Want to Fix Education? Ditch TED.

I want to compare two texts.  The first is an op-ed by Richard Galant, a senior editor for CNN, entitled What if Students Learn Faster Without Teachers?  The second is a 1987 video by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics entitled A Private Universe (you will need to click the VoD button next to the 1 in Individual Program Descriptions).  In his op-ed, Galant uses the ideas of 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra for a School in the Cloud to question the effectiveness of teachers.  In the Harvard-Smithsonian video, we see a bright student struggling with understanding how the Earth experiences different seasons, despite being handed the correct information.   One text brazenly questions the role of teachers, while the other solidifies their necessity.  And guess which one is getting the airtime?

I am not the first person to take issue with TED; both Evgeny Morozov and Audrey Watters pinpoint questions that should be asked about the TED spectacle.  One such question is that of rigor.  A person stands up at TED, has 15-20 minutes to speak, utilizes Public Speaking 101 tricks and parlance to create an evocative presentation, and is heralded with applause at the conclusion.  There is no question and answer session, no challenges to the brilliant ideas, no discussion or debate.  Presenters get an idealized environment to share their ideas with a global audience, cultural capital and validity built into the TED mechanism.  Viewers get to consume the ideas in rapid succession (either during TED or at the website), without any structure for conscious debate.

When an edutainment a speaker colloquium does not provide or promote a space for thoughtful interactive debate, the implicit position is that those at the colloquium are Right and True.  When a colloquium has the kind of cache as TED has generated in just a few short years (how’d that happen, btw?), such Truth becomes Gospel.  And that is the danger point, a place where a CNN Editor feels compelled to question the necessity of teachers (and if you think the article is tough on teachers, the caption to the accompanying video is the coup d’etat:  Want to fix education?  Ditch Teachers) based on a 15 minute presentation.  From a Google Search on Richard Galant, I can find no background in education upon which he can rigorously second the claims he puts on education.  The last paragraph is my favorite, and it’s a doozy:

Traditional education stresses tests and punishments, two things that Mitra said causes the brain to shut down its rational processes and surrender to fear. Adopting a method closer to that of grandparents, who shower children with admiration, is “the opposite of the parent method,” which relies on threats, Mitra said.

Now, Mitra has a good deal of published research on his “Hole in the Wall” schools.  And when Mitra says that students learn best from one another, well, there is a lot of truth to that.  But it’s not that simple.  Having seen some of Mitra’s research, I wonder if he dumbed it down for TED, or if he really believes that we should abandon schooling (Mitra is yet another person who buys into the Industrial Revolution argument about the history of education, an argument that only seems to pop up in educational technology literature, not in the ed theory stuff). But that paragraph Galant applies to the situation, in context with his headline and his caption (and don’t think that Galant, an editor, had nothing to do with the title or caption), is egregious.  I taught for a decade, have been involved in education for almost all of my adult life, and have met hundreds of teachers.  None of those teachers a) got into teaching to stress tests and punishment, or b) created a scholastic environment that stressed tests and punishment.  Teachers usually want to do the opposite; create a positive environment where students can excel, and create interesting curriculum and activities to help in that manner.  So to blame teachers, who in the past 30 years have seen their professionalism and autonomy impeded in a great degree by administrations and policymakers, to blame them for tests and punishment, shows a shallowness of argument only superseded by the regurgitation of a TED talk as Gospel truth.

I’m not going to go all-out against Mitra.  Again, students learn best from each other.  This is nothing new in educational research.  Where I will question him is in regards to the need for instruction and framing.  The big buzz with education right now talks about how content is irrelevant in a networked world, so competencies and abilities to utilize content are paramount.  Again, this isn’t new…this is an argument that started over 20 years ago, yet last year started to get traction (which makes you question motivation for adopting the argument). But the pioneers of the argument saw the role of instructor as vital to the apparatus, and that role had nothing to do with content delivery or sage on the stage.  Rather, the job of an instructor was to connect content to context through real-world application, problem-solving, environment, and assisting with knowledge gaps, among other things.

And that’s where A Private Universe is important.  In the case study shown, a girl considered exemplary by standards and testing has a great deal of trouble explaining the seasons, and makes up arguments for her belief to work in the context of science.  Even after she is presented with the scientifically proven explanation for seasons, she still cannot let go of preconceived notions, notions that were developed through a number of factors:  environment, logic gaps, prior teachers.  If we let go of teachers and go straight to computers that track progress and utilize Big Data, they will determine if a student is wrong about how the seasons work.  And they will provide the information.  But what happens when the student is left alone to contextualize, interpret, put into action, etc?  According to A Private Universe, that student doesn’t improve.  That’s where the teacher steps in.  That’s just one place the teacher steps in.

