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Education in the Media

Helpful or Harmful? TED’s Intention for “The Classroom” at TED2012

TED, the organization that brings the world “ideas worth spreading” in ultra sticky 18-minute or less presentations from the well-known to the obscure is curating a session for TED2012: Full Spectrum called “The Classroom”

When TED announced their search for “rock star” teachers I had some particular reactions to their call to action and have heard different reactions from different people. I’m interested to hear yours.

First of all the context is important. A significant part of the intention for this session is:

After TED, these talks will have a life online as part of TED-Ed, a new initiative we’re launching in 2012. With TED-Ed, we are creating a library of videos sepcifically for educators and students. The videos will be arranged using teacher-centric/learner-centric categories and tags, designed to help teachers quickly discover the perfect video for the lesson at hand. The videos will also be arranged into playlists to give students a multidisciplinary, immersive insight into a learning concept.

That being said, TED has said they are looking for:

The talks we’re looking for will each:

+ be shorter than 10 minutes
+ contain informative material, not just inspiring messages
+ be delivered with a huge amount of passion for the topic
+ engage an audience from age 14 to adult
+ be something you might imagine a teacher using in the classroom as video to supplement a lesson.

We’re especially keen to include brilliant EXPLANATIONS, meaningful A-HA moments, powerful STORIES, indelible IMAGES.

The controversy is about this next section:

Now, a couple of notes about what we’re not looking for. For this session, we do not want talks about teaching methods, education reform or education in general. We are not looking for an inspiring, “go forth,” commencement-style talk. We do love those sometimes, but they’re not a fit for this session.

What do you think? From what we know so far does this initiative seem helpful or harmful to teachers? Is it respectful?

I am a TEDx organizer, and frequent participant in TED initiatives, like TED conversations. I believe that TED is supporting a lot of good in the world and has potential to do more. Those are my biases just to be transparent. as we get into this conversation. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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).


19 thoughts on “Helpful or Harmful? TED’s Intention for “The Classroom” at TED2012

  1. It sounds to me that they are looking for educators to deliver a lesson, and that what we will end up with will be a set of lectures without the ability to ask questions of the teachers. Most teachers who lecture at least offer plenty of opportunities to interact and clarify understanding by allowing their audiences to ask questions.

    I wonder if any of the teachers will “break’ some of the rules of a TED talk and solicit feedback and questions from the audience during their lesson?

    Posted by dwees | December 2, 2011, 9:57 am
    • David, there is definitely the possibility for seeing more interaction than usual at the TED conference. TED is already billing the conference “Full Spectrum” as pushing the envelope of what they have done before to involved the crowd. We’ll see!


      Posted by Adam Burk | December 6, 2011, 6:26 pm
  2. I’m really at a loss to know what you mean by “harmful” ? I just don’t get it.

    No harm here. They are profiling teachers, getting ideas out there etc…. I don’t think the intention is “rock star teachers” and that’s just being inflammatory.

    Just don’t see any controversy in this and seems like a good thing by TED. Keep it about the learning, not the bantering back and forth of entrenched positions all wearing blinders.


    Posted by David | December 2, 2011, 9:59 am
    • David,

      “Harmful” is a bit extreme and meant to be provocative, honestly. It’s meant to represent the spectrum of responses possible. Just like Khan Academy, there are people that think its the best thing to happen to education since slates and chalk, others who think it damns the teaching profession to be overtaken by computers. I’ll let some others respond before throwing in more of my two cents.


      Posted by Adam Burk | December 2, 2011, 10:15 am
  3. After a good lecture, it’s typical to think you understand something better than you really do. Chad Orzel wrote a good post about this a few days ago.

    I like it when my lectures really capture some of the connections between the new topic I’m presenting and other topics students are already familiar with. But I’m not sure how helpful that really is, until the student does their own work to make their own connections.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | December 2, 2011, 11:14 am
    • Sue,

      Spot on to point out the short-comings of lecture. The interesting thing to me is that the talks from this session aren’t meant to be necessarily be stand-alone pieces, but I think the intention is that they would be useful for teachers to stitch into a larger experience in their learning environment.

      I’m interested to see what these end up being. Until then a lot of my critique and opinion is only speculation.


      Posted by Adam Burk | December 3, 2011, 9:01 pm
  4. Adam, I appreciate the question you raise here.

    I feel extremely confused and utterly disappointed by this TED initiative. I find it somewhat insulting, frankly, that TED would invite Sir Ken to talk about education, but explicitly not invite educators to talk about education. I find it insulting that countless others are invited to TED and TEDx events to share ideas about their fields of expertise, but that educators applying for this initiative are told not to.

    Then again, teaching and learning – and the transformation thereof in public schools – are my passions. What ideas and interests I have revolve around my work, which is indistinguishable – to me – from my mission. Perhaps I am being too personal, too defensive, but I am turned off of TED as an organization for what I consider to be the unwarranted discounting of educators’ ideas about education. Or maybe I’m insecure about what else I have to offer – insights from my sixth reading of the Dune series?

