Write to Learn

How the Feynman Technique Keeps Me Writing

Writing is learning in disguise.

I’ve learned a huge amount over the last two years I’ve been writing regularly, perhaps the most since I was a young child. I’ve learned more than in the last couple of years than I did at university, or even as a postgraduate studying for a PhD.

Writing is a powerful way to learn. Just ask any journalist who’s been put on assignment. I usually decide to write about things I know about, but not in depth. I put myself “on assignment”. By doing so, I ensure I research the person or concept thoroughly, since I cannot publish a half-baked explanation — there’s too much at stake.

The Feynman Technique is often cited as the best way to learn anything. It’s a tried and tested way to understand and memorise even complex concepts in a short amount of time.

The technique takes its name from Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Feynman made groundbreaking discoveries in the understanding of subatomic particles. He also had a knack for explaining complicated ideas. Watching him unpack scientific complexities into graspable images is a wonder to behold (see below).

Here’s how the Feynman Technique works, its simplicity is exquisite:

  1. Choose a concept
  2. Teach it to a child
  3. Identify gaps and research the source material further
  4. Review and simplify even more (optional)

The mistake we often make with learning is that we think memorising the names of things makes knowledge. Memorised concepts don’t stick around for long in the mind. This is because they’re not connected by purpose.

To understand a concept is different. You could for example memorise all the parts of a car engine. You’d “know” what makes up the engine, but you’d struggle to explain how it works. I know what a carburettor is, but I have no idea what function it serves.

If you learn the parts of a car engine by learning how it works as a whole, you’d much better understand it. You understand not only what things are, but also their purpose. Purpose is what connects.

So how do you test if you understand a concept? You explain it in the simplest terms possible, in a way that could be understood by a child. This is basis of the Feynman Technique: if you can’t explain something clearly, you don’t really understand it.

Richard Feynman explains how rubber bands are stretchy. He uses simplicity and imagery to do so.

Writing as Learning

Now let’s reverse that statement — to know something well, we need to learn to explain it. That’s where writing comes in.

When I write, I research the concept as thoroughly as possible. Then I lay out the concept as best I can in words structured in simple sentences and small paragraphs. (As a sidenote, one of the best pieces of online writing advice I got is “the white spaces between paragraphs are your friends.”).

I am both learning and producing writing at the same time if I’m breaking complicated concepts into simple relationships. If my writing is failing in conveying ideas simply, I go back to the source material and learn some more.

My next long form post will be about the philosopher Plotinus. Before I started writing an article about the 3rd century philosopher, I didn’t really know that much about him. I knew he was a “Neoplatonist”, I sort of knew his ideas through reading generalist books about philosophy, but I didn’t have much depth. Now I know a lot about Plotinus. I read his work, I read quality sources, and I broke his ideas down into simple relationships.

I mostly write about philosophy but I’m not a specialist in the area. My “training” is as a historian, which gives me the advantage of constantly seeking the relationships between things.

The other important dimension to writing is imagery. People learn better when they can visualise what they are learning about. When you see Feynman explaining something, you can appreciate how visual he is. Similes and metaphors bring the learner’s imagination to the aid of cognition.

One way of keeping focused on simplicity is keeping an eye on the length of the words and sentences you are using. Longer sentences should only be used sparingly, and long words avoided if possible. The free Hemingway Editor which grades your writing for readability is a useful tool in this respect. The lower the grade, the better. Under grade 10 is good. This article is grade 6.

What I’ve found is that the less I knew about a subject before I wrote about it, the clearer my writing is. When I write about subjects I already “knew” a lot about my posts are more complicated, like here and here. I slip into jargon and vague generalities, instead of specific ideas.

Technical words of course have their place among specialists. They condense sentences into single words. I don’t have to explain what “epistemological” means in the company of philosophers. But outside specialist company, technical words become jargon.

People tend to use complicated vocabulary when they don’t understand what they are explaining. Jargon can be a kind of deception, a deliberate obfuscation of our own level of understanding.

We can deceive ourselves in this way, going through our lives thinking we understand certain things. It only takes a few naive questions and it all comes crashing down. The Feynman’s example allows us to more meaningfully communicate not only with each other, but also ourselves.

Thank you for reading, I hope you learned something new.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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