Learn Like an Engineer: The Feynman Technique
“The Feynman Lectures on Physics” is a spectacular book, one where you feel almost as if you were sitting in a class with him. In 1964, Feynman gave a series of talks at Cornell about the character of physical law. He would go on to win the Nobel physics prize the following year.
Luckily, the videos are on YouTube, and you can see them all and revel in his genius.
Who is Richard Feynman? A brief history
Richard Feynman was an American physicist who made outstanding contributions to quantum physics in the 20th century, so much so that, in 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, thanks to his work on Quantum Electrodynamics.
Feynman was born in New York on May 11, 1918. Early on, he showed interest and ease in dealing with scientific matters. He majored in Physics at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where he wrote and published two articles during his undergraduate program: one on cosmic rays and another on molecular forces.
Feynman earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University in Princeton, USA. He became a professor at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology where he served for decades. In 1959, during a lecture at the annual meeting of the American Society of Physics, Feynman presented the idea of the possibility of organizing and manipulating materials at the atomic level, what we now call Nanotechnology.
Feynman also participated in the Manhattan Project for the development of nuclear warheads, and he also investigated the cause of the spacecraft Challenger crash, NASA's space shuttle that exploded during takeoff in 1986. He ultimately said the reason for its fall was a defect in the part fence of the propellants, which caused the explosion.
What is the Feynman Technique?
Richard Feynman taught a simple technique that helps you understand nearly any subject. The Feynman technique is handy for those who wish to study for a competition, a college entrance examination, a certification exam, or a number of other things.
In physics, there are two types of knowledge: knowing the name of things and actually knowing something.
There is a sensational phrase from Feynman that says, “You may know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but in the end, you will know absolutely nothing about whatever the bird is. So, let's look at the bird and see what it does - that's what counts. I learned early enough the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
According to him, the recipe for real knowing and learning is applied by observing the following four steps:
1. Choose the subject of your preference and start dedicating time to that subject
In a notebook, write down everything you already know about the subject. Then, include the curiosities you discover and add them to the list.
2. Write as if you were talking to a child
Use your child side in this step, explaining everything in the simplest possible way. Write as if you were talking to a child.
It sounds silly, but it's a crucial step in the technique. Avoid using any term that implies you already know something about it.
Use simple language! Be thorough and actually write everything you know about the concept that was chosen.
3. Return to the books and research more about the theme
In step two, you have included information, and it is very likely that some gaps have not been entirely logged in. It is the moment when all the data should make sense to you.
If you realize that you still lack some information that allows you to understand the subject, go back to the books and look for it. Only when you can really explain the subject in a way a child would understand, return to the original text and continue writing.
4. Simplify it even more and use approximate topics for greater clarity of the subject
The review of the theme and the analogies will favor and make your understanding as clear as possible. In this step, it is important to read aloud, listen to what was written, and further simplify the topic.
If you realize that the concept needs to be more understandable, do it. When reading aloud, try to observe if the explanation at some point was not easily understood.
If this happens, it is a sign that something needs to be improved, and maybe some information needs to connect better so that you can talk about it.
Does the Feynman Technique Work?
This 4-step process of Feynman really is as simple as it sounds. This technique can be aptly described as a big fish in a rather small pond. This one technique is equivalent to a 1000 small techniques (fishes) and is apparently as effective as it sounds.
The best thing about the Feynman technique is that it takes us back to the simplified way of learning, one when we were five years old and looking at the world with fresh and untainted eyes. Using this technique, it is possible to connect with concepts on a deeper level and modify complex science subjects into seemingly easy concepts.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have demonstrated that brains synchronize while playing online games even when the participants are not physically present in the same room.