    Public education – at least in the United States – is a sector in desperate need of inspiration and new directions in which to go forth, and our public, I think, would appreciate more actionable partnership with schools and school personnel about the realities and possibilities of what goes on and what could go on in our schools and learning spaces. I’m sorry TED isn’t interested in providing an opportunity for educators – in this particular instance – to foster this work and its ensuing conversations.

    Others’ reactions?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 2, 2011, 11:46 am
    • Chad,

      A critial reading of the Dune series might lead one to view ‘education’ existing as the fluid controlled by hydraulic despots, with certain curricula and technologies combining as melange-as-pharmakon.

      For any individual who is concerned about humans, the matter is quite personal. After all that might be said and done by and through the education system (with or without TED), what does one do with the students as human beings? Someone needs to defend them, and perhaps even assist them to become immersed in actual (as opposed to virtual) insights.

      Posted by Brent Snavely | December 2, 2011, 2:16 pm
    • Chad,

      I appreciate your perspective. After spending more time reviewing the call, I have shifted my opinion on it. At first I was with you, I thought this was limiting and perhaps even disrespectful of what teachers have to offer. Then I looked at it again and did some poking around.

      It’s not that TED does not want educators to talk about educators, its just that they have a very explicit purpose for this one session and are seeking out essentially auditions for that part. Now what that part is deserves critique as Kirsten has done, but I can no longer keep up my opinion that TED is denying access to educators to talk about education on their stage universally. Does that make sense?


      Posted by Adam Burk | December 3, 2011, 9:04 pm
      • Sure, and I have watched many talks from non-educators that hold universally applicable lessons for relationships, teaching, and learning inside and outside the classroom, and – of course – educators are free to watch these videos, share them, embed them, and discuss them thanks to TED. However, I think that in choosing to audition teachers this way for a program that invokes the classroom (but not really) is a wasted opportunity. It would move our global conversations about educational transformation ahead more quickly if TED helped show how eager teachers are to partner with students and parents to challenge the system. It feels patronizing and confusing to me to initiate a program that invokes the classroom by asking educators to talk about something else – almost as as if TED wants to take credit for showing how progressive it is by helping teachers show the world that they have other ideas, too. It also feels as if educators have to audition to be TED-worthy. “Do a good job with this one, and we might let you talk about your work!”

        Obviously, I have some energy here from my subjective take on the call – and I am a cantankerous iconoclast, to put it mildly. I’m sure TED’s speakers – and, surely, by extension, TED – have already accomplished more good and reached more people than I ever will. I am just less reach-able by TED now, which isn’t so much of a loss. I have a very explicit reaction to this one session, but would never work to deny TED and educators mutual benefit.

        Also, I’m not fit to be the judge of teacher-delivered content lessons.

        TED/not TED; the goal is to put kids and learning before the system and its hangers-on. Onward.

        Posted by Chad Sansing | December 4, 2011, 1:11 pm
        • Chad,

          I agree that there is a missed opportunity here. For me, regardless of even hearing one more talk about education in a bigger picture sense, this session doesn’t seem poised to move the needle very far to create educational environments that we have already heard about from the TED stage, and I think generally agree are desirable (such as Sir Ken Robinson’s).

          This session is the latest in the series of tinkerings of an education system that we fundamentally know to be flawed.


          Posted by Adam Burk | December 4, 2011, 8:07 pm
  5. Hmm, maybe they’d welcome our expertise on issues of education – but want to separate out the ‘content lessons’ (to keep this bit like the Khan academy stuff). If there’s a way to contact them, I think they need to hear your viewpoint. It’s important.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | December 2, 2011, 12:03 pm
    • Adam, I’m loving this conversation, and I’m especially appreciative of Sue’s link to the Chad Orzel post. It’s terrific and gets to the heart of my own problem with this initiative. (And I too, like Chad and perhaps you, find it troubling and reductive and a little silly. But then TED is–from what I’ve read and heard–a largely white male, highly-privileged organization that promotes a particular view of knowledge and knowing that I find facile. Attractive, seductive, promising simplicity in the face of great complexity. Am I wrong here Adam?)

      Okay, anyway. The problem with the TED call. It seems to suggest that “great” teaching is like a performance, and great teachers are the best performers, who can “deliver” (note capitalist language), “great content” (for whom? about what? who says?). This reinforces a view of knowing as acquisition, teaching as frontal performance, teaching as a competitive endeavor, learning about “receiving,” and transformation seated in entertainment (ah-moments! vivid stories!).

      Having watched innumerable lectures of this type at high-status institutions among big name, “rock star” professors and teachers (the Harvard Business School is thick on the ground with this kind of pre-packaged teaching performance), real understanding, immersion in discomfort (perhaps the seat of all learning), retention don’t last long. I thought I knew something, but really I didn’t. I was entertained, like going to a Broadway show–sometimes titillated, sometimes teased into producing the right responses at the right time, but had to work very little and was challenged very little.

      Is this the view of knowing and knowledge TED wants to promote?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 2, 2011, 3:20 pm
      • Wow, Kirsten, where to begin!

