• Hlompho Moichela

"I'm smart enough to know that I'm dumb"

It seems impossible for there to be anything that could top the intimidation that creeps in from staring at a page of words that look comprehensible, but to the frightened brain, the words seem to resemble Einstein’s theoretical physics notepad, utter gibberish. Oh, but there is… Being virtually given the task to not only understand the content but to teach it to oneself, hails high above the intimidation of the measly page or the chapter. Quite frankly, self-learning is daunting. Fret not, from the grey shadows of doubt and fear towards self-learning, emerges an all too eager physicist, Richard Feynman.

A Nobel Physics Prize recipient for his much-acknowledged contribution to Quantum Electrodynamics, Feynman developed a learning technique called The Feynman Technique, which places emphasis on a form of learning that surpasses a temporary and surface-level understanding of a concept:

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars- mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?”- Richard Feynman.

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman

His learning technique is a four-step process that we will unpack using a simple and relatable example, studying for an exam:

Step One:

What are the examinable concepts and theories. By deliberately focusing on the selected concepts and theories, the human tendency to digress from them is lessened.

Step Two:

Simplify all the information obtained in step one, using simple language and self-generated examples to help break down the content.

Neuropsychology has proven that writing your own notes significantly betters the likelihood of you remembering them, rather than just reading off the book. Perhaps the most important element of step two is for the content to be simplified to the extent that you can confidently teach it to a peer that isn’t even affiliated with the module, or a child who spends their entire day focusing on colouring within the lines.

Step Three:

Fill in the holes: What concepts did you get stuck on? While undergoing step two, which parts did you grapple with and not fully understand? Go back to the textbook and peruse over the content again.

Step four:

Review your notes. Simplify your explanations and examples. A useful tip would be to read aloud what you wrote as a way to detect if in that simple format, you can fully understand the notes. Proceed to apply the concept and theories to other proximate topics within the examinable content, this practise acts as an extra measure- if you are able to apply the concept to another field, seeing clearly where it fits in the puzzle, you understand it.

All that would be left would be the last and unwritten step: ace the test!

The Feynman Technique is extraordinary for the reason that it disproves the age-old narrative of our brains eroding as we get older, when in fact, our brains are agile and consistent in remaining receptive to any form of information we feed it, as long as we stay open to the challenge of in-depth learning. What is perhaps effortlessly timeless and powerful about Feynman’s technique, is that it propels our answer-hungry society to deeply contemplate the myriad of questions and topics we ask ourselves about our very existence. Unravelling the mysteries woven in the fabric of our universe with the thread of simple concepts engineered to become the whole. Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it”.

Anyone and everyone can assimilate to the steps of The Feynman Technique through first understanding the necessity of a mental shift. In the sense that there has to be a willingness to practise patience and see past the fallacy of learning merely for qualification. The benefits of the Feynman technique extend beyond a result or a classroom: being able to fully understand concepts deemed insanely difficult, or possess the tools to recall concepts that might have become hazy over time, or simply being effective and efficient in studying is a powerful way to harness raw potential. It is no coincidence then, that modern entities diligently seek critical thinkers and problem solvers. Individuals who redefine learning and engage with concepts far more deeply and intimately than the average Joe’s and plain Jane’s of the world.

Visualise a door: beyond the door lies the uncertainty of self-learning, The Feynman Technique is the key. A key only unlocks the door, it doesn’t open it, the door handle does. The question then stands, what is the final factor that is needed to partner alongside the Feynman technique in order to open the door to successful self-learning? It’s creativity. Globally renowned for his pioneering work in the field of mind power, John Kehoe believes that, “We all possess creativity, it’s our nature…Unfortunately, many of us were told at some early stage that we were not creative, and we believed it. As a result, our creative instincts became repressed. Luckily, they can be reawakened and harnessed again easily”.

Self-learning is a creative and independent form of learning that is encouraged at Scimatix, however, Feynman said,

“I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb”.

Seeking assistance and being honest with what you don’t know is an important step in the process of self-learning. The adequate support is readily available at Scimatix. We should all embrace being a little dumb sometimes, it seemed to work out for Feynman…

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