8 thoughts on “Want to Fix Education? Ditch TED.

  1. Chris Freeman

    Rolin, been pondering on this one a bit and there really is soooo much to say on these things in our current climate. I recently stumbled onto Mitra’s TED talk and loved it. I haven’t read his research yet but am hopeful, as you suggest, he’s dumbed this down to get into the infomercial format for TED. What struck me was it really is current validation on community of practice learning theory, the Socratic method, problem based learning, the ability to safely “fail” in the process, etc… all rolled into one scenario.

    I don’t believe he really thinks a computer with Internet access and some well placed grand momas is THE model. What he has shown though, and what many of us know about what makes for good learning environments, is in conflict with what current legislation and our educational system at large is willing to do. The only reason he and the likes of Khan get so much traction is the media and much of the general public think this is a shortcut around all the things that are bad with our system. Do you think for a second a middle school in suburbia would let you or I put together a model that didn’t segment by grade and was entirely based on problem based strategies like Mitra’s? Not likely.

    This is what drives me batty and makes me want to never go back into the k12 space. No one truly wants to turn the reins loose and let someone do what the best practice components are from each of these strategies.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      I was a bit more pessimistic than you, seeing Mitra link briefly to CoP, PBL, etc in his speech. I have read some of his research now, and it’s impressive, but it notes its limitations and its target audience, something missing in his TED speech.

      My years of work and schooling have shown me that non-formal and informal learning environments are just as vital as formal ones, often more so for the reasons you state, a bureaucracy stuck in its own way. And the shortcut mentality you define is spot-on; Khan, Thrun, Mitra and the rest fit into an “education is broken, what an easy fix this is” mentality. I don’t necessarily blame them for embracing the narrative; it’s powerful, it gets attention. But it ignores the rich history of educational research and practice.

      And you’re right. As a teacher, I was a media and technology specialist instructing students with learning disabilities at a ritzy private school. I was viewed as the enrichment guy, the one who students got as a treat, so my practice was allowed to be cutting-edge pedagogically. But even with adopting PBL, socratic, social learning strategies, I was restrained by grade level, and administrators at the school shunned my ideas of breaking down our grade-level system.

      That said, this “industrial” history purported in ed tech circles is convenient and only part of a much wider picture, and one that focuses on individualization rather than community. I don’t disagree that age-based cohorts are likely archaic and should be replaced, but the history of education is about much more than a Prussian model.

      Last, on TED…I thought Mitra’s speech was great too. But I find myself thinking that about all TED speeches. And that’s because they are the Easy Listening of contemporary debate, Michael Bolton instead of Bob Dylan. Mitra is one of the first people in the recent ed tech debate to bring research to a greater audience, but you wouldn’t know that from TED. And that’s a shame.

  2. Chris Freeman

    Best quote I’ve heard on these things was Seymore Paperts comment in a congressional hearing many years ago where they interrupted him and said what he was describing was akin to the “old” one room school house. To which he replied, the one room school house is a much better model than the one we have that groups students by age and into the lowest level of incompetence. It was awesome! I should try and find that clip for you.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Wait, I’m supposed to watch something authentic and organic rather than pre-packaged, that’s four hours instead of 15 minutes? There are sound effects and applause at the beginning, right? And Papert wears a headset mic?

      Seriously, thanks. Reading The Children’s Machine was one of the watershed moments in my education journey. I’m looking quite forward to this video.

    2. Alex Garcia

      Chris! thank you so much for the link. My background is on computers but with great interest in education by discovering(constructionism). Seymour Papert has become my personal hero as well as Noam Chomsky(I learned about him when I took a core computer science course about formal languages). It is amazing to see the interest of politicians for a transformation of the education system almost 20 years ago but seems that nothing has changed.

      Thank you Rolin for this valuable space of thoughts and experiences you put online with this blog. Keep up with the good work.


  3. Tiffany Holmes

    I would like to preface this by saying I am currently a teacher working toward my Master’s Degree in Education Technology. That being said, in my first course, we watched this video and I was mesmerized by its content and what Mitra had to say. Then after reading this, I was reminded of what I think quite often which is that those who are not in the classroom always seem to have the best idea of how students will learn. While I do find that it is true that students do learn very well from each other, there is more to teaching than simply presenting the content. Students will always wonder where they are going to use the skill being learned or how it will help them in the real world. I feel as an educator, I provide a bridge to those real world applications. In addition, sometimes teachers provide a positive environment that a student will unfortunately experience at home.

  4. Tiffany Holmes

    In the previous post I left out a key word which was “never” when referring to student experiences at home.


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