The Problem with TED Talks

TEDTalksTop100 I watched the #1 most-watched TED talk today...again. Sir Ken Robinson, as wobbly on his feet as he is unfaltering with his words that one day back in 2006, made me smile and nod...again. He gets an audience belly laugh within 30 seconds of lumbering onstage. This particular talk has been viewed more than 29 million times since then. Why? Well, we all love a good British brogue (I've witnessed it move audiences easily through twenty minutes of nonsense), but it's more than his adorable accent: Sir Ken is a marvel.

Unlike most TED talks he uses no media whatsoever. He's a stand up comic with a serious message and impeccable timing. He weaves hilarious stories with wonderful metaphors and holds up a (fairly non-judgmental) mirror to the absurdity of our global obsession with "core subjects" and traditional schooling. He's measured and folksy, referencing prior talks from the week...seemingly making connections right there in the moment. His conclusion is fairly incontrovertible: we need to promote more creativity and honor student individuality in our global school systems Yes; genius! I don't even really care that Sir Ken offers no solutions (though he follows up with concrete ideas in a subsequent TED talk). All I want to do is sit in the comfort of a worn Starbucks lounge chair, earphoned head in hand with a silly grin on my face, and listen to him entertain me.

The #2 most-viewed TED talk belongs to a vibrant researcher, Amy Cuddy from Harvard, who makes full use of a her PowerPoint slides with stock photos, funny video clips, high-level statistics and text. She gets emotional and shows vulnerability (the theme of another highly-rated TED talk, incidentally). I could listen to these great talks for hours; and often have. I love me a good TED talk is my point. Judging by the popularity of TED...we all do...and ideas are spreading. But what are we really learning?

We are getting better at listening and assimilating new information. And, we are all too often confusing a super TED talk with great teaching. And that, my friends, is my problem with TED talks.

In countless classrooms around the United States, I see teachers appropriating the TED talk format to perform in front of a passive (if happy) audience of students. However, unless the audience is interacting and practicing skills (communication, critical thinking, problem solving, creating), these replicated TED talks are not helping people develop new skills.

A TED talk is scholarly entertainment and should probably have more of a supporting, not starring role, in the classrooms of the 21st Century. We know who learns the most from a great TED talk: the TED talker! So, in addition to cutting back on the 6-periods of TED talks many students experience, let's ask students to research and create their own TED talks. Or, let's start to suggest that TED talks incorporate some audience participation; you know, insert a "Turn & Talk" every now and then; ask the audience to read or write and make claims and conjectures; ask them to go home and conduct some research and do something with whatever it is they are 'learning' from their chair. Now, that's a TED talk I can really get excited about.