        Yes, TED, has a history of being white and male. That is not the case as much anymore. Some of the real power brokers in the organization are women–June Cohen, Amy Novogratz, Lara Stein, and others. The audience is now pretty balanced male/female and increasing diverse ethnically. It is undoubtedly largely a privileged community socio-economically.

        TED’s best initiatives to diversify in all regards is TED Fellows and the TEDx program. Both are reaching fairly deep into nearly every part of the world.

        As for their view of knowledge. TED is perhaps first and foremost about storytelling. Is it attractive? Yes. Seductive? You can say that. Promising simplicity in the face of great complexity? I don’t think so. They do aim to make the complex accessible for the lay person, but they acknowledge that they are not trying to say everything there ever needs to be said on a topic in the 18 minute talks. They are meant to be taster courses. Attractive and seductive, allowing more people (500 million globally) to begin to think about things that they very well would not have been exposed to otherwise. The TED Talk is just the start of something–a much larger conversation. This is why they host the TED conversations online, and at the conference or hanging out with presenters and other guests, the conversations are anything but simplistic. They are highly sophisticated. They are divergent and integrative. And they always will need to be challenged in a critical, friendly way.

        Now for the call. I’m with you. I think exalting “rock star teachers” as the ones who give the best performances as too thin a slice of the picture of what makes a great teacher. I’m really interested to see how this goes, because that could be as far as the conversation goes. “Oh man, she’s awesome because she entertained me so well!” But it could go farther. I’ll be watching to see.

        Posted by Adam Burk | December 6, 2011, 6:38 pm
  6. I like the notion that TED shares/spreads ideas and information, but it seems to be creeping toward a ‘one size fits all’ approach. I may not have enough information to suss out the agenda here, and so I ask:

    Who sets the criteria?
    Who judges?
    Who says the presentation is ‘perfect’?

    Stardom for teachers? Quelle idée! I see the real controversy to exist in one or more unstated premises underlying the context.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 2, 2011, 2:01 pm
    • Brent,

      The criteria is set by Chris Anderson and June Cohen to my understanding, but they have significant feedback loops including the TED Brain Trust, TED staff, TEDster’s, TEDx organizers and more. Ultimately, Chris and June are curating the program along with their teams so they are the judges of who gets on the TED stage. As for who would say that a presentation is “perfect” that is up to anyone to decide for themselves. Chris, June, and TED may have their own opinion on that, but they would offer their reasoning for it, not just an opaque response.

      The TEDx community is also greatly influencing TED and that initiative just hit its middle childhood so it will be really interesting to see what happens in the future.


      Posted by Adam Burk | December 6, 2011, 6:57 pm
  7. As a TED2012 Classroom applicant and recent TEDxHonolulu speaker (, I stumbled upon your guys thread today and couldn’t be happier. It is truly awesome to see dialogue take place directed at an issue my partner and I had mixed feelings about to begin with. As we tried to take our approach and condense it into a lesson, it almost felt like taking a step backwards to hopefully take a step forward. The idea of connecting with random learners in 10 minutes without any knowledge of their prior organization of critical ideas and still produce an “aha” seems a little unrealistic. A fuller understanding no problem, but an “aha”? Not to mention the plethora of video lessons already in existence (youtube, discovery ed, brightstorm, khan academy etc). We are not really sure of the new or fresh direction they are taking, but excited to see where it goes nonetheless.

    For us, we hope to find out today that we got the opportunity, so as to highlight that there are other ways to instruct and inspire our students to think about the learning process. We also hope our lesson might generate more dialogue and discussion about how as parents, mentors, and educators we are helping our young people to organize ideas cognitively in their head. This seems critical as the amount of information individuals have to sift through, organize and connect not only as individuals, but as a collective is becoming phenomenally immense.


    Posted by sean | December 13, 2011, 2:19 am
  8. Sean,

    Thanks so much for joining the conversation and offering your honest reflection of your process. Will you keep us updated? Let us know if you get accepted in, and if so what you think as you go deeper into this experiment?


    Posted by Adam Burk | December 13, 2011, 8:22 am
    • Aloha Adam,

      My pleasure! Having found this community, I hope to be able to contribute more often as I have been truly impressed by the overall quality and spirit of discussion that you all seem to foster. As for
      TED2012 Classroom, unfortunately we have not yet heard a communication (I keep checking their blog to see if there is any word that selections have indeed been made, but nothing has been posted), but considering the dec 12 notification date, I am sure its safe to assume at this point my partner and I did not get selected. Oh well 😉 I am still excited to see what they produced and/or selected as I am sure there are some amazing educators out there that could really rock out with a platform like this. After having the pleasure of experiencing a TEDx, I really hope all educators get to experience something along those lines in their career. For my partner and I, we truly found it inspiring and flattering to have people actually listen, think and offer constructive opinions directed at creating new possibilities, rather than the often cynical and circular reasoning that tends to be recycled in public education. But on a brighter note, 3 more days until Christmas break! The perfect opportunity to take a closer look at some of my classroom practices (hope my principal and students read that) and of course sneak a few fishing and surfing sessions in there as well 😉

      Mele Kalikimaka


      Posted by Sean | December 13, 2011, 1:33 pm

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