this article to somebody else, the chance of you forgetting what you read diminished to almost zero. Most likely, you also make new neural connection when you learn actively which makes it easier to recall what you have learned.

A catchy example

Let us say, you have just learned about the concept of a cat. People say cats are lazy and cute. The only problem though is that you have never seen a cat in real life. One day, you see a cat lying lazy on the kitchen table. It will be much easier to make the connection of this animal with your mental idea of a cat. It constructs further on the mental picture you already had in your mind.

Ideas to apply this learning technique

There are a few ways you could apply this learning technique in your daily life. I have already touched on a couple of this ideas in my blog post about the consumption diet. The basic idea is as follows:

  • When you have read a blog post, you should try to summarize the blog post in some bullet points out of your memory. You can only cheat after you have finished your first attempt. This is also a great way to test your own attention span. When you have been over consuming social media lately, most likely you will remember less. Try it with this blog post after you have read it and send it to me afterwards.
  • Do not follow a tutorial without practice. You should watch a tutorial solely to learn the principles. You should never rely on a tutorial to solve the entire problem for you. If there is no thinking involved, you will most likely not be able to recreate the solution.
  • You can use a quiz or flashcards to test yourself. I have never really used this technique myself, so I can not give an opinion about it. Flash cards are a way to test your active recall.

Problem-solving and learning?

Problem solving has the potential to help children with becoming better in learning science. There was a study who tested two different groups, which one of them was a group who tested the problem solving method to learn science. Guess what? The problem solving group outperformed the other group regardless of prior knowledge.

Problem solving is putting your knowledge into action. Problem solving means you can integrate the knowledge of different domains and use it in a systematic way to solve a problem.

Five major components of problem solving?

I cannot talk about problem solving without providing you with a basic idea of the process of problem solving. In my opinion, you have to see problem as a set of sequences where you will have to loop through until you get to a solution. We can break this sequences down in the following five components:

  1. You have to search after prior domain knowledge from memory. This is the same thing we would be doing in the Feynman technique when we note down our first explanation. You need to become aware of the limits and weaknesses of your current knowledge in order to be able to fix them.
The Feynman Technique and Learning EXPOSED: current and possible knowledge
  • Based on the identification of the proposed problem, you need to be able to pin point which knowledge you are lacking. This is the same moment during the application of the Feynman technique that you would go back to your study material. Do not be a fool and pretend that you already know everything you should know.
  • You should be able to provide more than two solutions. The resemblance with the Feynman Technique is again striking. I think we could almost conclude that the process of problem solving is not that much different from the Feynman Technique.
  • Time for evaluation. You need to evaluate which one of the given solutions gives the most appropriate answer to your problem. This can be context specific which means that given the context, your solution can actually change. Being adaptable in your thinking pattern is another key factor in the art of problem solving.
The Feynman Technique and Learning EXPOSED: possible solutions to given problems
  • You need to perform the experiment according to the most applicable design. This specifically applies to science projects. If you dare to think a bit more broadly you can see this also in different situations. When you are confronted with a business problem, you have to test the solution in the real world. The same applies to a problem in your love relationship. There has never been a moment that your love life improved because you had a solution in your mind but never applied it to your relationship.

We do not know where to look, or what to look for, when something is memorized. We do not know what it means, or what change there is in the nervous system, when a fact is learned. This is a very important problem which has not been solved at all.

Richard P. Feynman

How to learn more effectively?

When you learn, you need to realize that learning is an experience-dependent process. Their are multiple factors that you have to account for if you want to improve your learning abilities.

Emotions social contexts shape neural connections which contribute to attention, concentration, and memory, to knowledge transfer and application.

Let me explain this a bit further if you feel a bit confused. This is a domain where a lot of productivity gurus do not talk about because it is not something you can easily adapt. It is not something you can cure by buying a new shiny app. I will give an example to demonstrate how important though these context can be to shape your learning environment.

Real-life example

“Johnny was a kid who grew up in a poor neighborhood. His parents were not really supportive when it came to his education. He rather had to help them managing the household and doing some side hustles to support the family financially. The father of Johnny was aggressive and a lot of times abusive to him. Johnny would often feel scared and too anxious to concentrate on his school work. Very quickly, Johnny saw himself as a bad student. He felt a negative connection with learning. Learning would be something that he would never be able to do…”

The Feynman Technique and Learning EXPOSED: learning when anxious

This example was completely fictional. Sadly, there are probably a lot of relatable cases. It also helps us to understand the optimal framework to study. Studying goes so much further than just the ability to cram a lot of information. It also goes about the ability to make learning a habit, a sort of skill you have for the rest of your life. There are generally four areas that will support learning.

