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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Owen Carter

Why I hate TED talks

Everyone seems to trust TED talks, but they're really not a good way to get ideas about education. Here's why.

Inspiring, informative, entertaining: who doesn’t love a TED talk?

Well, me. I think they stink. 

But how can you hate TED talks?

Ok, let’s rewind a moment. They’re not all bad. In fact, if you take them for what they are, they’re mostly very good.

What they are is this: ENTERTAINMENT.

They are not science, they are not evidence, and they are most certainly not a good source for getting your ideas about education.

What is TED?

To emphasise this point, it’s probably worth dwelling a bit on what TED is.

Basically it’s a set of conferences which has ballooned into a global brand, hosting videos, selling books, working with companies, and getting others to host TED-like events.

TED stands for technology, entertainment and design – but this initial focus has swelled into a series of talks on almost every topic under the sun.

Mostly now it’s known for the online talks. But of course you can still go to the live events – provided you have $17,000 to spare and can convince them to invite you

Here's the beef

The invite-only, ridiculously expensive nature of their main events might be enough to rankle a little. But for TED’s vast worldwide audience, the talks are probably the only thing that matter. And there’s a big, big problem with TED talks.

In a word, it’s this: shallowness.

Picking the first page of their education listing at the time of writing, I see 36 talks. Those by actual teachers? One – and she’s a headteacher. In fairness we also have a writer who taught for 6 months, a professor who may have been a teacher (I wasn’t sure), and a psychology professor who used to teach.

Much more common are entrepreneurs, businessmen, poets, philosophers and scientists of various sorts.

All of which would be fine if we kept TED in its appropriate sphere. Teachers aren’t the only people allowed to speak about education after all. But the fact that we have so many people speaking about education who are really associated with it only in the loosest sense is worrying because TED is taken as a brand of authority.

For some reason, the TED name has acquired a power and reputation that many brands would envy. Look to the phenomenal success of TEDx events which, at the end of day, are just well-organised conferences.

For academics in particular, having a TED talk is a real sign of having made it – the interest of TED legitimises and celebrates your work, granting it that stamp of authority.

Which, again, would be fine – were it not that TED had a habit of inviting speakers who are often really, really wrong.

Ideas not worth spreading

David Whelan puts it better than I could: TED is like the theme tune of​ The Lego Movie, ‘a song so insistent that a completely random assortment of things are "awesome" that to hear it is to think that there is literally no conceivable way to believe otherwise.’

TED doesn’t really do critique. Every idea on there is an ‘idea worth spreading’. But what about those that aren’t? Isn’t it important to be critical, and evaluate, and speak about things that don’t work, and why they didn’t work?

Because it turns out that a lot of what TED promotes doesn’t work. Sugata Mitra notoriously received a million dollars from TED to make his school in the cloud a reality. But the premise that this rests on – that kids can teach themselves better using the internet than teachers could ever manage – is false.

Donald Clark has documented the failings of Mitra’s ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ research in several different posts: the computers were soon vandalised and broken; they were rarely used for learning; the comparisons the original research made were not like-for-like. And some of the claims made by Mitra stem from research that is barely even credible, as Tom Bennett demonstrates.

Why support the idea of a completely self-organised learning environment, then, where children learn all they need from the internet?

Well, mostly I think, because it sounds cool.

Turns out education is quite complex

It’s pretty easy to say, as Ken Robinson has said, that schools kill creativity.

What might be less entertaining to describe, and certainly wouldn’t fit into 18 minutes, is the difficulty of defining creativity, the way curriculum pressures on schools might sometimes restrict it, but also the fundamental way in which the structure of school also enables creativity (especially for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, if it’s consistent with what we know about teacher effects elsewhere).

Saying that schools kill creativity is a big claim. And if you’re going to make a big claim, you better have some suitably substantial evidence to match. And Ken doesn’t appear to, relying mostly on a suite of rhetorical techniques.

Given these issues, TED’s assertion that ‘science and health information shared from the stage must be supported by peer-reviewed research’ can’t help but seem a bit insufficient.

If you take TED talks as entertainment rather than information, that wouldn’t matter. But there are lots of people working in schools all over the country who view TED as a trustworthy source. And they shouldn’t.

If I can’t convince you, try these seven examples of TED talks that are almost certainly wrong, or this TEDx talk which points out most of the problems with TED.  

The TODD talks parody sums it all up: ‘do you love science in all its complexity, but wish it could be a little less complex and a lot less scientific?’. That's what you get with TED.

What sources can you trust?

Sometimes you do see academics make large claims. But when they do this it should be like an iceberg: the point is visible, but it rests on a much larger body of evidence.

Even when TED talks aren’t rubbish, they still privilege the performance over the evidence, the message over the methodology.

If you’re a teacher who wants reliable evidence to help you make decisions, I suggest you:

  1. Look for a range of viewpoints to challenge your preconceptions and assumptions.
  2. Use your professional judgement. Most likely you know more about your own class than anyone else.
  3. Read some research, or summaries of research. Like, some actual peer-reviewed research. There’s some very accessible writing on educational topics, from the EEF resources to most things Dylan Wiliam, Rob Coe or Daniel Willingham have written. It might be harder than TED, but that’s no bad thing.

(More ideas on effective use of research in our free paper, Making the Link).

Embrace the difficulty

Can you imagine what a dull world it would be if all the answers to our educational problems were clear, and we just needed some Silicon Valley mogul to put them into action?

Turns out that improving education isn’t that easy. The £500 million spent on the national primary strategy by the then Labour government helped just one extra student reach level 4 per school (Dylan Wiliam, ‘Teacher Quality’).

More recently, an EEF evaluation tells us that schools promoting a ‘research champion’ didn’t manage to change teacher’s attitudes or their classroom practice at all.

So even if we start with good evidence and participate in programmes with the best of intentions, things might not improve.

All the more reason then to make sure that you’re not barking up the wrong tree to start with. Use some decent evidence. Find out about something from a TED talk if you like, and then research it further. But don’t you dare use a TED talk as evidence of credibility. Because it’s not.

A little Learning is a dangerous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

(Alexander Pope, 'Essay on Criticism')

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