Screen-Free Thinking

Inspired by the “Screen-Free Blogging Challenge”

Well, technically, I’m supposed to write about online learning. But today I’m going to step back and write about something more fundamental: thinking.

In my last post, I talked about how you shouldn’t just read and reread the topic but explain it to yourself to understand it. Well, just thinking about the topic can help you view it from different perspectives. And if you can view it from different perspectives, you gain a deeper understanding of it and maybe even come to your own original conclusions about it.

Thinking is how Einstein discovered relativity. How Turing invented the Turing machine. It is a fundamental part of every artist and musician’s life.

So let’s go back to the basics and make some time in our day for screen-free thinking without any distractions.

1) First off, you need to schedule the time for thinking in your day. Make sure this is a time when you won’t be disturbed by other commitments. No distractions allowed. It should just be you and your thoughts.

2) Actually, I lied in that last point. It’s not just you and your thoughts. Undirected thinking, while incredibly fun, often doesn’t lead anywhere. You need to have a pen and a notebook or a piece of paper. Also, if you can print out your course materials and problem sets that would be superb.

3) Now you just need to go to the quiet place you had in mind. Preferably, somewhere outdoors. Just being around nature can do wonders for your train of thought.

4) So you’ve got to somewhere nice and you have all the materials. Now it’s actually time to start thinking. Okay, how do you that?  There are several ways you can open up your mind more; here are the ones I like the most:

  • Mind-map. Mind-mapping is all about connections. You connect the main idea to other different ideas and then you’ll begin to see relations and analogies that you didn’t even know existed!
  • Doodle. Doodling has been shown to improve focus and memory. Doodling helps you establish relations between what you’re learning and the graphical representation on paper. The stranger and more funny your doodle, the more your creative brain opens up and furthermore, you’ll be able to remember it for longer.
  • If you’re solving a specific problem, make it more general. Then find other specific examples of that general problem. This might help you find new ways to solve your original problem.
  • Work at the level of difficulty just slightly above your own. If you want to truly become a master of what you do and look at the problems you are solving in a new way then you should try solving problems that are based on a more difficult concept that you aren’t so familiar with. You might not always be able to solve these harder problems but you will definitely improve at the problems you intended to do.

5) Leave when you’re done. Hopefully, at this last step, you’ve got a better understanding of what you sought to understand and your mind is not a jumble of incoherent thoughts any more.


Now this post doesn’t involve any new techniques or information. You probably already know whatever is mentioned here. But if this post drives you towards actually thinking more about what you’re learning then that’s great!

In the twenty-first century, education is as good as it ever was. You can learn anything. But learning alone doesn’t cut it; you need to able to think critically about what you learn and to create and invent new stuff by using the ideas you learn.

Here, watch a talk from the world’s youngest astrophysicist. Genius isn’t about learning, it’s about thinking and creating.



Next, read this post from Cal Newport about why you should retreat to the outdoors when there’s some thinking to do:


My Imaginary Friend Taught Me Maths

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Imaginary Friend.”

My imaginary friend is a five year old. A very curious five year old. I’ve spent countless hours with her talking about time travel, computer science and calculus.

My real life friends, more often than not, did not seem to believe me when I told them of my studying routine. I aced my exams without ever burning out or sacrificing my free time. You want to know how I did it? Well, I’m going to let you in on an open secret:

It’s called the “Five Year Old Method”. The main idea is that you take any complex idea you want to learn and you explain it to a hypothetical five year old pupil. How can a five year old understand differentiation? If you can’t answer that then you really do not understand it yourself.

This method works because simplifying a difficult subject requires a deep and complete understanding of it. If you are unable to break a concept down into simpler pieces, it means you only have a superficial understanding of it.

Also, five year olds are annoying. They ask questions about things you otherwise would ignore. You might be tempted to just brush over the definition of the chain rule. But noooo… a five year old will ask a thousand questions on the topic before she finally shuts up about it. And if you can’t answer her questions, you should go back and learn it immediately.

Okay, all this talk about imaginary friends might seem childish but I’m just trying to convey my point. There are two reasons why this method is so awesome:

1 ) It forces you to simplify the topic so you get a deeper understanding of it.

2 ) It helps you identify the holes in your knowledge so you can fix them.

And here’s the important part: after I explain something to myself without stumbling and getting confused, I know I am done and move on to the next topic. I do not spend hours on the same topic unlike my very unfortunate peers. By following this method, I get a deep understanding of the topic. I figure out where my knowledge is incomplete. I go back and review that specific part of the lesson and I explain it to myself again. Then I move on, confident that I understand the topic fully. I move on instead of rereading the whole topic blindly and just hoping that I did not miss anything.

The takeaway message is that you can learn anything you want if only you remember to make things as simple as possible. Explain it to yourself. That’s it and good luck!

