The talks that kickstarted the education conversation

24th June 2016 at 00:00
We look back at the five TED lectures that have had the greatest influence on teaching

Next week is an internet anniversary: it marks 10 years since the first six TED talks were posted online, on 27 June 2006.

In the decade since, more than 2,200 presentations have been made freely available on, offering accessible lectures of less than 20 minutes from many of the world’s leading academics, scientists, explorers and artists. There are also around 180,000 TED-Ed lessons: bite-size teacher-led videos tackling many subject areas.

For some in education, TED talks have been an invaluable resource. At Great Torrington School in Devon, they feature frequently. While a maths lesson might see pupils racing maths magician Arthur Benjamin during a performance of “mathemagic”, tutor time often begins with watching lectures on topics, from the power of introverts to creativity.

In addition, many students learn speaking techniques from virtual presentations such as Julian Treasure’s “How to speak so that people want to listen” and 13-year-old Logan LaPlante’s “Hack schooling makes me happy”.

“Some of them really engage the kids,” says assistant headteacher Gillian Clayton. “It’s better than us standing at the front talking. They can see real people involved in things. The talks can really spark off discussion.”

Not everyone in education is as keen. TED talks have been criticised for dumbing down topics or for purporting to be the definitive word on a topic rather than part of a broader conversation.

The organisation has responded to these criticisms and more (, but those teachers who do use the talks extensively are also keen to defend it. They argue that if used properly as a resource – in the same way a teacher would use any other resource – there is a lot of useful content for both teachers and students alike that can challenge and inspire.

Indeed, over the past decade, many speakers have used the TED platform to share insights and controversial ideas about the process of teaching and learning.

So for those new to TED talks, and those curious to know more, below are the five most popular education-related TED talks to get you started.

1 ‘Do schools kill creativity?’

by Sir Ken Robinson

Views 39 million


Speaker biography An academic at the University of Warwick, author, speaker and an international adviser on creativity in education.

Content Starting off from the premise that creativity is as important as literacy, Robinson’s disarmingly humorous presentation proposes a radical reimagining of Western education. The schools system, he says, has its roots in 19th-century industrialism and therefore privileges academic ability and subjects that would traditionally have made students employable over more diverse talents. He argues that teachers should focus on nurturing children’s readiness to try things out and make mistakes, attributes likely to stand them in much better stead in the far less predictable 21st century.

Context Robinson first delivered his talk in February 2006; it was one of the very first to be posted online. It was in part a reaction against the increased focus on testing and assessment creeping into many education systems around the world.

Feedback This is the most-watched TED talk of all time and has been a catalyst for change in some quarters. At Great Torrington School, for example, it helped to inspire staff to overhaul the Year 7 curriculum, creating the GTS Learner’s Baccalaureate, which aims to foster creativity through five challenges, culminating in each pupil delivering their own TED-style talk.

However, some have criticised the talk for lacking practical applications. Writing in 2013, TES news editor William Stewart observed that “Teachers initially dazzled by [Robinson’s] lectures have later given thoughtful responses that question whether the witticisms and seeming insights amount to anything of substance that they could use in the classroom.”

Robinson has since given several other talks and published a number of books developing his arguments, including Out of Our Minds and Creative Schools.

2 ‘Every kid needs a champion’

by Dr Rita Pierson

Views 5.6 million


Speaker biography A US schoolteacher and professional development seminar leader.

Content Pierson’s funny and heartfelt talk brings in anecdotes from her 40-year career to illustrate her contention that education must be about human connection. Taking James Comer’s claim that “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship” as her starting point, she argues that teachers must build a rapport with their students, whatever they may feel about them privately. Tools that can help to achieve this include seeking first to understand rather than be understood and being prepared to apologise for mistakes.

She also advocates fostering pride among students, celebrating achievements – no matter how modest – and championing students whom others might be tempted to write off.

Context Pierson’s talk opened TED Talks Education, a one-hour TV show aired on PBS in 2013. The presentation was in part inspired by an exchange Pierson once had with a colleague, who claimed that she didn’t need students to like her. Pierson, who delivered this talk a few weeks before she died, replied: “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

Feedback The comments below the talk on include many enthusiastic responses from teachers.

Despite disliking the title of the talk, Matthew Price, the head of creative arts at St Olave’s Grammar School in Orpington, finds much to admire in the presentation: “Pierson speaks from the heart, from real and relatable experiences. Relationships are at the core of education: how can you expect to put across a persuasive viewpoint or to deliver on a valuable learning objective if the students you’re teaching don’t trust you?

