Does The Feynman Technique help you learn?

Yes—but not in the way you think.

Richard Feynman was a legendary scientist whose wit and wisdom I deeply admire, and The Feynman Technique has been touted as the best way to learn anything.

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

The Feynman Technique works as so:

1. Choose a concept or subject
2. Teach it to a child
3. Identify gaps in your knowledge
4. Review and simplify it into a story

If you do it properly, this can be a great way to further your learning.
If you don’t, this can be a great way to create the illusion of understanding.

How do we we create the illusion of understanding something?

Let me show you, using The Feynman Technique.

  1. First, choose a concept or subject. A concept is a mental representation of an abstract notion. Because concepts are nebulous, interconnected and highly contingent, selecting a singular concept to learn about is a difficult task. This is why, sometimes, ‘subjects’ are easier. Subjects are collections of related concepts organised under a meta-concept. But subjects are also nebulous, interconnected and highly contingent—selecting a singular subject to learn about is a difficult task. This is why, sometimes—hoho no, I’m just kidding. If you want only the illusion of understanding, arbitrarily pick a concept and pretend that it is discrete and concrete. Approach it with a dualistic mindset—draw clear lines between that which constitutes relevance to the concept, and that which doesn’t. How do you judge what’s relevant and what isn’t? Hoho, that’s meta-rational thinking, silly—a distraction from the illusion of understanding. Just ‘trust your gut’.
  2. Teach it to a child. This is important. Don’t find an educated peer—for we may be inclined to use ‘complicated vocabulary and jargon to mask our lack of understanding’. And besides—they might ask smart questions. Instead, find a child. Farnam Street recommends “a 12-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships”. According to Taylor Pipes of the Evernote blog, we ought speak in plain terms and keep it brief. “The attention span of a child requires you to deliver concepts as if you were pitching a business idea during one short elevator ride.” [Who does this?] “You better get the concept out before those doors open. Children also don’t have the ability — or mental capacity, to understand anything longer than that.” Now, I’m not sure where one would find a 12 year old to teach such a concept. Hanging around a school to recruit your student may be frowned upon—it is probably best to find a relative’s child. Then, with but a piece of paper and a pen, explain the concept to a child. Dazzle them with you ability to summarise source material in simple language. If the child understands—you win! Congratulations, you understand the subject. Never mind the fact that n=1 and that there is a clear asymmetry in power and status between you and the child, that you may enjoy some confirmation bias, and that they may be telling you what you want to hear so that they can get back to their video games. You did it!
  3. Identify gaps in your knowledge. If you struggled to explain any of the elements of the concept or subject, chances are you have some gaps in your understanding. The issue is probably that you’ve chosen too complex a topic—find something simpler, or see if you can dumb it down further.
  4. Review and simplify into a story. If you can translate your understanding into a compelling story without simply rehashing existing source material, you know for sure that you understand something. And the beautiful thing about stories? They don’t even need to be true! Famed historian and phenomenal author Yuval Noah Harari presents a clear case that Fiction Trumps Truth. If your story is compelling enough, you don’t even need to have facts to support it.

Now, you do realise I was being hellishly facetious in the above, yes? That I was presenting a distorted way in which The Feynman Technique can be interpreted to create only the illusion of understanding? I hope so.

The reality is: some topics are too complex for kids to understand. If you were to reduce a concept down into a form they do understand—then, well: you yourself may only have a reduced or partial understanding. As Richard Feynman himself says:—

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The Feynman Technique helps us learn yes—but it doesn’t help us understand. Rather: it helps us learn that which we do not understand.

(…yet.)

I’m on some fool quest to share 50 insights in 50 days. This is day 10. More at drjasonfox.com

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