How teachers IRL can harness the power of social media

I recently read an interesting blog post: Why All Teachers Should be Social Media Junkies and I thought I’d comment on it. The post details reasons why school teachers should use social media and / or web blogs. So starting off from where Miss Marks left off, I’m going to give a handful of suggestions for all the ways you can use social media in your class rooms.

1) Sign up on Edmodo. It is like the Facebook for schools. When you sign up for a teacher account, you can create a group and get a group code that you can then give to your students so they can access your virtual classroom. Students can interact through notes and comments. And you can give quizzes and send polls to your students. You can also give feedback on students’ work through virtual badges and comments. If your school isn’t using it then you’re missing out on a lot. 

2) Create a Facebook group for your class. A lot of MOOCs I’ve taken have students making Facebook groups. And it works really well because FB groups are better designed when it comes to student interactions than most course discussion forums.

3) Use Twitter for in-class discussion and feedback. There are two things that make Twitter really awesome: tweets are limited to 140 characters so they are to the point and secondly, the HASHTAG. You can create a hashtag for your class and have students ask questions and give feedback on the lesson by using the hashtag. Another reason you should be on Twitter is that it allows you to connect with other educators. Here’s a video that explains this:  

4) Show YouTube videos in class. Sometimes a real life demonstration or an animated video is just what you need to explain a concept. You can also create QR codes online with a link to a YouTube video and print them out for your classroom. This way students who want to learn more about the topic can scan the QR code and view it on their own devices in their own time.

5) Google Drive. Now admittedly this isn’t social media but it ties in with what I’ve mentioned above and it will make your life so much easier so it’s worth mentioning here. With Google Drive you can create documents, presentations and spreadsheets without buying any new software. Your files live on the cloud and you can share them with a link. This removes the need for students to use flash drives. You can take assignments from students by having them submit the link to their assignments on your favourite social media platform. You can also use this for collaboration by making it so that certain people can comment on or edit a certain file.

The above will hopefully make your life much easier and your class much more interactive. Social media is a wonderful tool and it’s a necessity in the twenty-first century. Use it for good and you won’t ever regret it.

Philanthropy University

Recently I came across this website while scrolling through my twitter feed.

What particularly interested me about it was its courses on philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. The courses will start on 29 September so check this link: NovoEd Philanthropy Initiative to see if something interests you.

You’ll need to spend 2 – 3 hours every week on each of the courses and they are on topics such as nonprofit strategy, global social entrepreneurship, leadership, fundraising and financial modelling.

If the courses are up to my expectation, I’ll post a detailed review later.

How To Learn Better

Time is the most precious resource we have. We have to learn to use it more efficiently so that we can get the greatest value per unit of time spent. If you’re a student or a life-long learner, you probably will benefit from knowing how to decrease the amount of time you spend learning any given material (to make time for learning new things, of course).


1) Schedule your time

This one goes without saying. We all know, from personal experience, that learning everything in one long session is counterproductive. Your attention wanes after spending so much time doing the same thing. Five hour-long sessions of learning scheduled on separate days of the week will be way more effective than a five-hour long study session during the weekend.

Here’s what works: do not study for more than three hours at a time and take short breaks every hour. If you want to remember something, it’s important to keep revisiting it. Research has found that the best level of distribution of learning sessions is 10% of the length of time that something needs to be remembered.  So if you want to remember something for 10 months, you need to revise it every month. Of course, it’s quite likely that after those ten months have passed the information will be easily accessible from your long-term memory.


2) Form clusters with new information

When learning something new, it would be difficult maybe even downright impossible to remember every single fact or piece of information by itself. Instead, connect different threads of information in clusters. For every chapter you’re learning, you want to make sure that remembering the chapter name makes you remember the main concepts covered in that chapter. You want to make sure that recalling the main concepts makes you think about all the details related to that concept.

You want to create a network of ideas. When you think about one idea in that network, you want to be able to recall every other idea in that network since they’re all connected. To do this you can make a mind map. Place a sheet of paper in front of you horizontally. Write the topic name in the centre. Arrows coming from the centre connect the topic to the main concepts. The main concepts have arrows connecting them to the details. This will help you recognise new connections between the ideas covered in that chapter.


3) Get things wrong before you get them right

One of the most useful techniques for learning new information is to actively quiz yourself on it. What I find most helpful is to make a few questions on the material when I am listening to a lecture or reading a textbook. Then when I need to revise that material, I look at the questions I have written and try to answer them. On my first try, I usually miss a few major details but then I go back and read my notes on the topic and come back to the questions after the information has left my short-term memory. After a few tries, I get all the answers right and that’s when I know that the information is safely stored in my long-term memory.


4) Connect what you don’t know to what you know

Visualising a concept helps you remember it. For example, you can compare the structure of the earth to an orange. The peel, in this example, is the lithosphere of the earth. As you develop your analogy, you can pretend that beneath the crust the orange is liquid and is sloshing around representing the mantle of the earth. Now whenever you think of the orange, you’ll immediately begin to think of the layers of the earth. In the same way you can connect more abstract concepts like marketing strategies to things you’re already familiar with such as how you interact with and make new friends.


