And why you should use it
My first job after grad school was presenting research to hospital leaders around the US. I had no background in healthcare or medicine, and I was at least 20 years younger than my audience. Yet, every day I stood up in front of rooms of senior doctors and executives and told them what they should do.
It mostly worked because the research was good, and I sounded confident. But I went into every presentation deathly afraid. I feared being asked a simple question that would destroy my credibility. My knowledge was only a thin skin on a bubble of ignorance. I was faking.
One day, there was a difficult session where I managed to mispronounce some basic anatomy. From that point on, I decided to spend as much time as possible making sure I could really explain, at a grade-school level, everything I was talking about.
It was a lot of work. I took apart every concept, and if I couldn’t explain it, I’d go back, ask questions, do more research until I could. Over time it paid off. I gained real confidence. As a bonus, I became a specialist in speaking to Boards, and other non-experts. They really appreciated the simplicity.
This way of learning, through teaching, has been around forever. Seneca, the Roman philosopher said “People learn while they teach.” In psychology, it’s known as the “protégé effect”. Some even claim it is a reason first-born children seem to have a leg up over their younger siblings later in life.
It’s also the basis of what is known as the “Feynman Technique.”
The technique rests on the idea that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really know it.
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a famous, quirky, joyful, Nobel-prize-winning, US physicist. He was particularly well-known as a teacher who could explain even the most complex problems simply and compellingly. If you want to see him in action – watch him explain fire to a BBC interviewer in 1983.
From David L. And Judith R. Goodstein’s Feynman’s Lost Lecture
Once, I said to him, “… explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”
But the technique is not really his. As far as I can tell, it comes from a self-experimenting blogger. In 2011 Scott Young challenged himself to complete the equivalent of the 4-year MIT Computer Science degree in 12 months. For under $2000. Without actually attending MIT. Which he did.
To achieve this, he had to learn complex ideas quickly and study for tests efficiently. He developed a simple method he called “The Feynman Technique” in honor of the physicist. The method ensured that he truly understood what he had learned at a fundamental level.
- Write down the name of a concept or problem;
- Try to explain the idea as if to someone else in writing;
- If you get stuck go back to your resources and work it out;
- Keep simplifying the language, use analogies when you have to, and diagrams.
The method can help to clarify concepts, identify gaps in knowledge, and encode the idea. A good way to prepare for tests is to try to recreate the explanation you have created without looking at your notes. If you can, you know you have it.
Young expands on the technique and Feynman’s influence in his book Ultralearning*.
I used the technique recently to understand bread making. (During the COVID-19 pandemic I baked a lot of bread) I’m pretty good at following instructions (thank you model planes), and my bread usually turns out – but when it doesn’t, I can’t fix it. That’s because I don’t really understand what is going on at a fundamental level.
Here’s the beginning of my “Feynman Technique” version of how bread works (bread is pretty complicated it turns out…)
Bread (yeasted, wheat)
Bread is mostly made from flour, which is the ground up seeds (kernels) of wheat or other grains.
Wheat kernels have 3 main parts: an outer protective skin (bran), a baby plant embryo (germ), and some food stored for the embryo’s initial growth (endosperm). Whole wheat flour contains all 3 parts ground up, white flour is just the endosperm.
The endosperm is the biggest part of the seed, and the most important from a bread-making perspective. It contains mostly starch that the seed uses for energy to germinate, and proteins to help build the new plant.
When the seed is dry it can’t grow, the dry starch is inedible to the plant (and to us). When the seed gets wet, chemicals are activated (amylase) that break down the starch into simpler sugars that the plant (and we) can digest and use to grow.
Along with starch, the endosperm also contains 2 different shaped proteins (gliadin and glutenin). When they get wet, they start to organize themselves together into stretchy chains called gluten and to form a kind of 3D net or matrix. This net is what gives bread its structure and stretch and what makes it feel different, from, say, a piecrust. More gluten, more structure, more stretch, and more chew – like a bagel.
Bread is made by trapping bubbles in the stretchy net and expanding them. Bubbles come from yeast.