Simplicity is underrated. Albert Einstein once said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” True mastery of a concept requires thorough understanding and condensation of complex matters into everyday jargon. Too often, when students learn a challenging new concept, they rely too heavily on complicated vernacular that, while precise, is meaningless in the pursuit of understanding.
For example, a student learns the polygon interior angle sum theorem, which states, “the sum of the angles of any polygon is equal two less the number of sides of that polygon multiplied by a factor of one hundred and eighty degrees.” That’s a mouthful, but students will memorize and regurgitate that concept all day long, hoping for some semblance of understanding. Why not just say the number of sides minus two, multiplied by 180, is the total degree measure of the shape? A much more effective method of learning this theorem exists if the student applies the converse of Einstein’s quote, which is named after another famous scientist: Richard Feynman.
Theoretical physicist, amateur artist, Brazilian carnival enthusiast, and Manhattan Project participant, Richard Feynman followed a very simple maxim to learn as deeply as broadly as he did: if you want to understand something well, try to explain it simply. By attempting to explain a concept in simple terms, students can quickly assess their mastery over the broader topic and its component parts. This allows them to instantly pinpoint problem areas because they will be the areas where students either get stuck or resort to using complex language and terminology. Furthermore, students can use the Feynman Technique to condense and store information for future review. It’s a brilliant concept devised by a truly brilliant man. So how do you actually use it?
How to Use the Feynman Method
There are a few variations to the Feynman method, but the easiest way to use it is to grab a friend or younger sibling and explain the complex topic into they understand it. However, if a willing listener is unavailable, encourage the student to apply this variation:
Step 1: Grab a sheet of paper and write the name of the concept at the top. You can use pretty much any concept or idea – even though the technique is named after Feynman, it’s not limited solely to math and science.
Step 2: Explain the concept in your own words as if you were teaching it to someone else. Focus on using plain, simple language. Don’t limit your explanation to a simple definition or a broad overview; challenge yourself to work through an example or two as well to ensure you can put the concept into action.
Step 3: Review your explanation and identify the areas where you didn’t know something or where you feel your explanation is shaky. Once you’ve pinpointed them, go back to the source material, your notes, or any examples you can find to shore up your understanding.
Step 4: If there are any areas in your explanation where you’ve used lots of technical terms or complex language, challenge yourself to re-write these sections in simpler words. Make sure your explanation could be understood by someone without the knowledge base you believe you already have.
We are firm believers that successful learners use many days and many ways to understand class material. The Feynman Technique is just one of many learning weapons in a capable student’s arsenal. Please visit our resource page for more learning tips or information about one of the other pillars of our executive functioning skill curriculum.
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