Feynman Technique

I was doing a quick spin on the bike today. The mind clears when you’re trying to ride down narrow singletrack as fast as you can. I was bopping through Hobo Trail and I was thinking about Richard Feynman and his learning technique.

  1. Pretend to teach a concept you want to learn about to a student in the sixth grade (11-12 yo).
  2. Identify gaps in your explanation. What are you not saying clearly? Go back to the source material to better understand it.
  3. Re-organize material and simplify explanation.

If anyone has been paying attention for the last 22 years, much of my work on this blog (website/wiki) is simply the Feynman Technique in casual practice. I love the idea of this technique and really believe in it. I work in an academic setting and I often point out that if one is making a very confusing and complex explanation of something, then they probably don’t truly understand it very well.

Anyway, Feynman came up a few times last week and was on my mind. While waiting on an elevator, I was talking with some chemistry graduate students. When asked, “what are you researching?”, they answered with some gobbledygook. Things shifted to who Feynman was and that (when asked) they weren’t able to describe their research very well. It was a nice exchange and these two women left with their interest in the technique piqued. This is also excellent exposition of the value of having an elevator pitch together for anything you do.

I’ve often though about explaining concepts to 12 year old as the gold standard for clarity and understanding. It occurred to me today that I really didn’t understand the technique as well as I had thought. Epiphanies like this are great things as they give you a chance to evaluate your position and understandings.

In the past few months a local grom, Billy, has been around Fairfax, stoked to ride trail. Twelve years old. I’d bump into him walking my dog as he cooled out after a ride. I’ve been trying to explain some things about bikes to him to give him a head start on preparation and figuring out the hardware end of things. Feynman comes to mind, obviously.

Doing trail work on Saturday, I was talking with a racer kid, Stan. I think he was eighteen. I was doing my usual, trying to get him to take the red pill. I was trying to drive a wedge into his thinking and have him understand how much he was leaving on the table by going by what the marketers and magazines were feeding him. It was a tough sell and we’ll see if he got it next time I see him.

Thinking back to on these exchanges and Feynman, It’s all fine and good to be able to clearly spell out a concept so that one of these kids could understand. That’s great, you understand. There’s another level to it though. You’re talking to a 12 year old (or 18 year old). You can’t just present something to them and expect them to actually listen. That’s not their world. You need to entertain them. You need to draw them in. It needs to be exciting. It needs to be new. They need to feel that they MUST hear what you’re saying. They’re glued to you. They laugh with you. They go silent when you do. This is the next level of Feynman’s technique and is what the master’s do.

The master’s don’t just understand. They don’t just get you to understand. They get you to love the game. They light a fuse. Simply, explaining to a 12 year old isn’t just about breaking a concept down to it’s simplest form. It’s also about getting someone who is otherwise totally distracted and thinking about anything else to pause and focus specifically on one idea.

I can’t let this opportunity go to waste as it was Feynman’s testimony, after investigating the Challenger Shuttle disaster, that explained the problem to the world at large. There’s far more to it than shows up in those testimonies. Freakonomics did an episode on Failure where they talk with Allan McDonald about his roll in the disaster. McDonald famously refused to sign of on the launch for the exact reason that it is believed to have exploded. His supervisor had to sign in his stead. This is an important lesson for many, and you can listen to Freakonomics Episode 169 .