I used to adore TED talks. I thought they’re the modern world’s answer to the old Lyceum movement. Bringing the wisdom of the our best and brightest to the curious masses, but in short and sweet format to accommodate our digital ADHD.
But the more of them I watched in my own field, the more I saw speakers butcher their subjects. Turns out they are rarely experts. Occasionally you’ll get someone on the cutting edge, but TED seems to select more for performance and theatrics than knowledge. Half of these talks are given by journalists who have only a modicum of experience in the subject, and most are wildly idealistic. The greatest sin of all is the scripted TED-brand performance. I feel like they should trademark it, with its dramatic pauses and hand gestures, a heartfelt anecdote to start it all off, a bit of pacing, some nice graphics; it’s like they’re given a formula. They have a TED hour on NPR now, and even without video, you can feel the sensationalism seeping through the speakers. Check this out:
Seth Godin is the perfect example of this phenomenon. He’s got the body language and formula down perfectly. He doesn’t seem to be any sort of expert in pedagogy, but he’s rich, personable, theatrical, and can carry a crowd. Most importantly, he’s idealistic, and wants to tell you about why the system is broken, but could be fixed if we just changed everything!
Let’s ignore the conspiracy theory level talk about how public education came about for the sole purpose of creating mindless factory drones. Maybe it had that effect, but to suggest the entire thing was orchestrated as a vast hidden scheme makes me wonder when we’re going to talk about the Illuminati or Lizard People. Instead let’s consider his eight-steps for fixing everything:
- Inverted classroom – One brilliant professor serving millions via online video, while the rest of the teachers of the world serve as glorified assistants at in-person recitation sessions? Sounds good for the guy at the top, but you’re killing diversity of thought. If literally two or three professors in the world teach each class, they control the entire curriculum, they emphasis what they consider is important, they ignore what they don’t, and they homogenize the learning of an entire generation. The recitation teachers could fill in some blanks, but at the end of the day you end up with an entire generation of intellectual clones. Also, I hate video lectures, if you miss one thing and you’re lost for the rest of the lecture. If you can’t interrupt to ask questions, or get the benefit of others doing so, you’ll have an inferior experience no matter how great the professor is.
- End Memorization – He seems to be going overboard, but yeah, that’s OK in moderation. We’ve spent time in our class talking about how unproductive rote memorization is. You don’t need your physician to remember all 185,000 drug interactions, but they should at least remember where the gallbladder is without having to look it up. The idea of never memorizing anything is a bit simplistic.
- End Prerequisites – Who could possibly think this is a good idea? We use spiral curricula in modern pedagogy for a reason: you need to have a basis in the fundamentals before you can dive into advanced stuff. That isn’t unjust or unfair, it’s just reality. You can’t go sit in the electrical engineering department’s graduate signal processing class if you have no math or physics knowledge beyond high school, you won’t get anything out of it.
- End specific degrees – we’re already moving towards interdisciplinary education, and again this is fine in moderation, but unless we live in a Star Trek like post-scarcity society without any obligation to work, you’ll need some defined skills to get a job. You cannot take nothing but poetry and art classes and then be a civil engineer.
- Measure experience instead of test scores – Nice in practice, easier said than done. In this part he also claims that resumes as a measure of compliance will become useless, but as with #4, as long as there are employers, those resumes will be useful.
- Teachers should be coaches – Huh, I actually like this.
- Incorporate work into schooling – I wish he said more on this.
- Death of the Famous College – LMFAO.
Those colleges were relevant when Byzantines controlled the Bosporus, and before the Aztecs even started building their empires. Think of all the incredible social changes the last 1000 years has brought; those colleges survived them all. The rise and fall of feudalism, the first limits on the monarchy’s power, the modern republic, the rise and fall of communism, the rise of modern capitalism, the renaissance, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of colonialism, the space age. Through it all, those colleges survived and flourished. I think they’ll outlive capitalism too.
No, seriously, I can envision a time when robotic manual labor and AI mental labor are so cheap that literally everyone has everything they could possibly want, and even then, those colleges will be around. Humans are social animals, and outside of the insects, all social animals are concerned with status. So long as those colleges grant status, they’ll have relevance in any society. And don’t tell me there isn’t a real difference in quality either.
The claim that attending such a college has “no relevance to success or happiness” is also bullocks. Don’t tell me that attending Oxford isn’t significantly associated with higher success rates than attending State. Of course there is a variance in outcomes, but overall there is a huge association between attending an elite college and success. Happiness is another story, but I would imagine there is at least some correlation between it and general success, money, status, and comfort in life.
