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Duckworth on Education: The Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman was one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century. He was also a Nobel Prize-winning physicist known for his unique approaches to communicating complex topics in simple terms without skipping important details. Feynman was a child prodigy in math who worked on the Manhattan Project in his early twenties, won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum mechanics, and was the most well-known and highly sought-after professor of physics at Caltech. Albert Einstein attended Feynman’s first talk as a graduate student. Bill Gates was so influenced by Feynman’s skill as an educator that Gates called him “the greatest teacher [he’d] ever had.”

Feynman was perhaps best known for his ability to assimilate explain complex concepts, especially in the undergraduate classes he taught. Feynman explained the key to this ability was his differentiation of two kinds of knowledge. He said, “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird… I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

This is where Feynman’s concepts can be applied to EMS education. At the foundational level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, students have to memorize names and terms in order for higher levels of learning to occur. On the second level students may learn basic facts about anatomy and physiology, but in order for them to apply this information on a real emergency call, this information has to have meaning for them. This is the performance gap that Feynman had identified. There is a difference between knowing the name of a thing (memorization) and knowing a thing (understanding).

Students often focus on their immediate need, which is to know the name of a thing to pass an exam. It is critical that educators prompt students to make connections between knowing the name of something and knowing how they will apply their knowledge about it to provide effective patient care. For example, a student may know the fact that the coronary arteries connect at the base of the aorta. They may even know that the coronary arteries perfuse during diastole. But can they think critically about the relevance of this? How can they apply this information to improve patient care? Rather than lecturing students on facts to memorize, a good educator will help students understand that because the coronary arteries only fill during diastole, this means that during CPR, while chest compressions (systole) eject blood to the body, really effective chest recoil (diastole) is required to perfuse the coronary arteries.

Feynman went further, explaining how good educators can become great educators in four simple steps.

1. Choose Your Topic

This may be better thought of as “choose your objective.” Feynman emphasized that educators need to be focused for each lesson and clear on exactly what they want the students to learn. Therefore, choosing a topic of “airway” is not only too broad, it doesn’t define what you want a student to be able to do. A clear objective is the key to preparing to teach, setting expectations for students, getting co-educators on the same page, and setting up fair and effective testing.

2. Teach It to a Child

Feynman didn’t mean that you had to literally teach the topic to a child. He explained that educators need to consider teaching as if they want a curious five-year-old to use this knowledge. The goal is not to “dumb-down” the information. The goal is to distill what you communicate into the essential concepts. Again, focus on how the student can apply the information. This forces you, the educator, to test both your complete understanding of the concepts you want students to apply, as well as your communication skills.

Feynman emphasized the importance of writing down those key concepts in the way you would explain it to the curious five-year-old. This forces an educator to do more than feel they could explain a subject well because they know a subject well. Writing it down exposes knowledge and communication gaps and forces the educator to make important decisions about exactly what to leave out, exactly what to teach, and exactly how to teach it. In the words of Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

3. Review and Fill In

Step 2 will almost surely expose opportunities for educators to improve their lesson. Maybe they will notice an important gap in their understanding of the subject. Maybe they’ll realize the way they’d planned on running the education relied on students’ understanding of a topic that hadn’t yet been thoroughly covered. Or perhaps the original lesson conveyed more knowledge with little focus on how students should apply the knowledge to meet the desired objectives.

4. Organize and Simplify

With the educator’s knowledge and communication gaps identified and filled in with a laser-focus on the objectives, it is time to make a final pass at the lesson plan (even if the lesson plan is simply educator notes on the back of an envelope). The Feynman technique focuses on step two: being able to teach to a child. The risk of step three is that the educator will add too much back to the lesson. This final step is to organize the lesson so that it makes sense, focusing on the fundamentals the students will need to perform the objectives. If the students have questions, this is where the educator’s deeper knowledge and subject matter expertise will shine, but this is not time to roll out the war stories or show off how much more the educator knows than the student. This step is exactly what it says on the label: organize and simplify.

Using this simple technique, Richard Feynman was able to teach the most complex concepts in quantum mechanics to students in undergraduate physics classes. The key for us, as EMS educators, is to know a topic well enough to explain it simply, and to do so in a way that our students learn not just the name of a thing, but how to use it to improve their patient care.

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