Category Archives: Education

The Identity Crisis

Imagine a classroom where content from every possible discipline is explored. Where diverse individuals have dozens of entry points to inspiration. Where the teachers present the most relevant, compelling material – with the invitation to take action.

Sound familiar?  TED’s learning environment not only nurtures “ideas worth spreading” – it enables a diverse crowd to take ownership of this mission. Just as teachers utilize TED talks to engage students, the collective identity of TED can be used to empower them.

There is no “textbook” answer on how to empower students.  The question itself is an invitation to explore how the full spectrum of contributors can get involved – teachers, students, and communities in every corner of the world.

The learning environment at TED takes us on a journey from inspiration to action. The result is transferable; the product is a collective identity.  DarrenTrent and I sought to define a process through this lens:

Inspiration. Students need to learn how to dream, to discover the breadth of possibilities that exist and the way forward. This is not just the realm of teachers, mentors, and experts, but of the community as well.

John Hunter’s World Peace Game provides students a venue to delve into real-world problems, realizing the depth of challenges they will face in their lives and how they will need to work together to solve them.

Choice. Decisions are a fundamental component of life. Students need to understand their identity and feel safe making mistakes.  They should be able to learn and grow without fear.

The Khan Academy enables students to discover at their own pace – creating a virtual classroom that supports learning inside and outside of the classroom.

Action. Choice begets action. If a student has the confidence to create change in the world, they are empowered. This intersection of teachers and students creates an environment for action.

TED Prize winner, José Antonio Abreu, has inspired millions of students to have dreams – providing them a voice through the orchestra.  His program, El Sistema, uses music as a vehicle for social action. Maestro Abreu inspires participants to give back – to teach and spread the message.

Gustavo Dudamel, Maestro Abreu’s most famous student, did just that. In 2007, Gustavo became the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  With this appointment, Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) was born – the adaptation of El Sistema in Los Angeles.  Today, hundreds of students participate in YOLA from communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access to music education and its social benefits.

Our education system is in an identity crisis – a cycle of educational-poverty in our schools.  We have a responsibility to support our schools, to inspire our students and support their choices. We need to allow students to create their own identity – as individuals, classes, schools, and communities.  This sets them free from other pressures.

How?  Each community has relevant problems to solve and classrooms that could connect to solve them.  What if you identified a community need and engaged a local classroom or school to solve it?  What if you introduced a new game or resource to a classroom teacher?

The next generation of innovators is sitting in classrooms right now.

How will you help them find their voice?

TEDActiveEDU Synthesized and Visualized


Check out this great re-cap of the TEDActiveEDU group through the eyes of Stacy Weitzner (seen above), our visual thinker that was brought in by redu to help the education project team bring together their ideas for action on the same board. More pics of Stacy’s handiwork can be seen after the jump >>

The Online Standing Ovation: Students Empowered

Over the past few days I have been listening to amazing TED speakers hour after hour as they discussed the broad topics that TED so wonderfully curates for us. After each thoughtful presentation it has been great to see how it was received through the audience’s reaction. Some presenters over the past couple of days moved us to our feet immediately and others only received a sitting clap of acknowledgment.

The standing ovation is the original test of crowd wisdom. The audience reaction (and soon the online reaction) seems like a good predictor for which ideas at TED will stick and have a lasting impact on large scale. When others in a crowd stand with me to applaud an idea then I believe the presentation touched a nerve within us all- it spoke to a deep common need for understanding or a solution we were all looking for. Once it is evident that the presentation addressed a common concern then the people who have the resources will see it clearly and will do what they can to support the cause. And as we have seen from many TED talks the idea will spread like a wildfire, people will rally and support the cause and the talk will have had a huge positive impact.

Yesterday, Salman Khan’s work on how to improve education touched a common nerve and brought everyone to their feet. It is common for people to believe that education needs an overhaul, that our current methods need a refresh and that the technology of today can play a huge role in making better instructional decisions. He shared how his program can make a difference one classroom at a time, through self guided lessons and plenty of data for teachers to make decisions. It brought me to my feet because we have been doing work to get this “real time data” through manual grading and google docs over the past three years and I immediately saw how his work would save us hundreds of hours of time and help us make better decisions faster. I assume others saw that as well. He touched a nerve in all of us and I am excited for the future of Khan Academy. Then, this made me think about how we can empower our students to change education in a similar way.

