TED Talks, Lecture Mode & Adult Learning

Posted on February 17, 2013


TED: Ideas worth spreadingPeople love TED talks. Go ahead this week and mention “TED talks” and I guarantee someone will say “I love those!” Why? Good question – the content changes, so it can’t just be the content. Are all the speakers dynamic? I wouldn’t say so. Aside from the obligatory standing ovation at the end, there isn’t any audience participation. TED Talks don’t need active learning techniques or peer learning activities to be effective.  While “lecture mode” is more and more derided in learning circles, let’s see how it be improved by looking at TED talks.  A few observations about this popular format:

  • Topic: The topics typically have direct relevance to our world. The talks aren’t about 20th century literature.
  • Time. The talks don’t go over 18 minutes. TED curator Chris Anderson says about the limit,  “It’s long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.” Well that idea certainly has implications for lecturers  – how long do you go before there is a natural break in your content?
  • Rehearsed. TED talks are clearly rehearsed. I haven’t seen one where the speaker seems to be winging it. This is also true in k12, where the instructor should be prepared for the class period.
  • The big idea. The speakers commonly come back to the big idea. They don’t drift on. There is a point to every part of the lecture and how it connects to the main topic. During the lectures, there is an emphasis on why the topic is important – or in other words, why the audience “needs to know” it.
  • Narrative. For many TED Talks,  there is a narrative aspect or at least the talk is filled with stories that support the main theme. These stories show real life aspects of the topic. This allows the adult audience member to see the connection to everyday life.

So lectures and presentations don’t need to be done away with, but can be improved. All talking head presentations are not the same.Malcolm Knowles wrote a book in 1973  called “The Adult Learner: The Neglected Species”  A major point in the book is that instruction shouldn’t be the same for youth as when dealing with “mature people who are problem-centered in their orientation to learning.”  Adults learners bring experience and knowledge to their audience perspective. Effective learning doesn’t happen when content lives in a void. The TED speakers make it clear that the topic matters and has relevance.

Posted in: Instruction