The Feynman Technique: How to Learn Anything


In a TV production from 1973 (The world from another point of view), Richard Feynman recalls a moment from his youth when all the kids were playing in the fields, a kid asked him:

- Do you know the name of that bird?

Not the slightest idea, Feynman replied

- Well, it's a brown-throated thrush, your father doesn't teach you anything!

His father however had already taught him about the names of birds; once they were walking in the forest and he said 'That's a brown-throated trush, in German it's called a halzenfugel, in Chinese they call it a chung ling and so on, when you know all the names of every language of that bird you still know nothing, absolutely nothing about the bird." Then they would go on and speak about the pecking and the feathers. Feynman learnt that names don't constitute knowledge.

The basic principle of knowing about something rather than just knowing it's name is an integral part in the Feynman Technique - a mental model for learning named after the great Richard Feynman (1918-1988).

The Feynman Technique: How to Learn Anything

In school, learning processes are largely optimized for input. Most of the time is spent reading, listening, observing and actual output is a byproduct used to measure student's progress.

The Feynman Technique changes the dynamics of learning compared to that of traditional education systems. With the technique we remember better by actively engaging with the information,creating our own version of it - optimizing for output.

Feynman was incredibly good at explaining complex scientific knowledge to his students. Bill Gates called him 'The greatest teacher I never had.' When you think about scientists you imagine technical jargon and long reports, Feynman relied mostly on verbal communication when giving lectures. It's this focus on verbal communication and teaching others as a way to learn that form the basis of the Feynman Technique.

3-Steps of Learning

Step 1: Teach it to a child

Imagine you need to teach what you just learned to a child. Take out a blank sheet of paper. At the top write everything you know about the subject. Use simple language from start to finish so a child can understand you. This way you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level by simplifying it as much as you can. Do not use complicated words. When doing this you will discover gaps in your understanding - this is the point of step 1.

Note: feel free to use visual aids when explaining (great for learning and explaining)

Step 2: Fill the gaps

You encountered gaps in your knowledge when trying to explain it to the kid - now is the time to start learning.

Go back to the source material and get a better understanding of the concept, and keep on creating your own simple explanation of the subject.

Step 3: Transmit the knowledge

Now you should have everything on the paper and notes in front of you. Review and structure everything, create a simple narrative that is easy to tell. Use analogies and comparisons. Read it out loud. If any parts are confusing it's an indication that your understanding still needs some work. Once your narrative flows you can be sure to have mastered the subject at hand.

Note: read it to someone else, a friend or partner - this is the ultimate test

Learning by Teaching

The Feynman Technique is a wonderful recipe for learning as it allows you to tear your ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up. Learning by teaching is extremely effective. Whenever you don't understand something someone tries to convey, ask them to explain it to you like you're a child - it works! If the person don't manage, chances are they don't know enough about the subject.

Examples of the Feynman Technique by Richard Feynman