What if I told you that memorising facts is not the same as learning? A similar quote has been attributed to Richard Feynman, the legendary theoretical physicist and namesake of the Feynman Technique. His method promotes learning through teaching and as such, suggests what every educator knows: The more you teach a subject, the better you grasp it. The more you grasp it, the better you become at teaching. What’s less obvious, though, is how to do both effectively. Here’s how the Feynman Technique works and how a few additional improvements can take your learning to the next level.
What Is the Feynman Technique?
The Feynman Technique is a study method designed to help you gain a deep understanding of any topic. It consists of four steps: study, teach, identify gaps and simplify. The thinking model was originally developed by Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning scientist and author of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. Today, his notes have found their way into popular culture and numerous articles on how to study better.
However, what most of the pieces discussing the learning method brush over is what it actually means to teach. It’s easily said until you stare into a group of blank faces who eagerly await being enlightened. In this essay, we’re going to explore how we can upgrade the Feynman Technique to version 2.0 by employing a few practical principles of teaching.
The Feynman Technique 2.0
Hypothetically, Feynman’s method can be used to study pretty much anything. A new sport, historical events, or a foreign language. There are several variations and interpretations of it. For the sake of this essay, we’re going to use the core formula mentioned above: study, teach, identify gaps and simplify. Learning how to play chess should be an excellent illustration of the benefits and limits of the original Feynman Technique. Let’s get started.
Step 1: Study the Subject
The first step to learning about a new subject involves a notebook/laptop, a pen/keyboard and the dreaded blank sheet of paper/screen. We start by writing down what we already know about chess; no matter how insignificant it may seem. As I’ve explored in The Mind Collection Model, such an exercise will soon carve out the edges of our knowledge. This frontier of the unknown knowns is our starting point for further reading and research. When learning chess, we may only know how many pieces there are and how some of them can move on the chessboard. Everything else may call for a walk to the library.
However, part of the original Feynman Technique is not just to mindlessly jot down facts. The idea is to break down and categorise what we learn. That’ll help us structure our studying and prioritise some aspects over others. In our chess example, such overarching categories might be the history of the game (e.g. when it was invented and who the most notable players are), different types of chess (e.g. untimed chess vs. speed chess), its rules (e.g. how each piece can move and when) and of course the strategic aspects (e.g. what’s the best way to keep your king safe).
Step one of the Feynman Technique is quite dynamic and intuitive. It prompts you to note down and rearrange knowledge as well as make connections to new material as it becomes available. This distinguishes it from the static memorisation of facts. That being said, there’s still room for improvement.
The Feynman Technique 2.0
Since the next step involves teaching what you learned, it pays out to take step number one with the second one already in mind. Here are three principles worth considering:
- Limit the initial scope of what you intend to learn (and teach). Prioritise the most important aspects and break down the domains into a curriculum of some sort, with modules and lessons. E.g. you’d probably prioritise the rules of chess and break those down into how the individual pieces can move. Don’t overestimate how much you can teach someone in a single session.
- Prepare learning material. Even if you only intend to lecture someone about your topic for an hour (which I don’t recommend), think about what illustrations, charts or graphs, case studies, props etc., you could show. E.g. bring a chess set and put some thought into how you’re going to demonstrate what you teach. Remember that memorable examples are the heart and soul of teaching.
- Set learning objectives for each module and lesson. After each session, what is the student supposed to know they didn’t know before? E.g. how the king and queen can move and capture other pieces. The more specific your goals, the more you’ll later be able to tell if your efforts were successful.
Step 2: Teach the Subject
Now to the hard part. Step two of the Feynman Technique asks you to teach what you just learned. Teaching a real person as opposed to an imaginary one is much more effective as it reveals if you really know what you’re talking about. It’s also more challenging because it reveals if you really know what you’re talking about. Our improvements to step one should’ve given you a bit of an edge. But even and especially the most knowledgeable subject experts can be surprised by students asking smart questions. Also, beware of the curse of knowledge.
If you’re doing well, your experience will be interactive, and your study results will be challenged. You’ll be forced to clarify, explain in less or more detail, answer questions, unpack jargon and consider perspectives you didn’t even think of. If it’s not going so well, you’ll be talking to a wall for an hour because you’re still struggling too much with what you teach and how you teach it. This is why I think this step is a good place to ask yourself: Is your primary goal to learn about a subject with your student being a mere means to your end? Or do you actually want to teach them so you both benefit from the experience?
Even though the latter approach has more benefits, I think both options are fine as long as everyone is in agreement. Ideally, teachers teach because they already know their subject well, not because they want to learn it. Knowing how to teach is just another layer of difficulty. Speaking a language fluently doesn’t make you a language teacher. So be aware that you might not know what you don’t know about how to teach someone the game of kings. Because you lack experience in chess, teaching, or both. But more on that later.
The Feynman Technique 2.0
Instruction is of course more than explaining facts you read in a book. Here are three more pointers on how to fill the term teaching with life and meaning.
- Consider who you’re teaching. How motivated are they, what do they already know and how much simplification is appropriate? E.g. are they actually interested in learning how to play chess? Have they played it before? If not, don’t underestimate the time you need to unpack technical terms.
- Like a good story, a lesson consists of a beginning, a main part and an ending. How are you going to get and hold your student’s attention, explain the material, model and illustrate important concepts, and wrap it all up? E.g. how will you balance theory and practice when teaching chess moves What exercises can they do as practice? Don’t just talk at your students. Make sure they get enough time to try out themselves whatever you teach them.
