Have you ever had a co-worker or a teacher try to explain something to you and use words that you didn’t really understand? If so, the confusion might be theirs, not yours. The Feynman Learning Technique suggests that, if you can’t adequately explain something to a twelve-year old, you probably don’t really understand it that well yourself.
Dr. Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning physicist, author of multiple books, and the subject of a movie, a Broadway play and a graphic novel. To those who are less scientific, Feynman’s name might be recognizable from being frequently referenced in the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory. In addition to his groundbreaking research, Feynman was well-regarded for his ability to synthesize and explain scientific information in simple-to understand terms. This earned him the nickname of “The Great Explainer.”
Richard Feyman’s Caltech lectures were legendary. Apparently, Albert Einstein attended Feynman’s first talk as a graduate student. In a video entitled ‘The Greatest Teacher I Never Had’, Bill Gates marveled at how Feynman could explain complex topics in simple and concise language.
Feynman believed the secret to explaining something well was to deeply understand it yourself. The Feynman Learning Technique was based on his own studying techniques while he was a student at Princeton. His four steps were:
- Catalog and review everything you know about a specific subject
- Try to explain the concept to someone who doesn’t know about it in language a twelve-year old would understand
- Identify the gaps in your explanation so you can focus your leaning
- Organize and simplify the information to tell a comprehensive story
Feynman argued that all four steps are necessary to ensure that both you understood the topic and could explain it well to someone else. The four step process works well regardless of whether the topic is science, business, or sports. I usually follow this process when writing articles for this blog, creating keynotes, or just trying to learn something new. In my experience:
- I write notes on everything I can remember about the topic and do research to fill in the big blanks. I find the process of writing things down helps me remember new information and starts creating connections to other topics.
- Regardless of whether I’m going to explain the topic verbally or in writing, I try to eliminate jargon, useless “filler” words, and typical corporate language. I follow my own advice on being simple and clear.
- Creating a story serves the dual purpose of forcing me to organize all of the information consistently and providing a hook for my audience to remember it. This step is where I truly learn about a topic because I’m forced to fill in holes in the story.
- When I explain the topic in person, I watch peoples’ faces to see which parts are confusing. Either way, I ask for quick feedback – if they have to think too long, my explanation isn’t intuitive. It may be frustrating but the issue is often in my explanation and sometimes in my own understanding.
It’s not uncommon to have to go through the steps of the Feynman Learning Technique multiple times. Each cycle improves my own understanding (aka learning), especially if I have a growth mindset. It also increases the odds the people I’m explaining it to will understand what I’m saying and learn about the topic.
Whenever you have to explain something, you should try the Feynman Learning Technique. Better yet, the next time someone babbles on about a complicated topic, ask them to explain it to you as if you were a twelve-year old. And give them this blog as a handy guide.