The four areas to support learning

  • Relationships and community. A child or an adult needs a sense of connection and social security. Without this feeling, there will not be an emotionally balanced state. This balanced state is necessary to get into a calm mindset which is necessary to optimally consolidate information.
  • There needs to be support of motivation, competence, and self-directed learning. This support should be made possible by teachers and parents for children. The support for an adult can be by joining an online or offline community where everyone shares their progress.
  • Develop sills, habits, and mindsets that foster academic progress and productivity. I have been talking about mindset before. I think one of the key elements that I missed is that you need to make certain things a part of your identity. Learning will become so much easier if you identify yourself with a productive laser-focused, almost alienated human-being.
your identity box
  • Social support system that can address learning difficulties. You always need some sort of feedback system. The best feedback is and will always be from another human, preferably somebody you trust and respect. If you decide to listen to feedback, you will be able to quickly identify your weaker areas and course-correct them.

New skills we will need to develop in this changing world

We cannot compete anymore with the amount of knowledge that is available. Internet has been an explosion to information. Of course there has also been a lot of useless information as well. Nonetheless we need to learn at a different level. We do not need to only remember information but we also need to be able to use it in a directed way. At the same technologies are changing the way we look at our jobs. For all you know, your job may not be existent anymore in a couple of years. We need to be able to adapt quickly. Which skills will be useful in the future? Critical thinking, problem solving skills, interpersonal skills, self-directional abilities, competencies to find good resources, communication skills.

What will be necessary to develop these skills?

These is a list that I have extracted from the previous cited article that summarizes the the tools we need to use to develop the skills I have talked about in the previous paragraph.

  • Strong self-regulation
  • Executive functioning
  • Meta-cognitive skills
  • Resourcefulness
  • Perseverance/grit
  • Resilience in the face of obstacles and uncertainty
  • Ability to learn independently
  • Curiosity, inventiveness, and creativity

I can go in depth in all of these skills on their own. I think this is out of scope for this article. If you want to see an article about one of these skills, you just have to leave a comment below and I will start writing about it immediately.

How can we create this optimal environment to learn effectively?

These are the requirements of the optimal environment when you learn. These is by no means a limited list. This is a good starting point for you to experiment in such way that you can create your own optimal environment for studying.

  • You are not anxious, fearful, or distracted by other pressing concerns.
  • The learning is connected to their prior knowledge and experience.
  • You are actively engaged.
  • You have a reason to care about the content you are learning and you can use it to deepen your understanding and to solve real questions or problems.
The Feynman Technique and Learning EXPOSED: the ideal learning marriage

The real skill though is to stay consistent and stay in touch with your leaning goals. Learning is like going into a marriage. It is a life long commitment.

Conclusion:

We have learned about the Feynman Technique as a practical tool to get into the habit to try to understand a concept on a deeper level. The aim is to be able to explain it to a 5-year old. In order to memorize more from what you learn, you need to use active learning techniques and try to get into the habit of problem-solving. We have also touched on the holistic aspect of learning which a lot of people on the internet tend to neglect. There is a need to support both social and emotional networks to enhance the formation of new neural networks. We can do this by creating a safe environment where there is room for feedback, emotional support, and stimulation. It is your turn now to think about how you can improve your own learning and how you can make it a part of your identity.

Share me your insight below in the comment section or through online media.

2 thoughts on “The Feynman Technique and Learning EXPOSED”

  1. Hi, Sarah, I am unclear about something. Obviously, there are millions of things that a five-year-old is simply not capable of understanding, no matter how well we might explain it to him. So how should the Feynman technique be applied in such cases? And those seem to be the majority of cases, actually. What am I missing? Thanks, Sarah!
    Todd

    1. Hi Todd,

      It is more about the idea. You do not need to take it complete literally.
      What it actually means is that you have to use language and examples a 5 year old would use as well. It all comes down to breaking something down to the raw basics.
      That does not mean however a five your old needs to understand concepts like the Bayesian theorem. You just need to use words that they could understand and don’t use specialized terminology to cover up the areas you don’t understand yourself.
      I hope that clarifies something and answers your question.

      Sarah

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