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6 must-see education TED Talks

Education is one of the most frequent topics discussed in the Sapling Foundation's TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks. The presentations, which are part of TED conferences held worldwide since 1990, feature some of the world's foremost thinkers in a variety of fields sharing their brightest ideas. 

In 2006, when the videos became available for free streaming on TED's website, their already fervent following exploded. With over 140 presentations on education topics — ranging from inspiring critical thinking and creativity in students to online learning and MOOCs ​— currently listed in the site's massive library, you'd be forgiven for becoming overwhelmed.

To give you a starting point (or a good place to dive back in), here are six of our favorites.

1. Sir Ken Robinson, "How schools kill creativity

The most popular TED Talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson's February 2006 presentation is as entertaining as it is informative, and it's just one of his many presentations at the conference. Robinson made the argument that schools must nurture students' imaginations instead of, as he put it, mining their minds "in the way that we strip-mine the earth."

Among his examples was choreographer Gillian Lynne, whose parents were told by teachers in the 1930s that she might have a learning disorder. Her doctor instead turned music on and showed her mother that Gillian didn't have a disorder — she was a dancer. "She's been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she's given pleasure to millions; and she's a multi-millionaire," Robinson said. "Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down."

See Also: Ken Robinson's "How to escape education's death valley" and "Bring on the learning revolution!"

2. David Christian, "The history of our world in 18 minutes"

"Big history" is the study of 13.8 billion years of history, from the Big Bang to present, and the place of humans within that massive span of time. It's a relatively young discipline championed by the man who gave it its name, Macquarie University historian David Christian.

In his TED Talk, "The history of our world in 18 minutes," he takes viewers on a mind-boggling journey into the concept of entropy — the idea that the universe moves from complex order and structure to a lack thereof — and how, despite that, the universe creates complexity when conditions exist within certain thresholds of time. It presents a horizon-expanding point of view combining science and social studies while making the viewer think critically about just how big the universe really is, and how humanity has only been here a fraction of a second. 

See Also: Chris Anderson's "Questions no one knows the answers to"

3. Anant Agarwal, "Why MOOCs (still) matter"

When MOOCs hit the big time a few years ago, they were lauded by supporters as a revolutionary force that would open higher education to the masses, free of charge. Following a slew of disappointing results, however, that view faded and MOOC providers like Udacity and Coursera began to rethink the model.

Anant Agarwal, president of edX (the only nonprofit among the "big three"), is still hopeful about the possibilities MOOCs hold — especially for enhancing the traditional classroom with blended learning. In a TED Talk filmed last June, Agarwal stated, "Education really hasn't changed in the past 500 years," adding that the printing press and the textbook were the last big innovations in the space. The difference between a photo of a classroom from 50 or 60 years ago and a photo of a classroom today, he said, is that the seats are in color today. "Whoop-de-do."

This is all a springboard for Agarwal to discuss five areas where MOOCs can boost the classroom: active learning, self-paced instruction, instant feedback, gamification, and peer learning. It's not the future, he argues. It's happening today, and it's necessary because millennials are comfortable with online technology and are built differently for learning because of it.

See Also: Daphne Koller's "What we're learning from online education," Peter Norvig's "The 100,000-student classroom," Salman Khan's "Let's use video to reinvent education"

4. Daphne Bavelier, "Your brain on video games"

Speaking of gamification, video games have often been treated with derision in the education world. While the educational value of some games is questionable — and there are seemingly just as many concerns regarding their use in the classroom as there are benefits — research has shown some cognitive benefits.

In her June 2012 TED Talk, cognitive researcher Daphne Bavelier discussed her findings on how videogames actually assist with learning, focus, problem-solving, and multitasking. (Note, of course, that she recommended playing them in "reasonable doses.") The problem with video games that are made specifically to be educational, she says, is that it's like eating "chocolate-covered broccoli" —​ it doesn't feel fun. The ultimate goal is to find ways to hide the positive nutrients from the broccoli inside of the chocolate, though many popular series, like Nintendo's Legend of Zelda, already do this whether the players realize it or not.

See Also: Gabe Zichermann's "How games make kids smarter," Ali Carr-Chellman's "Gaming to re-engage boys in learning"

5. Angela Lee Duckworth, "The key to success? Grit"

We've covered Angela Lee Duckworth and the idea that "grit" — the ability to persevere and overcome obstacles — can be taught before. Duckworth sees the personality trait as instrumental in predicting success, and that it can be developed in the right conditions.

In an April 2013 TED Talk, she covers her early experiences teaching, realizing that her smartest students weren't always the ones performing well. Through her graduate studies and continuing research in psychology, she fully developed her theory on grit. As Duckworth says, the exact conditions for developing that "growth mindset" are still kind of fuzzy, but finding a successful formula is also just as dependent on educators' willingness to persevere through failure.

See Also: J.K. Rowling's "The fringe benefits of failure"

6. Tyler DeWitt, "Hey science teachers — make it fun"

One of the biggest pushes in education right now is for an increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. But these are all areas many students have written off as boring or difficult. In this 2012 talk, Tyler DeWitt suggested that perhaps the problem with science is the presentation of the material — a sentiment that likely applies to other subjects, as well. 

During his first year teaching high school science, he says, he was excited to cover his favorite biology topic: viruses. When he went to discuss the reading with his class, however, he found that they didn't understand it due to boring writing that was further bogged down by jargon. Teachers should abandon the "obsession with seriousness" and instead find fun ways to engage students through stories and demonstrations. 

See Also: Mae Jemison's "Teach arts and sciences together"


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Filed Under: Higher Ed K12 Technology Policy & Regulation Online Learning
Top image credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg