In the News: The Feynman Technique

In a recent Medium post republished on Quartz, Shane Parrish writes about the Feynman Technique for mastering a subject, inspired by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s way of thinking. According to Parrish, the Feynman Technique has three steps:

Step 1: Teach It to a Child — Think about how you would teach your subject to “an eight-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.” In doing so, Parrish notes, “you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good—it heralds an opportunity to learn.”

Step 2: Review — “Now you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms,” advises Parrish.

Step 3: Organize and Simplify — Once you’ve gained a deeper—and simpler—understanding of your topic, “organize them into a simple story that flows.”

As an optional Step 4, you can Transmit what you’ve learned, actually explaining your subject to an eight-year old (or someone else who doesn’t know anything about your subject). As Parrish notes, “the ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.”

If you’ve read The Science of Speaking, you’ll immediately recognize these ideas from the chapters on technical communication (and organization). I’m including them again here because: a) they’re worth repeating, b) I like how the Feynman Technique organizes them into an elegant framework, a three-step method that’s easy to remember.

I also like the explicit addition of Step 2, which is something I only imply in The Science of Speaking: to teach better, you need to learn better. Which leads us to another important insight: just as I’ve said that it’s not your audience’s responsibility to be interested in your topic, it’s your responsibility to interest them, the same thing holds true for informing them. It’s not the audience’s responsibility to understand your explanation, it’s your responsibility to explain it so they can.

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