For me, one of my greatest joys is learning, a trait inherited from my grandmother’s boundless curiosity. She instilled in me the habit of questioning why, how, who, what, and when. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered how AI could serve as a teacher. It all began with watching interviews featuring Jenson Huang, CEO of NVIDIA. He introduced me to the concept of “foundational first principles” in understanding a domain of knowledge.

The idea is simple: what are the fundamental concepts necessary to grasp before delving into a domain? This foundational knowledge serves as a framework upon which to build and deepen understanding. Concurrently, I realized the potential of AI as an exceptional educator, capable of imparting foundational knowledge and expanding it in any direction my curiosity leads.

To put it succinctly, here’s what ChatGPT had to say on the matter:

Using first principles thinking in learning and teaching is a powerful approach that involves breaking down complex subjects into their most basic components and then reassembling them in a way that leads to better understanding and innovative solutions. This method, rooted in the Socratic method and closely associated with figures like Aristotle and more recently popularized by innovators like Elon Musk, encourages deep questioning and understanding of fundamental truths in any domain. Here, we’ll explore how to apply first principles thinking in education, specifically in the context of economic development, and provide two additional examples to illustrate its broad applicability.

Example 1: Economic Development

Understanding Basic Economic Principles: Begin by deconstructing economic development into its core components: supply and demand, capital and labor, resources, and technology. Instead of starting with complex models or theories, learners should first understand these basic elements and how they interact to drive economic growth. For instance, exploring how the increase in demand for a product can lead to job creation (labor demand) and investment in new technologies.

Applying to Real-world Contexts: Use case studies of different countries or regions to illustrate how these fundamental components play out in various economic development stages. For instance, examining how South Korea focused on education and technology to transform its economy can help learners understand the importance of human capital and innovation.

Example 2: Environmental Science 

Breaking Down Ecosystems: Start by understanding what ecosystems are made of: organisms, the environment, and interactions. First principles thinking involves examining how energy flows through an ecosystem, how matter cycles within it, and how these systems are interconnected.

Real-world Application: Apply these principles to understand and teach about climate change. For example, by breaking down the greenhouse gas effect into its most basic scientific principles, students can better understand the causes of climate change and consider innovative solutions like carbon capture and renewable energy from a more informed perspective.

Example 3: Mathematics

Fundamental Concepts: In mathematics, first principles thinking can be applied by starting with the basic axioms and operations of arithmetic and algebra. Understanding these foundational concepts deeply allows learners to tackle more complex problems in calculus or statistics by building on these basics.

Problem-solving: For instance, in teaching calculus, one might start with the concept of limits, which is foundational to understanding derivatives and integrals. By deconstructing complex formulas to their core principles, students can develop a deeper understanding and better problem-solving skills.


First principles thinking is a powerful tool in education because it builds knowledge from the ground up, ensuring a deep understanding of fundamental concepts. This method encourages critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to innovate by challenging assumptions and synthesizing information in new ways. Whether in economic development, environmental science, or mathematics, applying first principles thinking can transform how subjects are taught and learned, fostering a more profound and applicable knowledge base for students. By starting with the basics and asking probing questions, educators and learners alike can uncover insights and solutions that might otherwise remain hidden within traditional teaching methods.