“This talk has reinforced how much, as a teacher, what I say and how I act impacts upon my students.”

3 ‘The power of believing that you can improve’

by Carol Dweck

Views 4.2 million


Speaker biography A professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of the popular education book Mindset.

Content You would find it difficult to find a teacher who doesn’t know what Dweck’s growth mindset theory is all about. Her talk, though, gives an insight into how the theory was developed and offers a chance to hear from her about how teachers can implement it.

Context Dweck’s talk was recorded at a TEDx conference (an independent event licensed by TED) in 2014. It challenges the tendency to pigeonhole students according to ability.

Feedback Dweck’s work is taught on a number of teacher-training and professional development courses. However, it is not without its critics, with concerns raised (including in TES last year, 26 June) about the application of the idea in the school environment.

For Ross Bosworth-Davies, a pastoral team leader and history teacher at the Hayesbrook School, Tonbridge, the problems arise mainly when education professionals fail to recognise the theory’s limitations: “Fundamentally it is a good idea. I certainly aim to develop this in the pupils I teach. I have even delivered assemblies on it. However, [Dweck’s] work has also been badly misinterpreted by some teachers (and school leaders in particular), who seem to think that adopting her ideas will cause all pupils to be successful, regardless of other factors which impact on student achievement, such as aptitude or socio-economic background.”

This has even led some teachers “to blame students who are not successful on their failure to adopt the growth mindset, even if they have worked very hard at something that they never had much interest in to begin with”, he adds.

4 ‘Let’s use video to reinvent education’

by Salman Khan

Views 4.1 million


Speaker biography A former hedge-fund analyst and founder of the Khan Academy (, aiming to provide free, universally accessible education online.

Content Khan expounds on his theory that technology can help to humanise the classroom. Replacing one-size-fits-all lectures with video tutorials and computer exercises that students can tackle at their own pace can, he says, frees teachers up to give one-to-one attention where it is most needed and ensures that each student is able to grasp concepts thoroughly before moving on to the next level.

In addition, the data analysis this enables provides greater insight into each child’s progress. In time, he hopes the model could help to foster peer-to-peer tutoring and build a “global classroom”, where students around the planet learn from one another.

Feedback To date, users of the Khan Academy have completed more than 3.8 billion exercises on the website. Support has been widespread but there have been criticism of Khan’s lack of background in education.

For Tom Koe, a biology teacher at Rugby High School for Girls, who often uses TEDtalks in his lessons, Khan’s idea has merit, but only in certain contexts. “As a busy teacher, it is always a boon to find that someone has produced resources that can be picked up and used immediately,” he says.

“As a university-type model, analogous to the tutorials still used by Oxbridge, it may have a part to play in freshening up a course as an alternative, but it relies on the idea that the students have the capacity and motivation to self-teach, which is not always the case.”

5 ‘The child-driven education’

by Dr Sugata Mitra

Views 2.3 million


Speaker biography Professor of educational technology at Newcastle University

Content Mitra describes his 12 years of research that began with his “Hole in the Wall” study in a Delhi slum, where he embedded a computer with high-speed internet into a wall and filmed as children, who did not speak English and had never seen a computer before, quickly and ably taught themselves and their peers to use it. This led on to a series of tests around the globe to try to demonstrate that children have the capacity to teach themselves what they want to learn, even across language barriers.

From this evidence, Mitra argues that education should be a process of encouraging interest and facilitating discovery, rather than instruction. Ultimately, he proposes that, given the right resources, education can be a self-organising system and that children may not need teachers at all.

Context Mitra’s research originally grew from a desire to tackle patchy education provision across the globe.

Feedback In 2013, Mitra won the TED Prize: $1 million (£700,000) to invest in his vision of building a virtual “school in the cloud”. He has some support among teachers but he has also come under heavy criticism. Some have questioned the viability of his ideas practically and financially, and have raised concerns about how effective the learning would be in Mitra’s proposed education system.

Ann Morgan is a writer, editor and the author of two books: Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer and literary psychological drama Beside Myself. She gave a TED talk titled “My Year Reading a Book from Every Country in the World” in September 2015 @A_B_Morgan

What is TED?

TED is a non-profit organisation that began as a conference in 1984. Its original remit was to be a place where technology, entertainment and design converged (hence, TED).

Today TED calls itself a global community that aims to communicate the knowledge of the world’s leading thinkers, and to inspire engagement and debate through ideas. It does this with its free TED talks, the TED prize and its events, such as TEDx. There are now more than 2,200 TED talks online.

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