What if there is a way where students can present to us a solution to a current challenge in education that can potentially touch a common nerve in us all and cause us to rise to our feet in approval and call us to action? What if there is a student who speaks about their insights into online bullying and how they plan to overcome it? What if that speech touches a nerve and gets 1M “likes”, the online version of a standing ovation? Imagine how that can impact the decisions made by educators and students across this country?

It hit me last night that TED empowers us all to listen to the best thinking out there and make our own decisions about what ideas are worth supporting. That is a forum we should provide for our students so they have a voice in education reform. Maybe we should curate the best students around the world who can articulate a challenge and their solution or thoughts around that challenge in an online forum. I can only imagine the topics students will talk about and how that will give us insight into the decisions we make a educators, school leaders, parents, policy makers and anyone who works with youth. Maybe they will give us insight in to their social dynamics, how race plays a role in their learning, how relationships affect their attention into the classroom, how not having enough food to eat affects their learning…it could go on and on and I can’t wait to see who gets the online version of the standing ovation. As a school leader I will definitely pay attention to the online reactions and will be ready to take action.

“It’s not sexy but it has teeth”

As we work to converge to “an idea worth spreading” we are still determining the unit of change that will have a long-lasting impact in improving education.   Many of us in the group believe that education needs to be improved but we question at what level should we attack this problem.  Should we address it at a student, teacher, principal, district or systemic level?  We know we need to empower somebody or something in this process to make a change but who should be our target?  Once we figure out our entry point then we need to match the resources we have at TED to make this change stick so when we reunite one year from now we can see incremental change from how students are learning today to an ideal we have yet to define.

As a social entrepreneur I have been given a blank slate to create both after school programs (L.A. and Boston) and a high school (Chicago) from scratch but something at a systematic level has made me create programs that look more like the status quo than towards an ideal model.  We acknowledge in our group there are many great pockets of successful schools that empower students to have an impact in their own education.  But if there are pockets of success at empowering students in various places then why has it been so hard to replicate at scale?  This is definitely something worth looking into more deeply.  I think Sir Ken Robinson did a great job of this in his highly viewed TED talk and perhaps we could investigate this further in the future.  For example, for my high school to be defined as successful we need our students to do well on the ACT and get high percentages of our students to very selective colleges.  To make this happen our students need to learn certain skill sets through a predetermined set of classes that colleges across the country observes as “core classes”.  The definition of success imposed on us by standardized test scores and college admission requirements make any kind of change at a systematic level too challenging to solve at 10pm meetings, after 2-3 hours of socializing, and 10 hours of mind-blowing conversations– so we moved onto an easier target.  Thinking of a solution within this system makes me feel like we are Tom Cruise in the movie “The Firm” and we see that it is too hard to challenge the system so we need to look for ways out without changing systemic issues.

We spent most of our time in two camps who believe that our group (and the newly introduced TED-ED) can influence change through the empowerment at either the teacher or student level.   At the teacher level, we can empower teachers to move from a more traditional direct instruction model of teaching to a more student centered, non directive or group investigation approach.  This is a subtle shift that can be made within the system.  To do this we discussed how we can gather TED and TED-like content that would serve as our hook or source of inspiration for our students to actively engage in the learning process.  We would also supplement each video with instructional materials and general directions to guide instructors through the non-directive approach of instruction based off of inspiring content.  It makes sense to me that we are offering this as a solution because there is no doubt that we are thinking at high levels in discussions with other TED participants after each session.  I think the hard work comes in developing the skills and thought processes of synthesis and evaluation that now comes naturally to us now into 14 – 18 year young adults or even younger students.

Starting the empowerment process at the teacher level, through empowering teachers to shift their instruction to a more non-directive approach, could go a long way to sustainably empowering students to impact education without challenging the current systematic constraints.   If teachers make this subtle shift then students will have more of a say in what they learn, how fast they learn and how they can express their newly acquired knowledge or thought processes in formats that are most meaningful to them. This isn’t a revolutionary concept but it has the simplicity of many great reforms or revolutions.

This is where we are at and I know that our group may be frustrated by either the lack of ambition or scale but as Tom Cruise states at the end of The Firm, as he needed to find a way out of a system without changing it, “it’s not sexy but it has teeth.”

Looking forward to our continued work today.