- While you should limit the scope of a session, make sure you know more than you’re actually going to teach. E.g. know the basics of chess strategy even if you’re only teaching how pieces can move. Students may want to jump ahead or connect and compare what they learned with existing knowledge.
Step 3: Identify Knowledge Gaps
Once you’ve gone through the painful process of steps one and two, step three is almost self-explanatory. No matter how well you were prepared, students always find a way to uncover gaps in your expertise. Your job is to flag those gaps as you teach and then go back to your desk to study up on them.
Did you get everything right or inadvertently invent a new form of Chmess? Maybe a clever student knew that a king could sometimes move two squares instead of one. Did you know about long and short castling, a basic tactic to keep the king safe? If not, you can now immerse yourself in basic chess rules and strategy again.
As I’ve implied above, an additional challenge of step three is to distinguish between the type of knowledge gaps you encounter. Ask yourself: What can be attributed to your lack of knowledge about chess and what gaps are due to a lack of teaching expertise? You may have perfectly understood the basic rules of chess, however, lacked a methodical approach to conveying your wisdom. As a result, this would give you a false sense of your mastery of the game. In other words, you wouldn’t even know if the Feynman Technique worked for you.
The Feynman Technique 2.0
Here are a few more suggestions to take the method to the next level:
- Distinguish between knowledge gaps in terms of the subjects as well as your teaching. E.g. start a parallel blank sheet project about teaching and its methods. I’m sure you’ll be able to use those skills in the future. Especially if you’re going to use the Feynman Technique again.
- If you did quite well, go beyond knowledge gaps and ask yourself what’s next to learn and teach. E.g. study advanced chess tactics such as mastering the art of exchange sacrifice. Even if you did extremely well in step two, there’s a good chance you haven’t mastered the entirety of a subject in one or two sittings.
- Involve an actual expert to verify if what you learn and teach makes sense. E.g. let an experienced chess player go over your notes, teaching material etc. Don’t underestimate your unconscious incompetence, the unknown unknowns when it comes to knowledge discovery.
Step 4: Simplify Further
So far, you’ve laid the foundations by learning a subject from scratch. You put your knowledge to the test by teaching it and you filled those knowledge gaps. Now it’s time to look at the subject matter as a whole again. Review what you now know about playing chess. Your notes, categories, definitions, structure, explanations, illustrations and examples. Does that all still make sense? And most importantly, do you still consider everything relevant?
According to the Feynman Technique, it’s now crucial to simplify everything you learned even further. Imagine disassembling a car into its components such as the chassis and the engine. Now disassemble the engine into its parts such as the cylinder. Do the same with the cylinder etc. until you understand what each component does and how it interacts with all the other parts to make the car work. Granted this process is more abstract when it comes to learning about chess. But overall, your goal is to unclutter your mind and simplify a subject so you can make it as easy to understand as possible.
The analogy (or practice for that matter) of being able to teach something to a small child is often invoked here. In our chess example, the method forces you to question every aspect of the game, unpack every word of jargon and break everything down to first principles. For instance, at the lowest level of instruction, a child would be able to (1) identify and point to the piece known as the queen (2) move it according to the rules (3) understand how and why positioning the queen on the board threatens the opponent’s piece known as king.
The Feynman Technique 2.0
Teaching is highly interactive and involves the ability to instruct students to acquire knowledge and skills they can use in the real world. Simplicity, we might say, is a prerequisite for teaching but only the first step. If you’re any good at what you do, the small child will quickly advance. Here are a few principles to account for that:
- Review your makeshift curriculum from the beginning to think more about learning progressions. E.g. start with the simplest version of explaining how chess works; one you’d give to a novice. Then build it up in difficulty for more proficient players and advanced ones.
- Think of a mechanism to evaluate whether your students actually learned it successfully. E.g, you could design a multiple choice quiz to test for knowledge about chess rules. Perhaps my article on test-taking strategies is a bit of inspiration.
- If you feel the need to go through another round of teaching, consider writing essays at various levels of difficulty to solidify your understanding instead. E.g., write about basic chess strategy for a novice, a proficient player and eventually one that an advanced chess aficionado would approve of. While not as effective as face-to-face teaching, it’ll teach you to think critically about your subject.
The Limitations of the Feynman Technique
The Feynman Technique beautifully illustrates the interdependencies between learning and teaching. While there’s almost no limit to how far we could take this method, there are limits to its practicality. Interactivity is one of them. Who’s going to sit through hours of you trying to master chess by learning how to teach chess? In that sense, it’s comparable to my steelmanning challenge, a path to winning debates whose only downside is that nobody will ever take it.
In principle, however, I think the Feynman Technique 2.0 can be an effective learning method. It forces us to not only take responsibility for our own learning but also for that of others. Having this kind of skin in the game forces us to truly understand a topic in its simplest terms. If nothing else, the technique can certainly serve as an ideal to strive for, which brings me back to Professor Feynman. Because a lot of his contemporary appeal seems to come from his epistemic humility, the acknowledgment of his ignorance.
When using his learning method, we’re basically designing a chess course while learning how to play the game. Put differently, we’re trying to build the proverbial plane while flying it. As long as we don’t fall for a Cargo Cult by thinking that makes us aerospace engineers or pilots, there’s nothing wrong with this way of learning. It’s certainly much more effective than memorising a few PowerPoint slides.