Richard Feynman’s Technique for Learning Something New: An Animated Introduction

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:

  1. Choose a top­ic you want to under­stand and start study­ing it.
  2. Pre­tend you’re teach­ing the idea to some­one else. Write out an expla­na­tion on the paper…. When­ev­er you get stuck, go back and study.
  3. 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

The Draw­ings & Paint­ings of Richard Feyn­man: Art Express­es a Dra­mat­ic “Feel­ing of Awe”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Leo Balzano says:

    Right-on. Richard’s method should be taught in all schools.

  • Renate Jacobsohn says:

    This method can be applied also in Net­work mar­ket­ing. Improv­ing the way you present in Pow­er­Point of even for easy per­son­al events. Great.

  • Ahmet Krom says:

    A unique man who bright­ened up
    The world for the brief time he was here. His works are the mem­o­ries of this won­der­ful man and will remain as mile­stone in the advance­ment of physics.

    Thank you for every­thing
    MR. Feyn­man

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.