TEDTalks Education – A 21st Century Perspective

Last Tuesday, PBS aired a special TEDTalks EDUCATION focused on the theme of teaching and learning.  The speakers included both educators and those working at the edge of innovative thought in the education community.   You can watch the entire broadcast via the web link above.

Inspiring Educators

Inspiration was high as Professional Educator Dr. Rita F. Pierson described how she develops deeply cares for and challenges her students to reach beyond their expectations and others’ labels.  Ramsey Musallam, a chemistry teacher from  San Francisco said that sparking children’s innate curiosity and willingness to ask ‘why’ is the key to engaging and investing students in their own learning.  He argued that focusing on student inquiry can provide teachers with the tools they need to get to the information needed to tailor robust and informed methods of blended instruction that transcend simple learning objectives.  Pearl Arredondo, a home-grown educator and Founder of the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media described her life growing up in an inner-city environment, how she was able to overcome perceptions and circumstances to become a teacher and her vision for creating a safe and supportive school for students at risk.

Teacher Performance

Bill Gates argued that US classroom teachers don’t have the support systems they need to develop as professionals and improve their craft.  Most teachers, he said, don’t receive any feedback or at most are given a ‘satisfactory’ rating on a checklist review annually.  He highlighted the system of educator support found in Shanghai China which includes weekly study groups for teachers (similar to Professional Learning Communities) and peer feedback/observation systems that are managed by classroom educators.  Gates argued that with these types of supports teachers could make informed decisions both about their classroom practices and their students’ performance.  “If today’s average teacher could become as ‘effective’ as the most effective teachers, our students would be lowing away the rest of the world,” he noted.

The Gates foundation supports the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project which engaged 3,000 teachers in 300 schools across six urban school districts to determine the primary characteristics of the most effective teachers.  The project used videos and student surveys evaluated by educators and education experts to determine which characteristics had the most impact on student performance.  Gates said that the teachers who participated in the project found the videos and surveys are valuable diagnostic tools to improving student outcomes.  He also suggested that if teachers have the authority to select the lessons they want to get feedback on ‘a lot of them’ will participate.  Gates acknowledged that the national investment in such an assessment system will be ‘considerable’ ($5 billion) but also noted that the costs associated with doing nothing is greater and the investment represents a very small percentage of the annual spending on education.

Gates argued that not only would the evaluation system have a significant impact on teaching practices, it would elevate student performance and outcomes, and make the US education system “a more fair and just one as well.”

Children At-Risk

Geoffrey Canada, Founder and President of the Harlem Children’s Zone, focused on the need for new thinking in the world of K-12 education to ensure that children are not lost in the system and to society.  “Those of us in education have held onto a business plan that … simply does not make any sense ….”  He asserts that nothing has changed in the schools that are struggling and have been failing students for over 50 years.  “If you get ‘it’, fine, and if you don’t, well tough luck. … Why haven’t we allowed innovation to happen?” He noted that research evidence shows what impoverished children need to be more successful in school and in life, but that the system does not support development of programs and policies that support the findings, such as extended year and extended day programs

Big Picture Ideas

Sir Ken Robinson, noted education scholar and speaker, wrapped up the program with his assessment of where the US Education system is currently, and where we need to head as a nation.  He noted that despite a dominant culture of conformity in education there is wonderful work happening in US schools.  He noted that in observing Los Angeles’ Alternative Education schools, which represent some of the best and innovative programs for students, several characteristics emerged.  The schools:

  • Are designed to get kids back into education
  • Are very personalized
  • Demonstrate strong support for teachers
  • Are closely linked to their communities
  • Provide a broad and diverse curriculum
  • Often incorporate programs off-campus (outside of school) as well as in

Imagine, he said, if all schools were focused on these objectives.

Robinson also hearkened to his guiding belief that igniting curiosity and supporting students’ innate desire to learn are the keys to a 21st new learning ecology focused on creating opportunities to build upon strengths, interests and passions.  He referred to a phenomenon that occurred in Death Valley several years ago where flooding resulted in the area being covered with wildflowers.  “the seeds of possibility are right below the surface,” Robinson asserted.  “”{If we] give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, offer people the discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, then schools that were once bereft of hope spring to life.”


Kathryn founded and serves as the Executive Director of the American Education Forum and provides programming, guidance and support to Professional Educators around the country through the Forum’s sister organization The American Council of STEM Educators. In her spare time, Kathryn also produces and teaches interdisciplinary courses focused on Environmental Stewardship/Earth Awareness and Engaged Citizenship with elementary and middle school – aged students.