Perhaps you’ve heard of the Manhattan Project. It was a research and development project led by the United States with support from the United Kingdom and Canada. The project was key to the manufacturing of the first atomic bomb. It was headed by the U.S. Army during World War II. Richard Feynman was a lead physicist on the project. He later became known in 1965 for winning the Nobel Prize in physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman believed that most people could improve their learning skills through simplification.
We’ve all heard the phrase “teaching to the test.” The entire public education system basically functions on this premise. Teachers give students information. They task students with memorizing the information. Then, they test students on how well they can remember what they’ve memorized or “studied.” Don’t get me wrong. We have many wonderful teachers in our country. However, the system and regulations to which they must adhere often limits their ability to help kids improve their learning skills. Richard Feynman often spoke about his system, which he believed could make the difference between “regurgitating information” and “truly understanding what’s been studied.”
Learning skills should always include explaining a concept to others
Think about it. There are campuses full of college students right now who will soon be “cramming” for final exams. Many will use flashcards or will stay up all night with a group of friends to “quiz” each other. This form of study might help them memorize terms from a textbook, formulas or other given information. But does it really help them improve their learning skills? Do they understand what they’re studying enough to retain and apply the information after the test? In many cases, the answer, is “No.”
According to Richard Feynman, we’ll never improve our learning skills and achieve our full potential in study if we don’t simplify the information. In fact, Feynman says the first step to take to check how well we have learned something is to explain it to another person. There doesn’t necessarily have to be another person present at the time. The idea is to give an oral explanation of the topic as though you were speaking to another person. (Or, if another person happens to be in the room, great — explain it to him or her.) Better yet, says Feynman, act as though the person to whom you’re explaining the concept is a child.
Feynman used to say that people spend far too much time memorizing terms and phrases from textbooks. The Nobel Prize winner said this is not “true learning.” (It comes in handy for a passing a test, though, right?) A sign that true learning has taken place, says Feynman, is the ability to simplify even the most complex topics and explain them to others. Even if you’re studying advanced mathematics, microbiology, quantam physics, etc., explain the topic as though speaking to a child. Feynman adamantly believed that simplifying what we are studying is the key factor to improving learning skills.
As soon as you start to stumble, go back and study some more
As you carry out the process that Richard Feynman suggested was a key to learning, you might be doing well, at first. Perhaps you start explaining a topic in the simplest terms you can think of, then start to stumble. If you come upon a concept or issue that you’re having trouble simplifying into terms the average person can understand, you haven’t truly learned it yet. Feynman says that, at this point, it’s a signal to you to return to your studies. You should focus on the exact issue or idea that made you start to stumble when you tried to explain it in simple terms.
You can repeat the process of simplifying, explaining and additional study as often as needed. Once you are comfortable explaining what you’ve studied in simple terms to another person (again, preferably a child) true learning has taken place! Think of it as similar to a child coming to you and asking what a particular word means. The word is beyond his or her level of vocabulary. What do you do? You immediately try to simplify the definition and explain the word in terms the child can understand. Well, the lead physicist who helped develop the world’s first nuclear weapons says this is the key to all learning!
Feynman said the topics of study need not be complex mathematics or science-related concepts. You can apply the simplified explanation process to any subject. The idea is that, no matter what you’re studying, if you can’t simplify it and explain it to others, true learning hasn’t taken place. When we catch ourselves saying things like, “I can’t explain it, but I know how to get the answer,” what we’re really saying is we’ve memorized information or a process but haven’t truly learned it.
Rote memorization can be beneficial to learning
This post isn’t meant to say that you should never practice memorization as a form of study. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to show how memorizing things helps improve learning skills and brain health. What matters most regarding rote memorization is whether you’re memorizing isolated or random information or relevant facts within a meaningful context. Here’s an interesting article about the shift that has taken place in development of learning skills in the past decade and why memorization should still be incorporated into study habits.
“Learning how to learn” is important, however. It’s not just about being able to recite information someone has given to you or you have read in a textbook. It’s about understand and being able to pass on the knowledge to others. If you can do that, it’s a sign that you have truly learned whatever you’ve been studying!