Archive for the ‘TED Talks’ Category

Making space for creativity in the classroom sounds like common sense. Few educators today would dispute the wisdom of challenging students to think critically and to solve problems in creative ways. When it is elevated to the primary goal of elementary schools, displacing the acquisition of foundational knowledge and skills, it’s time to ask deeper and more fundamental questions.


Teacher Aaron Warner, initiator of the Google-inspired “Genius Hour” at Regina’s Douglas Park Elementary School, is definitely a true believer in teaching creativity.  Justifying his two hour-a-week program in a new book, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer’s Pushing the Limits (2017), Warner provides this declaratory statement: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.”  That “insight”, we are told, echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s contention in “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” the most watched TED Talk of all time.  It is Robinson, of course, who uttered what became that simple, unassailable, unverifiable educational truth that “creativity” is central in developing education that will “take us to a future we can’t grasp.”

What’s the problem with repeating Robinson’s claim and citing a statistic to support that hypothesis? It’s a classic example of transforming education or “building the future schoolhouse,” on what Hack Education commentator Audrey Watters has termed “theory of mythical proportions”  instead of evidence-based policy-making. Citing the statistic that  “60% (or 65%) of future jobs have not been invented yet,” is doubly problematic because no one can authenticate the research behind that oft-repeated statistic.

Two enterprising British teacher-researchers, Daisy Christodoulou and Andrew Old, recently tracked the origin  of that statistic and found it essentially without substance. On the BCC World News Service program, More or Less, aired May 29, 2017, they identified how that statistic originated and got parroted around the globe.  Most fascinating of all, one of the researchers who popularized the claim, Dr. Cathy Davidson, of The Graduate Center CUNY, has now reached similar conclusions and ceased repeating the “65% statistic.”

“I haven’t used that figure since about 2012,” Davidson said, in response to the BBC News investigation.  Her explanation of how the statistic disappeared is revealing about the sorry state of educational policy discourse, not only in Canada but across the world.

The disputed statistic was promulgated in Davidson’s 2011 book, Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  The figure, she says, didn’t originate with her.  She first encountered it in futurist Jim Carroll’s book, Ready, Set, Done (2007). and it has been tracked down to an Australian website where the “65%” figure was quoted with some visuals and categories of new jobs that hadn’t existed before. After Now You See It  appeared, that 65% figure kept being quoted so Davidson attempted to contact the authors of the study to be able to learn more about their findings but with no luck.  By then, the site was down and even the Innovation Council of Australia had been closed by a new government.

Since the reputed source of the statistical claim had disappeared, Davidson began issuing a disclaimer and stopped repeating the figure. She also embraced “Big Data” and started to deconstruct what the category of “job” really means. Much to the surprise of the British researchers, Davidson welcomed the probing questions and agreed that educators need to be far more careful about their use of statistical claims, and, most significantly, the wisdom of “using statistics like that at all.”

SevenMythsBookCoverWhy is 65% so problematic?  The BBC researchers, Christodoulou and Old, also did rough calculations by looking at jobs that exist now and jobs that existed in the past and compared job titles.   They found that maybe 1/3 of all jobs today are actually “new,” even by the most generous count.  That’s 33% not 65% and hardly justification for turning the entire school system upside down.

No one has yet challenged one of Daisy Christodoulou’s key points in the BBC News broadcast. When asked whether “21st century skills” would last, she responded that, in her judgement, “the alphabet (language) and numbers (numerology)” would outlive us all. Surely that claim deserves a much wider public discussion.

Davidson has abandoned that unverified statistic and changed her rationale for system-wide change in the direction of “21st century learning.” Her brand new book, The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (2017), carefully avoids recycling the statistic and, instead, claims with “intuition” rather than “data” that “closer to 100 per cent of jobs have changed in some way” in recent decades.

