Fun and Free (and Nostalgic!) Learning Resources

Published on Sunday, March 22, 2009 in , , , , , ,

James BurkeDid you ever wonder about the source of my conviction that learning should be fun? I've been surrounded by the concept since I was very young. I'd like to share many of the books and programs that are responsible for this. Maybe you'll understand me better, or maybe you'll discover something you didn't know before, or a new way of looking at things.

Whatever the result, below are some of my favorite fun learning resources (in no particular order), all available for free for you to enjoy.


James Burke's Documentaries – Yes, I've written about James Burke's work before, here and here, but his work seems to have finally found an official home at JamesBurkeWeb's YouTube Channel. Instead of teaching history in the same straight lines, as most dry textbooks do, James Burke's documentaries are famous for showing how history zigged and zagged, creating a more understandable feel for how history really happened.

Not only are all the episodes of Connections, Connections2, Connections3 and The Day The Universe Changed available, but they've been broken down into convenient playlists, so that each episode plays the next part automatically.

Schoolhouse Rock – From 1973 to 1986, these 3 minute shorts played on ABC every Saturday Morning. Thanks to these shorts, just about everyone who grew up on them could recite the Preamble to the US Constitution, or tell you the basics of how a bill becomes a law with little trouble.

There were many “divisions” of Schoolhouse Rock, and each Saturday morning would be dedicated solely to one of these divisions. They included America Rock, Grammar Rock, Multiplication Rock, Science Rock and more.

Eureka! - While Schoolhouse Rock did cover basic science, it never really delved into physics. Eureka! (no, not the SyFy show), an animated series from TVOntario, picked up the slack here. They had multi-show segments on force and energy, simple machines, heat and temperature, convection, conduction, and even radiation! Even without the catchy tunes of Schoolhouse Rock, Eureka! was a very effective educational series.

For All Practical Purposes - This is a great series from PBS back in 1987 that teaches all about modern mathematical concepts, and how they apply to today's real-world challenges. While some of the examples used seem out of date, the principles taught are still valid. The teaching is clear, and the examples are brought to life so that they're easier to understand and absorb.

The Phantom Tollbooth – This 1970 movie, based on the 1961 book of the same name, is about a boy who is frustrated with school and life, until a journey through a phantom tollbooth to lands like Dictionopolis and Digitopolis help drive home the point about how important the thing you learn can be in life. Many consider this movie to be at least part of the inspiration for the Schoolhouse Rock videos. Part 2 is available here.

Mr. Wizard – Don Herbert, better known as Mr. Wizard, taught science on TV in a fun, hands-on style. Instead of lecturing about heat, he might challenge you to figure out why a candle isn't burning up a piece of paper. His original show in the 1950s was called Watch Mr. Wizard, and you can even see a rare full episode of it on YouTube (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). In the 1980s, Nickelodeon revived his popularity with a new version of the series, this time called Mr. Wizard's World.

The Mr. Wizard shows inspired numerous other fun science TV shows, including Beakman's World (The Penguins doing the introduction are even named Don and Herb in honor of Don Herbert/Mr. Wizard!), Bill Nye The Science Guy (More episodes here) and Newton's Apple (How cool is Ted Nugent describing the physics of audio feeback?).

Square One TV – What Sesame Street was to letters, and The Electric Company was to words, Square One TV was to mathematics. The original format was a half-hour show, which consisted of 20 minutes of skits and music videos, all teaching various math concepts, and then close with Mathnet, a Dragnet parody in which detectives solved crimes with math.

Hulu's News and Information Section – Hulu has some great classic documentary series available, including the recently-added Cosmos, NOVA and Scientific American Frontiers. Fancast's Documentary Section has a few choice series, as well, but Hulu seems to have the edge here.

Science Documentaries and More Science Documentaries! – Those two links comprise an amazing history of educational science television, from The Ascent of Man and Cosmos, all the way up to more modern series like The Universe and Evolve. You can lose whole days in these playlists alone!


1970s and 1980s Computer Magazines – Ever since my dad first bought an old Commodore PET 2001 home from the office for the weekend (this was back in 1978), I've been hooked on computers. At the time, the only real resource I could understand and learn from was Creative Computing Magazine, but by the early 1980s, I turned to COMPUTE! and COMPUTE!'s Gazette as my computer magazines of choice.

Most of the magazines in this archive walked you through even the most difficult computing concepts in an easy-to-understand manner, so these are great resources for learning about the basics of programming (regardless of your programming language of choice), as are . . .

1970s and 1980s Computer Books – If you've ever wanted a glimpse of what the early days of home computer culture were like, you won't find a better place than this site! Besides the often-excellent lessons in programming, resources like the Best of Creative Computing volume 1, volume 2 and volume 3 provided news, made predictions about the future of computers (sometimes accurate, sometimes humorously inaccurate), and just plain provided fun.

Even if you learned BASIC, but have moved on to another programming language (or even a web development language), translating something from books like the popular BASIC Computer Games, More BASIC Computer Games and Big Computer Games can prove to be an interesting and enlightening personal challenge.

How To Develop A Super-Power Memory – Do you think this site would even exist if I had never read this book? Along with Harry Lorayne's more recent memory books, this is a must-read for anyone who wants to begin training their memory for work, school or fun!

The Richest Man in Babylon – This is a classic work on how to handle money. What has made it such a classic? The lessons in handling money are written as a series of parable that take place in Ancient Babylon. It's a fun read, and drives home its point without ever becoming tiresome. I still do my best to live up to all its rules, and can honestly say it's changed my financial outlook and prospects.

This general philosophy of this older book on personal finance meshes well with a more recent work (originally written in 1981 and revised in 1996), called . . .

The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment – It would be easy to say that this is simply a book on economics, but it examines economics with a philosophy that gives one a sense of hope for the future. It examines many commonly-held economic myths, destroys them, and replaces them with a sense of optimism.

Before the author passed away in 1998, the PRC Forum taped an interview with Julian Simon that can give you a brief overview of his economic philosophies. While you're checking that interview out, you may want to examine several other economic documentaries with a similar philosophy that are posted in the same YouTube channel.

Those are some of my favorite learning resources from days past that I still keep close to me. How about you? What books, videos or other resources strongly influenced your education and that you still treasure? Let me know about them in the comments!

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1 Response to Fun and Free (and Nostalgic!) Learning Resources

10:14 PM

I recently discovered Pop Physics, which does a good job of making basic Physics concepts decipherable to non-mathy people and somewhat interactive and fun! The picture captions are always hilarious...