TED Talks on Education

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In back-to-back sessions recently I listened to the TED Talks on Education one night, and the next evening listened to the newly-appointed President of Yale University explain the purpose of his school. What they had to say about workforce development was interesting.

The TED talks focused on what we need to do to make schools more effective. Ramsey Musallam, a chemistry teacher and blended learning specialist, sees himself not as a provider of knowledge but as a cultivator of curiosity. Curiosity, suggests Ramsey, is the most important skill for the future workforce, because it's curiosity that provokes us to learn new things. Following Ramsey in this evening of 15-minute talks, psychologist Angela Duckworth reported on her research that found grit to be the trait that separates successful people from the rest. For her, grit is explained as a combination of passion and perseverance over time.

Do we teach curiosity and grit in our schools? I went looking in the Commom Core State Standards, and could not find them. Are these two listed in your curriculum's objectives?

The next speaker, Bill Gates, former chief executive of a well-known American technology company, suggested that the way to make schools better is to give teachers more help: evaluate them more frequently, and follow the example of the schools in Shanghai, where teachers meet regularly among themselves in small groups to observe each other. He encouraged teachers to video themselves at work, then watch and analyze these videos with their colleagues, in order to improve their teaching.

Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone has vastly improved the life and learning of young people in a difficult area in New York City, told us to try new ways of teaching and learning, warning us that if we teach the same way we did 50 years ago, we will not make progress. Founder of the San Francisco Institute for Applied Media Pearl Arredondo reminded us that in the best schools, principals are free to hire the teachers they need, and to choose the best ways to teach students.

Is your school teaching in the same ways it did 50 years ago? Is your principal free to hire (and fire) teachers to fit the needs of students?

Finally, Sir Ken Robinson, the most-watched TED Talks speaker, pointed out that many successful programs are often called Alternative Schools, and asked, "alternative to what? To the regular schools, which are often failures." This seemed backward to him. He pointed out that humans are naturally diverse, but that many regular schools narrow diversity. And that humans are naturally curious, and will learn without assistance, but that schools often stifle this natural drive. And that humans are naturally creative, but that the standardization we practice in school denies this drive.

Robinson left us with an image of hope: that recently, after hundreds of years with no rain, Death Valley received a surprise shower. Like a miracle, the desert bloomed. We can hope for the same for our schools.

Next day, Peter Salovey, the newly appointed president of Yale University, one of our oldest and and most traditional schools, came to Boston to explain his plans for the future of this venerable institution. First he wants to unify the various academic departments, which have become over the years detached from each other, pursuing their own narrow goals rather than searching for the universal ideas that explain how the world works. He also wants to innovate in the way the faculty teaches and conducts its research, reminding us that the four walls of the classroom or the laboratory need not confine when, how, and with whom we educate. This includes the entire world -- Yale's new campus in Singapore is an example of this.

Salovey also mentioned that he looked for inspiration for the future through a blast from the past: a curriculum plan developed by the Yale faculty almost 200 years ago. Knows as the Yale Report of 1828, it proposed that the purpose of undergraduate education was to develop "the discipline and the furniture of the mind." Not to train workers for the economy, not to produce competent professionals, not to impart narrow vocational skills, but to mold minds with the skills to think and the content to think about.

What does this all mean for workforce development?

Notice the words that appear commonly in the talks from this diverse list of speakers: curiosity and innovation each appear three times. We hear these same words mentioned by employers, looking for a workforce that uses its curiosity to come up with new ways of solving problems, as mentioned in previous posts. Notice also the stress on global diversity -- a recognition that few of our students will work in a narrow national economy.

But as Angela Duckworth reminds us, curiosity without persistence takes us nowhere, and diversity without a unifying passion produces little of worth. Without grit, the new-age worker accomplishes little.

And that's where the teacher comes in. Who better to develop the grit that our future workers need. While computers and networks and digital devices can pique our curiosity and connect us to the resources of the entire world, they can't develop grit. But teachers can. As Bill Gates suggested, the teacher's role is key in the entire process of workforce development.

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