Learning on steroids with Richard Feynman
By Matt Jenner, on 4 February 2014
Richard Feynman, who is better known for his physics, was also something of a character. He made a series of videos in which he explained a lot of concepts, ideas, thoughts and musings on the world. He was clearly a genius, curious and mischievous in his approach to life, but also he was inspirational to many who have discovered him. It’s possible, perhaps, that his genius was fostered by the way he learned new things. In the video below he talks about his father explaining about birds on their summer holidays, and the joy of learning about the animal itself, rather than the anthropocentric view we often take on learning. His learning was directed around the linking of new things he’s reading, into what he knows from reality. If you have 50 minutes, check out the whole video (if not, please skip ahead)
I am sure you know about Benjamin Bloom and his pyramid of learning (see pic if you forgot), where synthesis an evaluation is at the top of all learning. But what does that mean? In many examples it’s defined as ‘being able to teach the concept to someone else’ – that requires all the elements below, and a high level of conquest in the subject. To reach this challenging peak, learners must synthesise and evaluate their knowledge, and subsequently there must be opportunities for them to do so. But this isn’t so easy to do, often a question and answer may only require you to dig into knowledge and recite the answer – that’s only the ground floor in this 6-story pyramid.
So how do you get higher?
One technique I have come to enjoy, as it relies on nothing but the learner to try, and therefore can be adopted at will, has been coined the ‘Feynman Technique’. Scott Young makes a great job of explaining it, or Learning on Steroids as he charmingly calls it.
Here’s an overview:
- Choose your concept
- Pretend your teaching it to a new student
- Whenever you get stuck, go back to the books
- Simplify wordy bits or create analogies
Written format is on Scott Young’s website
There are similar techniques to this, one is Eric Mazur from Harvard Business School who created the ‘Peer Instruction’ approach whereby students in class are asked to vote on the solution to a problem. Their votes are counted (often using polling hardware like clickers/PRS). Then, in a twist, Eric asks his students to find a neighbour who has a different answer, then to convince the other person that you are correct. He then finally re-polls the audience to see if they have changed their original answers. He has year-upon-year of evidence to suggest this approach has benefits to student learning, and retention, of concepts. It’s not just that they get a theory, they can apply it to a problem, in their own language, and perhaps really synthesise it to their neighbour. I see this as the same technique, only with Feynman’s they have to convince themselves, a challenge some of us might find much harder.
Try it and let me know if it works for you!?