I sometimes wonder: why do people post amateur repair videos, made with smartphones in kitchens and garages, with no obvious commercial value and, often, a level of expertise just minimally above that of their viewers? Then I remember Richard Feynman’s practical advice for how to learn something new—prepare to teach it to somebody else.
The extra accountability of making a public record might provide added motivation, though not nearly to the degree of making teaching one's profession. Nobel-winning physicist Feynman spent the first half of his academic career working on the Manhattan Project, dodging J. Edgar Hoover's FBI at the beginning of the Cold War, and making major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics.
But he has become as well-known for his teaching as for his historic scientific role, thanks to the enormously popular series of physics lectures he developed at Caltech; his funny, accessible, best-selling books of essays and memoirs; and his willingness to be an avuncular public face for science, with a knack for explaining things in terms anyone can grasp.
Feynman revealed that he himself learned through what he called a "notebook technique," an exercise conducted primarily on paper. Yet the method came out of his pedagogy, essentially a means of preparing lecture notes for an audience who know about as much about the subject as you did when you started studying it. In order to explain it to another, you must both understand the subject yourself, and understand what it's like not to understand it.
Learn Feynman’s method for learning in the short animated video above. You do not actually need to teach, only pretend as if you're going to—though preparing for an actual audience will keep you on your toes. In brief, the video summarizes Feynman’s method in a three-step process:
- Choose a topic you want to understand and start studying it.
- Pretend you’re teaching the idea to someone else. Write out an explanation on the paper…. Whenever you get stuck, go back and study.
- Finally do it again, but now simplify your language or use an analogy to make the point.
Get ready to start your YouTube channel with homemade language lessons, restoration projects, and/or cooking videos. You may not—nor should you, perhaps—become an online authority, but according to Feyman, who learned more in his lifetime than most of us could in two, you’ll come away greatly enriched in other ways.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness