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Philosophical Meanderings


On October 10, 2010, TEDxDirigo, Maine’s first TEDx event successfully launched. I had the honor of being at the rudder of this ship, steering it from inception to the after-party. The event was successful in its aims: inspire leaders and change-makers with the brilliance and innovation of Mainers through the TED Talk format.

I learned a tremendous amount through the event planning process and the big day itself. And now I am trying to formulate the difference between what happens at a TEDx event and what happens at a lot of schools every day. Perhaps an unfair comparison, but considering we talk about wanting students to be inspired change-makers with “21st century skills” or “solutionaries” as Zoe Weil aptly termed them (TEDx talk will be on-line soon!), and this is what happens at TEDx events, it does seem appropriate.

What I am about to walk-through is a bit crass. What I mean is that if we were to design education based on learning from TED and TEDx it would be a bit more complex than what I am about to propose. But hey, this is a blog post, not a dissertation.

Let’s talk about what makes TEDx events exciting. It’s two things. The primary component is the TED style talk. We here at the co-op have these posted at our must watch videos link and share them around all the time. These are watched by thousands of people everyday. TED style talks are all about communicating an idea really well. Through story-telling, really complex and big ideas are broken down in 18 minutes or less. Speakers take audiences right through the idea, why it’s needed, and how it can work, in less time than recess.

There’s no Q&A, no breakouts, no panels. Participants (attendees are participants, not just witnesses) take up the conversations during breaks and after the events.

So let’s start here, what if teachers started a unit, a week, a class with an inspiring talk about the idea that the class is supposed to orientate itself to discuss, understand, and move forward? TEDx speakers once they give their talk are no longer “in the spotlight” per se. They become enmeshed in a network of high functioning change-makers who also have unique skill-sets to contribute to making big ideas happen.

And this is the second key component of what makes TEDx events so enthralling. It’s not only the curation of the speakers, but also the audience. Everyone in the room is amped up about big ideas that are or can change the world. Everyone is actively working to do so, in some shape or form.

This offers a second paradigm to change in schools–everyone becomes activated. People are now not only responsible for their own learning, but are engaged in making something bigger than their own learning happen. This is a complex process. It’s certainly not a stripped down content-delivery system which has the aim of linear-efficiency like a factory conveyor-belt.

For it to work in schools a different feedback system than current grades and standardized scores is required. But we already knew those weren’t going to work out anyway. The feedback system is more akin to ones taught at leadership institutes. It’s about process agreements, +/delta feedback, candor, individual work, teamwork, and accomplishment. These group processes, and individual time management and assessment are the skills that need to be imparted by teachers to students. Teachers then help students enact these processes as well as provide guidance and expertise on various subjects as appropriate.

The key is teachers nor standards are driving the process any longer. Collaborative effort centered on moving inspiring ideas forward to benefit the greater good is what drives it.

What do you think? What if you classroom were like a TEDx event? Would it look and feel like the Innovation Lab?

Is it even the aim to move the classroom in this direction? If not, where should we be headed?


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


18 thoughts on “TEDxSchools?

  1. Thanks to you and your partners, Adam, for bringing TEDxDirigo to life. I agree that introductions to great ideas, coming from the thinkers themselves, can be a significant addition to education at all levels.

    Last summer, Fast Company ran an interesting article on that topic by Anya Kamenetz, author of D.I.Y.U.

    The responses were informative. I was especially taken with a comment from Open Culture — which I consider to be the best curator of free educational videos from around the Web.

    They wrote: “Will watching 18 minute lectures – ones that barely scratch the surface of an expert’s knowledge – really teach you much? And when the 18 minutes are over, will the experts stick around and help you become a critical thinker, which is the main undertaking of the modern university after all?”

    That gets back to your proposal, as well as the Innovation Lab in Loveland, Colorado. Once a mind is sparked by video presentations of engaging insights, how do we turn that enthusiasm into sustained critical thinking? How do we teach and model techniques for discarding 99% of the trivial information that crosses the oversocial media threshold and for selecting the most meaningful interactions, virtual and in person?

    You are right: it’s not about quantitative standards. But effective lifelong learning certainly does require teachers, mentors, task-masters to show us how to develop and use discriminating reason to pay attention to what’s worthwhile.

    Posted by Jay Collier | November 3, 2010, 9:14 am
    • Jay,

      It’s great to have you here on the Co-op, thanks for joining the conversation. I haven’t looked at your links yet, but look forward to doing so. In the meantime I just wanted to say I really appreciate your questions at the end of your response. They are the right questions to be asking. And I completely agree with you–human development most certainly needs to be guided by mature teachers, mentors, and task-masters.

      Be back soon with more,

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 3, 2010, 10:23 pm
  2. Hey Adam! Wonderful ideas! I love the pared down quality of the TEDx format (good for my brain, which likes big ideas fast), and then the turning it over to participants to work it, work with it. There is a fundamental problem in what you propose here in terms of the conventional design of the American public school system though, from my point of view. The system was not designed to produce brilliant and engaged thinkers who take charge of their own learning. In fact, that is a profound challenge to the structure and organizational patterns of the system.

    (I am working with a wonderful friend who teaches improv techniques to corporations and individuals and now has begun working in schools. She talked to me about how in corporate settings leaders are always trying to get their employees to be more genius, more creative, more zoomy. She said she notes how this is never what is talked about in schools, never what the “goal” of improv is…)

    So I wonder, what are we going to do about that? Just keep on designing and showcasing and making and building wonderful innovative schools and programs (like Monika’s), in hopes they will have impact on the larger discourse and system? Don’t we already have thousands and thousands of examples of superb, breakthrough models of schools of all types, for many kinds of learners? Is it really a question of: we don’t know what to do? I’d say not. We do know what to do. But we don’t define the purpose of education as doing what your TEDx talks did for your audiences–FIRE THEM UP. In fact, it seems mostly what we do with kids in school is cool them down, dumb them down, chill them out. Really, that really may be what the “aim” is?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 3, 2010, 11:01 am
    • Kirsten,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. First off, I avoid the fundamental problem you perceive, because I am done with that paradigm. My answer is that I am only interested in conversations and efforts that are aimed towards nurturing brilliant and engaged thinkers, lovers, and doers.

      I can’t change minds that don’t want to be changed. But I can fire up those who are open, who are already fired up, or want to be. Light the fire where the tinder is driest they say. There’s too little time, and too much to be done to fight certain battles. And I am not talking about keeping the reform effort in middle-upper class neighborhoods where there are “fewer” problems and more motivated students. But I am talking about being done with shouting into the wind. My thoughts are laid out all over the internet, I am available to talk to anyone who wants to have this conversation with me. I call my senators and representatives, I write Arne Duncan and President Obama. When they get it, they can write me too. Until then I will be doing my work where it is needed and wanted. And I will do it in a way that keeps balance in my personal and professional life.

      I have to keep myself “fired up” if I hope to inspire others. Perhaps sharing our passions while also shunning the insanity of much of modern culture we can incite real changes at the scale we all want to see it.

      So what do you think Kirsten? If we know what to do, what do we need to do that we aren’t? Is it anybody’s fault that our system is still broken? Or is it everybody’s? Is it a particular person or group’s responsibility to “fix” or realign education? Or is it each and every one’s? What’s your schematic to pull off this historic heist?

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 3, 2010, 10:19 pm
  3. Adam, I love what you are saying: I’m done with that paradigm. I hear that. Light fires under the driest timber.

    But what about 45 million kids who don’t have a choice about whether to be enrolled in school or not (right now)? I’m really trying to think this through myself. Do we think that BY EXAMPLE your fabulous new TEDx schools, which I am all signed on for and want to enroll my own kids in (yes, you know I do…) will exert pressure on the great, hulking beast that is the reified accretion of tradition that is American public school? What’s our responsibility to those that don’t have choices? Who aren’t in a flow of possibilities? For whom public school has historically represented a great public good? (Which I guess, actually, is all of us.) What about all those kids doing worksheets every day, and sitting in detention, and doing weeks of test prep, and being bored out of their minds, or thinking that they are stupid, because they are bored?

    Tell me how you are thinking about that. Your theory of action is that small fires will light larger ones?

    This is not just an abstract conversation for me right now, as you know, since over at IDEA we are shortly going to engage in a set of meetings where we are going to be talking very directly about our theory of action for change. What we are rolling out. What we will do that is different. Let me know, dear friend.

    Posted by Kirsten | November 4, 2010, 11:22 am
    • Kirsten,

      I feel like your question (how do we change the entire public education system?) is a riddle. Perhaps just because it comes up so often. Not that is is obtuse in how it asked, but that’s how difficult it is to find the answer. It’s not readily apparent. And it’s THE question a lot of people have been asking for the last 100 years. We can go back to Rousseau, Dewey, Montessori, Steiner, Goodman, Freire…and of course your work and Ron’s has been embedded in answering this question.

      I’ve gone down this conversation before, the issue is that education is a cultural institution. So what we are talking about is cultural reform first. Until enough people begin shifting their values and priorities beyond economic security and conformity, there will only be pockets of change. Which is what we have been seeing for the last 40-50 years. And these pockets, these little fires that will light bigger fires cannot be discounted. Its how Expeditionary Learning grew out of Outward Bound and into public schools. And the same goes for any of the “alternative” pedagogies that are now in the mainstream.

      We haven’t reached the tipping point yet. Hell, we just had the largest political swing in our elections in what 40, 50, 60 years? And the swing was back to a fear-based, conservative rhetoric. This gives a good indicator that the current popular mindset is not one that is going to promote fundamental change in any cultural institution. Not health care, not finance, and not education.

      As for IDEA and a theory of action for change, things are on the right path to affecting the large-scale change you are talking about. This is how the 45 million children who don’t have a choice of where they go to school will be reached. Its about stakeholder engagement, community organizing, capacity building, advocacy, lobbying, and political support. The policy lever has to be pulled in order to make the change you are targeting and that we all talk about. This won’t happen until it truly is the will of the people. And it won’t be the will of the people until enough individuals have come to their own conclusions about what the aim of education should be and fostered their own love of learning. Until then the status quo and corporate interests will continue to run the show.

      I am hopeful that change will come, and it will through the hard work that everyone involved in these conversations on the Co-op and elsewhere does. But it is also going to take a long time in today’s climate. So we need to continue lighting little fires, tending them so that they grow into big fires, AND we need IDEA to begin the long haul in community organizing to generate the popular voice to move policy.

      That’s how I see it, its about individual and collective action of raising consciousness–extending knowledge through a compassionate examination of things. And we’re doing it, step by step, day by day.

      All the best,

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 4, 2010, 9:39 pm
  4. So well Put Adam! Wish I could write with that clarity…. but as I continue to practice….. I will look to you and Kirsten as models! Have you read Theodore Rosdzak’s Person/Planet…every page I read, reminded me so much of you….

    Glad to have you back in the conversation, you were missed! Glad you were able to have time to build fires in Maine, but can say I missed having the warmth from your fires here! In a way that is what your idea of Tedx schools are, sharing the warmth of each others fires!

    In that regard, do we need to formalize moments like these, or say the Goddard Fire pit, or do we just need to acknowledge for their power.


    Posted by dloitz | November 4, 2010, 9:55 pm
    • David,

      Thanks for your kind words. I wouldn’t change what I have been up to the last many months, but I am glad to have the time to be more present here on the blog.

      Can you elaborate on what you mean by “formalize moments like these?” If I understand you, my thought is no. The only thing to be formalized is the opportunity to have such moments. Formalize the process of thinking compassionately and critically so that in such moments we are exercising–in a very experimental way–that which we have been practicing formally. Does that make sense?

      I look forward to more!

      All the best,

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 5, 2010, 6:25 am
  5. cool convo guys. one of my dreams is global wifi + recycled cells.. that way any kid can at the very least watch teds… jumpstart them to being hungry to learn more.. and then we know the resources are there to learn whatever.

    so – the latest mash-up in my brain…
    i hope it resonates with you like it has with me…

    if so – tell me more…
    if not – tell me why…

    as always – craving your insight.

    Posted by monika hardy | November 4, 2010, 10:07 pm
  6. I dig it so long as we get away from curating the audience and expecting it to behave like an audience 😉


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 5, 2010, 6:16 am
  7. I love the idea of this, though I admit it would be difficult for me to pull off, with teaching units in multiple subjects. I think I’ve grown so anti-lecture that I forget about the power of a short talk.

    Posted by johntspencer | November 8, 2010, 11:06 pm
  8. Really enjoyed both the post, Adam, and the ensuing conversation. I love the idea of using TED talks in schools, but I’m going to have to mull on the concept of TEDxSchools themselves. I think of TED talks as brain candy. When I say that I mean it in the most positive way, the most wholesome candy, just like when I call fall in New England “eye candy,” it’s totally positive. But it’s still candy; it’s not the main course. TED talks are amazing ways to spread ideas, launch movements for change, inspire, captivate, humor, awe, and feed our thirst for learning. Actually, as I write this, I realize that although I think of TED talks as brain candy, they’re more like brain appetizers (but who would ever use that expression!?). And in order for TED talks to be the appetizers for schools, there would have to be a really good meal served up afterwards. If, for example, one used the “My Stroke of Genius” TED talk – seen by millions – to be the appetizer for a course, what would that course look like? Would the course then launch into a study of neuroscience? That would be wonderful! But the students will have had to have learned or be learning Biology, Chemistry, Physiology, and so on. Or let’s say that they saw Richard’s TEDxDirigo talk on his incredible models for efficient, eco-friendly rocket travel and this launched a course on rocket technologies. These students would need to be steeped in engineering, physics, high levels of math, and so on. So many TED speakers are speakers because they studied for years and years and practiced for years and years to get to the point they’re at, and if we want to raise a generation of future TED speakers (solutionaries, innovators and change agents), what is the best way to teach them? How would TEDxSchools work? Beyond the brain appetizers? What do you envision for a successful TEDxSchool?

    By the way, I share TED talks with teenagers and they are great for launching them into new arenas of study. But they are many and varied and sharing the right talk with the right young person is key to launching their independent research to learn more.

    Great post and great to think about this. Thanks Adam,


    Posted by Zoe Weil | November 26, 2010, 5:50 pm
    • Zoe,

      I agree that this idea of a TEDxSchool is flawed and not as robust as such a school would deserve to be. In my effort to capture some essence of the passion and excitement that radiates out from TEDTalks, it is necessary to acknowledge that TEDTalks aren’t enough for a full educational experience. But as you say they are great appetizers or catalysts for new pursuits and learning.

      A more robust proposal would look through the TEDTalks and integrate the big ideas such as your, Sir Ken Robinson’s, Sugatra Mitra’s, Emily Pilloton of Studio H’s, and others, and begin developing the framework for such a program.

      Another great approach would be to develop a TEDxSchool think tank that actually brings together the speakers named above and provide funding for them to develop TEDxSchools!


      Posted by Adam Burk | November 29, 2010, 11:55 am


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention TEDxSchools? « Cooperative Catalyst -- - November 2, 2010

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