Divya Agarwal
Guest Article

"What demonetisation did to fintech, COVID-19 has done to edtech"

Says our guest author, as she tells us why striving for less will help us solve (things) better.

We’re no longer working from home, but rather living at work, someone quipped on the Internet. Considering the constant struggle to get done with an ever-increasing to-do list, it almost rings true.

But what’s interesting to note is how people are spending their time in such a scenario. There are a few things whose popularity has gone through the roof – home chefs, dance challenges and everyone’s parents adapting to Zoom.

But one thing has inarguably gained vogue status: learning.

Some of us are attending our children’s school classes with them and some others are rediscovering the horrors of sitting endlessly on their childhood desks trying to upgrade their professional skills. Either way, the focus on learning is at an all-time high.

Further proof, the constant stream of course completion certificates on LinkedIn and increasing advertising budgets of online learning platforms. After all, what demonetisation did to fintech, COVID-19 has done to edtech in India. According to one report, with a CAGR of 52 per cent, the country’s edtech market will touch $3.5 billion to $4 billion by 2022!

Little wonder then that increase in average learning time is skyrocketing!

Seeing so much learning around me, like many of us, I was inspired – only not to sign up for any other course, but a course on learning how to learn. This inspiration also found its roots in an idea I had once presented to a client, suggesting they peg their product as a tool that aids learning, rather than a linear educational tool for children.

As an adult, however, where must one begin learning and when does one end, is a perennial problem. As is one’s endless to-do-lists.

Named after a tomato with a timer, there is a technique invented in the 1980s that helps with exactly this. It also helps overcome procrastination and increases focus. Called Pomodoro, you simply set a timer for 25 minutes, remove all distractions – including yes, the phone – and get going. After that, reward yourself with a five-minute break and continue another Pomodoro if you must. If you wish to do a longer stint, a 45 + 15-minute timer also works. The trick is short, sustainable, focused bursts of learning.

The science (behind this) is quite interesting.

Just like most humans, the (human) mind too prefers taking a chill pill. Give it a long and lengthy task that involves unnecessary toiling, or toiling for long, and it quickly loses interest. Your eyes might persist, but your mind won’t register. Sounds familiar?

The mind, as we know, works in two modes: focused and diffused. If we borrow from the parlance of Nobel prize-winning Daniel Kahneman, System 2 and System 1, respectively.

When we time and learn, the focused mode kicks in. Here the mind attentively toils. Its alert avatar, the conscious mind, takes charge. This mind isn’t very different from a slow computer RAM. Just like a computer’s limited working memory, it has limited slots too. Like four! Therefore, if one is juggling too many things, or for too long, the mind starts to lose interest and wanders.

The diffused mode, on the other hand, is like the brain outsourcing the problem to itself. It summons little mental elves who take over, while you rest and relax. Ever find an answer to a pestering problem (suddenly) while you are in the shower? That’s the diffused mode kicking in!

So, when stuck, instead of cudgelling your head over it, might I suggest sleeping. Or even engaging in a mundane household chore. Or better, learning something alongside an easy chore.

When we learn something new, the mind creates new “dots”, or chunks of information. A network of neurons compactly synthesises these dots in endless file cabinets of the mind. The more diverse such dots in your memory bank, the better it’s for the brain.

Diversity, alongside repeated inputs of such dots, creates new connections, or synapses. As one grows, and learns more, adding diverse dots to their mental repertoire, their brain automatically connects.the.dots as and when needed. This range of dots also builds what some people magically seem to possess – intuition.

In our current unprecedented times, where there are no heuristics, no past wins to safely borrow from, and no behaviours easy to predict, how does one, therefore, strive to solve?

If joining the dots is what creates more magic, one must inarguably start with diverse dots. Create more dots. Create newer dots. Yes, logical ones like statistics and data mining. But also, rather unconventional ones like origami or mime.

And then, let the mental synapses whip up their magic!

I’ll take some liberty before ending and say, a little spike in acetylcholine, one of the brain’s learning power juices, favours those who diversify.

(The author, Divya Agarwal, is senior planning director at Ogilvy.)