The Unexpected Learning Technique That Links Sages and Rubber Duckies

A Better Way to Learn 

I started medical school at age 45 and felt like a duck out of water. I was two decades older than most students. I’ve worked as a management consultant in Europe while based in the French Riviera. I taught yoga on the beach at a retreat center in  Koh Samui, Thailand. I’d run my own yoga studio and wellness studio for more than ten years. Now I felt like a zebra in a room full of horses.  I needed to learn how to learn! 

To prepare myself for medical school with a business and two small children, I spent a lot of time researching the most efficient ways to learn. I read numerous books about learning techniques and memorization. I learned about spaced repetition (more on this later). I came across something that blew my mind. 

Now as I’m approaching the end of the classroom part of medical school. I’ve honed this technique to study in less time with excellent results. 

Get ready – you’re about to learn how to learn!

Pathoma: How A Pakistani Sage Revolutionized Medical Education 

In preparation for starting medical school I came across a resource called Pathoma. Pathoma is an online course written by Husain Sattar MD, a professor of Pathology at University of Chicago. What’s unique about Pathoma is it’s approach: simplicity and clarity. I was intrigued by the inspiration for pathoma and its similarities to the Indian approach to yoga philosophy.

While in medical school, Dr. Sattar took a year sabbatical to pursue Islamic studies in Pakistan. He noticed two key characteristics of the sages methods

  • Passion for their subject no matter how big or small the audience.
  • The ability to explain everything simply. Taking a complex topic and breaking it down into simple concepts.

Eventually this inspired Dr Sattar to create a simple, clear method for learning pathology: Pathoma. This has become an integral part of medical education all over the world. It has gone viral because it works. One of my professors used his technique to teach heart valve pathologies. Dr. Sattar uses a four-by-four grid to illustrate the chambers of the heart and what happens when a valve malfunctions. 

Simplify and Understand to Reduce Memorization 

Pathoma’s magic lies in its ability to shed extraneous details and simplify concepts.  Breaking down more complex areas to simple concepts makes memorization easy. For example, I used this technique for lung diseases. Two big categories of disease are restrictive and obstructive. In obstructive disease, carbon dioxide is trapped in the lungs. The causes vary – emphysema, bronchitis or asthma, but the end result is gas trapping. Then there’s restrictive disease, where the lung tissue can’t expand and the intake of air becomes restricted. The causes of restrictive disease can be fibrosis, fluid (as in ARDS), or mechanical restriction. I was able to hook the details to the diseases with an understanding of the underlying mechanisms.  I also used this technique to break down the differences between Type 1 and Type II diabetes. This reminds me how my yogic guide, Sri O.P. Tiwari taught yoga philosophy. 

The Simplify Method in Yoga Philosophy 

In my yogic studies in India, I encountered many different sages. One in particular, my teacher and guide Sri O. P. Tiwari could distill the complex webs of text into very simple ideas. He often quotes stories or parables that illustrate a point. He never uses notes – all comes from his vast memory and command of the material. I was struck by how similar Dr. Sattar’s inspiration was to Tiwariji. 

It’s easy to get lost in a web of details, missing the main point. In medical school, we are bombarded with tons of PowerPoints with lots of details. Sometimes I condense one hundred slides into a few pages of notes or a table. 

Use the Feynman Technique (Or Rubber Duckie) to Learn Anything 

As I read more, I came across the Feynman technique. Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist used the concepts of clear thinking and clear presentation over rote memorization. 

When learning, simplify. If you can absorb then explain in simple terms, you’ve got it. 

Here's how I use the Feynman Technique and you can too

  • Study.  Spend distraction-free time with the material, deeply focused. I spend around an hour with a subject, taking my own notes and digesting.
  • Teach and Explain. Teach the material to 12-year-old or pretend you’re teaching. My children usually roll their eyes and bring me a rubber duck to teach. (In coding when debugging, step through the code as you are explaining it to a rubber duckie.) 
  • Fill in the Gaps and Reorganize. Note where you got stuck or what you’ve missed. After talking through, I check the material to see what I left out or couldn’t articulate.
  • Simplify and Refine. Can you simplify the ideas even more? Clear away the clutter and see if you can connect this to other concepts. This helps your long term retention as you make new neural connections to other areas you’ve learned.

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself. ~Albert Einstein 

Using the Feynman technique, Pathoma and the key concepts behind these resources helps me to master medical school content in less time. You can use this to master new things. It’s never too late to master a new subject or skill. The basic steps are study, teach, review and simplify. Learning is hard and trying to teach is even harder. But hard learning is often better for discovering new ideas and long term retention. After you do this a few times it becomes natural. 

I’m curious to see what techniques you’ve learned for learning. Please comment below and let me know, how do you learn? What areas would you like to master? 


About the author

You know how people feel stressed, fatigued, and overwhelmed —and they have no idea how to sift through all the health advice to help them feel better? Jessica Blanchard uses yoga, Ayurveda and nutrition to fix the root causes of their problems, so they get fit, and feel calm and energized.

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