He concludes by saying that we need to kill two false ideas:
- Great performance in school leads to happiness and success.
- Great parents leads to great performance in school.
Which is odd, because I think both of those are some of the most self-evident truths in education. Yes, Dave Thomas didn’t finish high school, founded Wendy’s, and ended up being extremely rich. But variance aside, in general someone who finishes high school will be more successful than someone who doesn’t, and someone with an MBA from Harvard will probably do even better. Is there really a debate here?
As for the parents, isn’t parental involvement strongly associated with success? Same goes for stability at home. If you find a kid who goes hungry every other night, or suffers from abuse or neglect, the last thing they want is to play around with an Arduino to make art. Helping these kids out is incredibly difficult, but let’s not pretend that we live in some fairy-tale world where having great education-minded parents isn’t an advantage. If anything, we should devote resources to helping the kids who don’t have such parents, instead of telling them it doesn’t matter.
Asking the question “what school is for” is invaluable, and Mr. Godin does have some good ideas. He really does. If he simply gets people thinking about the issue, he has done a great service. But, man… does this smell like the naïve idealism of a layman. Does Mr. Godin have any pedagogical credentials at all? His biography suggests he is a marketing executive that made a lot of money during the dotcom era, and now writes business self-help books. Perhaps we should take all of his advice with a grain of salt.
Sara Lamb Harrell
December 4, 2017 @ 11:46 am
You present an interesting breakdown of Godin’s talk. When he was rattling off his 8 takeaways, I was having a similar reaction to the things he was saying. I think it is good for us to be having this discussion, but I tend to agree that some of the things he was saying didn’t sit well with me. Thanks for including the video of the guy doing the TED talk on “Nothing.” I could only stomach about half of it before I felt like I had seen enough. There is a particular style that these talks tend to follow and this video really does point out how it tends to happen/unfurl during any TED presentation. While I do love TED talks, generally, I am also finding myself jaded as I watch some of them–there’s a lot of focus on “what we don’t know” coming from these seeming Experts, and not many offerings from them on “what they might know.” When I go for this kind of media, I want enrichment… and that substance is often lacking from TED these days. Thanks for your post this week.
December 4, 2017 @ 6:25 pm
I was looking for a video to show in my class last Friday to introduce students to how important soil organic matter was. I was excited to find about 5 TEDx talk videos on youtube within a few minutes but it only took me about 15 minutes to realize that they all were basically useless. They were not any good, like both of you mentioned, because they didn’t have a good grasp on how their chosen topic really fits into the bigger scheme of things. Every single video I watched took only about 2-3 minutes to bring you climate change and never really got back to the REALLY cool science of organic matter. I think this and the post and comments illustrate that we as teachers and professionals will be around for a long time because even with all of this new technology, you still need someone to help you navigate and understand new ideas.
December 6, 2017 @ 12:26 pm
Thanks. It does get old quickly. It is also a significant problem that the real experts are rarely charismatic enough to put on a “show” like this, or interested enough to try. Richard Feynman being the obvious exception.
The problem is, if we make a show out of it, at some point sensationalism will start to creep in. It can sometimes be useful, especially in tackling a problem, but it also alienates a lot of people. I remember a decent TED talk about antibiotic resistance. It was legitimately frightening (and quite accurate), but I’m sure that someone on the fence would likely dismiss the entire subject as pseudo-scientific hysteria.
December 4, 2017 @ 5:37 pm
As usual, I look forward to reading this blog every week. Gives me a good laugh.
Have you met college freshman? They tend to be split into two groups; the ones that email you about how you we’re 0.002 points off with the grading scheme and therefore they deserve an A or the students that show up on the first day and you never see again – you’re not even sure if they’re still in your class or not by the end of the semester. While I don’t believe in hand holding, I think that “coaching” students does not always mean homework by day, lectures by night. If we are going to ask students to listen to lectures or complete reading outside of class time then we need to hold them accountable for doing so. That can become difficult with larger classes. Some students (in my opinion) do not have the discipline and motivation to teach themselves. Therefore, I think we need to cater the in-class and out-of-class selections to the age group and level and also be careful in the way that we account for the out-of-class work.
In regards to the ending of specific degrees comments – I agree with you that we are almost at that point anyway and should not take it any further. I’ve taken many more classes pertaining to pedagogy in my PhD than Food Science classes. A bit scary if you ask me (but I’m also not complaining).