The American promulgator of the “65% statistic” has definitely backtracked on one of her best known claims. The whole episode has real implications for Canadian education policy discourse. Indeed, it raises serious questions about a whole set of related claims made in Pushing the Limits that schools have to be “transformed to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist.”

What is the research base for the popular claim that schools should be transformed to “prepare students for jobs not invented yet”? Should we base system-wide reform on unassailable, unverified claims in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks?  Is the spread of the “65% statistic” another example of “bias confirmation’?  Are promoters of “creativity in schools” expanding the space for creativity or looking to displace foundational skills?  Most significantly, how do we dispel claims made using questionable research data? 






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TED Talks are all the rage in today’s North American education world.  Since British educational visionary Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 star turn in “Schools Kill Creativity,”  the short You Tube video talks have become a staple at most provincial teachers’ conferences and local Professional Development Days.  Millions of people, mostly futuristic educators, university-educated parents, students, and techies, have lapped up the polished mini-lectures professing to extoll “Ideas Worth Sharing.”  The incredible buzz has fueled expansion of the “TED brand” and sparked mini-conferences around the world taking advantage of the organization’s name and populist appeal.

TEDLogoRedTED is the brainchild of a futurist.  It was founded in 1984 by American architect Richard Saul Wurman as a small “think tank” conference for visionaries and ‘egg heads’ from a wide range of fields interested in talking about the impact of technology on reshaping the world.  It’s true roots are in Long Beach, Southern California.

Not until after Chris Anderson assumed control in 2001 did the TED franchise turn into a global intellectual powerhouse.  Today TED Talks on video have attracted over 800 million viewings and the average TED video gets 40,000 views withing its first 24 hours.  The TED Talk series has made Sir Ken Robinson the  reigning “rock star” among North American educators. Now that Vancouver has been chosen the site for the next annual TED Conference, you can expect the hype to spread even more across Canada.

The initial spell cast by the TED Talk phenomenon is beginning to wear off, six years after the real take-off on You Tube. Most recently, The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason (February 7, 2013) produced a fine commentary posing the fundamental question of whether the “Ideas Worth Sharing” might better be described as “a mountain of new-agey, mumbo-jumbo futurism that promises far more than it delivers.”

Prominent social critics and pedantic academic specialists are beginning to feast on the TED Talks, holding them up to much closer scrutiny.  A TED conference costs about $7,500 per person to attend, so the gatherings attract well-healed college educated adults with avante guard pretensions.  As Nathan Heller noted in The New Yorker (July 2012), TED Talks tend to feature style over substance and attract mostly uncritical audiences who are inclined to give standing ovations.

Leading academics, initially disdainful of  over-hyped TED Talk events,  are now beginning to weigh in with withering critiques. Former presenter, Evgeny Mozorov, writing in The New Republic (August 23, 2012), was merciless in his criticism of the genre. “Today TED, ” he stated, ” is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering – a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED… books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books –so it goes ad infinitum..” In the process, he claimed, “any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”

Some of the TED Talks, as Gary Mason recognized, do have impact and value, but the spread of the concept has led to rather amateurish TEDx attempts at replication.  Sir Ken Robinson’s classic talks on Schools Kill Creativity, The Learning Revolution, and Changing Education Paradigms have set the standard, but the TED Talk movement may have passed its prime. Far too many of the more recent TED Talks look like the work of imitators or worse, charlatans. Watching some of those speakers shilling for their utopian schools or flogging their books leaves the distinct impression that you are witnessing the polished presentation of “ideas that no footnotes can support.”

What does the growing mountain of TED Talks amount to –a burst of creative ideas or a pile of New Age mumbo-jumbo?  Aside from Sir Ken’s impressive performances, have any of the Ted Talkers changed your life or the way you look at the world?  Why do assembled crowds of educators, in captive audiences, break into applause at the end, then return to their schools settling back into their comfortable routines?  Are we really being taught to Sit Back and Listen to the Sophists of the 21st century world?  What is the “take away” for today’s educators genuinely committed to education reform?

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