The Feynman Technique - Teaching Simply, From The Man Who Built The Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein is credited with the saying, “If you can’t explain it in simple terms, you don’t understand it well enough.”

However, after reading “What Do You Care What Other People Think” &
“Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”, I’ll forever think of Feynman when I hear that quote.

If you want to LEARN something well, EXPLAIN it!
Here are FOUR steps of FEYNMAN technique to learn:
STEP 1: Choose a concept
STEP 2: Pretend teaching it to a child
STEP 3: Identify gaps and go back to the source material
STEP 4: Review and SIMPLIFY!

— Richard Feynman (@ProfFeynman) June 10, 2018

To understand why, you only have to listen to 2 minutes of him explaining physics as it compares to playing chess.

For context, Richard Feynman was one of the great physicists of the twentieth century and actually won the Nobel Prize in physics (1965) for his work in quantum electrodynamics.

He was also one of about 30 physicists, including Robert Oppenheimer, who worked on the Manhattan project. This project during World War 2 was where the first ever nuclear bomb was produced.

I only thought it necessary to re-tell my favourite story from “Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman” to emphasize his beliefs on the best method of teaching.

Whether you’re struggling to learn something new or hope to pass on your knowledge one day, I hope his wisdom serves you.

If you need any more credibility, Bill Gates says Feynman is the best teacher he never had in this 2 minute clip from his Gates Notes Youtube channel.

In that video, you get a taste of how the short stories that make up, “Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”, can be so entertaining… especially for a physicist.

The man’s curiosity and passion for life are only parts of what make him so attractive and interesting.

If you read the letter he wrote for his deceased wife, his high school sweetheart, 16 months after she passed you can’t help but fall in love with the guy.

It took him a few years, but he continued on with his adventurous life taking a sabbatical in Brazil. In true to Feynman fashion, he made the decision after a taxi driver casually suggested the country would be a great place to visit.

During his time in Brazil Feynman took up playing the drum, or “bongos”, in a samba band. The school he was playing with actually competed and WON during Carnaval.

The story from the book I thought to be most interesting wasn’t his time spent cracking safes, picking up women or calculating complex math problems in his head, it was how he explained to Brazil that there was NO science being taught in their entire country.

During his sabbatical he was teaching physics courses to students who would eventually become teachers themselves. Impressed at the number of people buying textbooks and enrolling in his classes he was extremely optimistic about Brazil’s potential to develop physicists.

The problem was, there weren’t any.

All these people enrolling, all the interest, but no following through to teach the program.

It only took him observing a couple of lectures to understand the problem. He explained his findings to the entire education council in a presentation at the end of the year.

He starts off the presentation with an analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language.

“This person knows that in his own country there aren’t many children studying Greek. But he goes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, “What were Socrates’ ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty? – and the student can’t answer.

Then he asks the student, what did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium? – The student lights up and answers right away, word for word.

But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty!

What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the students can understand.”

Of course, he was referring to how kids study “science” in Brazil with his unique talent of simplifying everything into an easy to understand analogy.

After making the comparison, he continues on, holding up the entry level Physics text book.

“I can show you what’s the matter – how it’s not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance.”

He starts flipping through the pages, landing on one at random.

“Tribo-luminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..

And there, have you got science?


You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature – what crystals products light when you crush them or or why? Did you see any student go home and try it?

See instead if you were to write, “When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence”. Then someone will go home and try it.”

I can’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything.”

This story sums up his entire philosophy about life and learning.

Make mistakes and learn! Being wrong isn’t a bad thing like they teach you in school. It is an opportunity to learn something.

— Richard Feynman (@ProfFeynman) June 17, 2018

Even some of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time echo his statements about failure and making mistakes yet in most cases we’re still learning in theory and grading ourselves on memorization.

For example, Sarah Blakely talks about her father re framed failure for her as a kid in this 1 minute clip of a Business Insider interview.

Ray Dalio, founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, talks about how he chooses to think about failure or mistakes as puzzles yet to be solved in this interview clip with Gary Vaynerchuk.

Even Bill Gates says, “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Hopefully, Feynman’s story will inspire you to get your hands dirty next time you’re trying to learn or even teach something.

Just remember the 4 steps from the tweet at the beginning of the article:

STEP 1: Choose a concept
STEP 2: Pretend teaching it to a child
STEP 3: Identify gaps and go back to the source material
STEP 4: Review and SIMPLIFY!

The entire chapter of his teaching experience in Brazil can be read online here.

You can also find his method of teaching Math to kids in this article by Farnamstreet, one of the best blogs on the internet IMO.