Again, I agree with you that parent advocacy is of utmost importance. I tutor middle schoolers every Tuesday who more than likely do not have this type of support. Oftentimes they do not possess simple skills that almost seem like common sense; for example, having a planner or agenda to write down assignment due dates. Can’t really say where I would be if I didn’t have a mom that listened and guided me through my academic-related mental breakdowns over the course of my 20 years in school. Let’s be honest, these still very much occur. Lol. When I (hopefully) receive my PhD, it will belong to both my mom and I.
I continuously remind myself of (TA) Amy’s comments in class that we don’t need to overwhelm ourselves with too much in relation to changing course practices. Maybe students complete reading on their own every so often. It doesn’t have to be a 100% classroom flip for the full duration of the semester, which I do believe is how the TED talk was framed. The majority of Seth Godin’s points were valid, just a bit overdone.
December 6, 2017 @ 12:21 pm
In regards to parent advocacy, have you ever heard of the Abecedarian project? I get to see a lot of odd research come through the Biocomplexity Institute, but the most interesting presentation I ever got to witness was by the Drs. Ramey (now at VT Carilion, formerly UNC).
They measured the impact of brain games on developing children (15 months – 5 years). The control group still got a lot of cool stuff like free nutrition and medical care to ensure that these did not confound the study. The test group also got a few hours per weekday of brain games aimed at stimulating development. They also divided up both the control and test groups by educational attainment of the parents (some high school, finished high school, some college, finished college).
I’m going from memory, but if I recall correctly, for the control group, the kids with parents who didn’t finish high school had an mean IQ in the lower 80s. The kids of high school graduates were around 95, the some college parents had kids in the low 100s, and the kids whose parents had degrees had kids with mean IQs of 110. For the test group, all the scores fell between 105-110. The kids of the high school drop-outs saw the greatest improvement (almost 25 points, which is almost two standard deviations). The kids of college graduates saw no change at all. They measured the kids again 30 years later and there was no significant change – the effect seems to be for life. Also, the test group kids had similar outcomes to the control group kids of college graduates in terms of drug-use, graduation rates, career success, obesity, incarceration, etc. In general, the kids of college graduates saw almost no benefit, but the rest had their lives improved to match.
The obvious primary conclusion is that we can severely reduce the disparity of outcomes and greatly improve equality by funding a national pre-school system. But the second conclusion is that at a population level, nurture is more significant than nature. Of course there will be significant variation kid to kid, but the kids born to involved, educated, and well-off parents (with money and time to spend) have a huge advantage over the others (unless we take steps to lift the others up too).
So when Mr. Godin suggests that “great parents leads to great performance in school” is just a myth, I think that is categorically wrong. On the contrary, until we recognize this fact, we cannot properly tackle inequality.
December 4, 2017 @ 8:45 pm
I’m with you on TED talks and Seth Godin. I wish there was a way we could promote optimism and counter-current thinking that didn’t have to manifest in these glib performances. Even though I talked about his notion of bravery in my post, I think Seth Godin is mostly a puppet for a toxic culture of hype-productivity. His surface kinship with progressive thinkers doesn’t absolve him of the truth that his premises are the same of the systems he critiqued in that piece.
As future PhDs / current and future college instructors, the answer to “what is school for?” must be more nuanced than what was demonstrated by this week’s reading.
December 4, 2017 @ 9:01 pm
Thanks for your post. I appreciate your critical view of the readings each week, but I was hoping we could get a little optimism by the end of the semester. 🙂 Personally, I know that I will not be able to fix the entire educational system, but I sure am going to try to make my classroom a better environment for students. I want to help support students and help educators explore a variety of pedagogical approaches to find out what works best for them. And if I help even a few students, that is what I consider success.
December 6, 2017 @ 12:27 pm
That’s a great way of putting it. I am not pessimistic with regards to my own class, I hope I can be a positive influence. I am just a little skeptical of the folks who claim they can fix everything. The problems we face will take generations to fix. But as long as teachers like us do our part, we’ll get there.
December 6, 2017 @ 11:48 am
I am also up in the air about TED talks, just want to share with everyone this amazing spoof by a comedian from back home. We have a TV channel in the UK called Dave, hence Dave talks.
Sublime from start to finish:
December 6, 2017 @ 12:28 pm
Fantastic. There seem to be a number of these now.