5) Explain it to yourself

When you explain a topic to yourself, you’ll be forced to confront the parts of the material that you’re not familiar with. You’ll figure out which areas you need to revise by realizing when your explanations are fuzzy and unclear. Often the greatest hurdle to learning is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Trying to explain the material to yourself in simple words helps you find and close the gaps in your knowledge.

Here’s a great video that explains this technique: 


If you’re interested in becoming a better learner, here’s a course offered on Coursera that you might be interested in taking: Learning How to Learn: Powerful tools to help you master tough subjects.

It’s offered by University of California, San Diego and the techniques it covers are supported by scientific evidence. It also has interviews and further readings if you’re interested. It’s the whole package.

This post will hopefully help you be more efficient when it comes to learning. Instead of spending hours learning something passively through rote memorization, use better methods and techniques to learn new subjects faster and more effectively.


Top 5 Reasons You Should Take A Free Online Course

Free online courses sound great. However, some people are put off by the fact that such courses often do not provide any certification. In this post, I will talk about what online courses do provide which is knowledge, excitement and networking opportunities. Please share the reasons you choose to take free online courses in the comments below!

1) It will make you smarter. Learning new things improves your ability to retain and recall information from memory. It helps you strengthen neural connections. It’s exercise for the brain. If you can take out time for keeping your body healthy by exercising and paying attention to what you eat then your brain deserves the same love. There’s also research indicating that learning new information can reduce the chance of getting Alzheimer’s in old age. Any person, of any age, can benefit from the effects of learning on mental ability.

2) It will spice up your life. Same old routine. The same TV shows. The same people. The same type of food. Why not add more to your life by signing up for a course on something fun like human behaviour, game theory or app development? You’ll learn loads about an interesting topic you haven’t thought of before and it might change the way you think and go about your daily life.

3) It will help you connect with people from around the world. Online courses attract students from all kinds of backgrounds and nationalities. The probability that these people like learning and trying new things is greater than average. Most online courses have discussion forums. Take advantage of them! These forums allow you to learn more about other people and open up exciting new opportunities for collaboration.

4) It might lead to new career opportunities. In the Information Age, certifications and degrees aren’t everything. You need to have strong determination and a passion for what you do. Participating in online courses shows potential employers and educational institutions that you really do care about your work and that you are self-disciplined. And then there are also stories of people who decided to change careers after learning more about a subject online.

5) It will give you a sense of accomplishment. Successfully completing an online course will boost your self-esteem. It’s a way to prove to yourself that you can study for that free course offered by Stanford or Rice University. You will show yourself that you can work on your own. It will enable you to take on learning challenges in the future that are greater in depth and difficulty.

Want to learn something new? Start here.

This is going to be a fairly short list with mostly self-paced courses. But don’t worry, I’ll be posting a list like this every month or so.

First, some maths courses. Why start here? Because to understand more about the world which we live in, you’ll probably need at least a basic maths background. With that said, please feel free to skip ahead to the next section if this isn’t really your thing. I won’t mind, I promise.

Calculus One – A gentle introduction to Calculus. Professor Fowler is clearly passionate about his subject and makes mathematics fun. It is assumed that students taking this course have knowledge of algebra and some basic trigonometry. (If you don’t have that background, KhanAcademy is your best friend). This course is self-paced so take your time. No pressure. 😉

Cracking Mechanics – This is a great course if you’re interested in maths, physics or engineering. Some of the optional homework problems require some Calculus. It is six weeks long and not very time consuming (expect to work for three hours every week). Each of the six weeks is based on a different theme like motion, forces and energy. The next offering of this course starts on 2nd November. I hope to see you there.

Intro to Statistics – The name says it all. This is a fun introduction to statistics. The tagline reads “Making Decisions Based on Data” and since all of us are exposed to data at some point, this course has something to offer to everyone. You’ll find this course particularly useful if you’re interested in computer science / artificial intelligence.

Now let’s talk about some other fun courses.

Imagining Other Earths – Whether you’re interested in astronomy, physics, astrobiology, planetary science or science fiction you’ll find this course very interesting. You’ll need a basic background in mathematics to answer some of the questions quantitatively. You probably won’t require maths beyond what you learned in high school.

Crash Course Economics – This course covers everything that you might expect to learn in a high school economics course. The instructors make economics very interesting. If you haven’t been exposed to economics before, you’ll find this course both useful and fun. This is different from the other courses because this is a series of YouTube videos. It’s not complete yet. A new video gets posted every week.

Digital and Social Media Marketing – This course starts on 28th September. It looks very interesting. I’m planning to audit this course. It could potentially be helpful to those of you who are planning to start or grow your own business.

I’ll be posting another list after a week or so. So stay tuned!