What Do We Actually Learn From TED Talk Videos?

June 6, 2013 at 1:34 am 12 comments

I usually really like Annie Murphy Paul’s articles, but this one didn’t work for me.  Below are her reasons why TED talk videos work well in learning, with my comments interspersed.

They gratify our preference for visual learning. Effective presentations treat our visual sense as being integral to learning. This elevation of the image—and the eschewal of text-heavy Power Point presentations—comports well with cognitive scientists’ findings that we understand and remember pictures much better than mere words.

Cognitive scientists like Richard Mayer have found that diagrams and pictures can enhance learning — absolutely.  But his work combined diagrams with words (e.g., best combination with diagrams: audio narration, not visual text).  This quote seems to suggest that pictures are better than words. For most of STEM, that’s not true.  We may have an affinity for visual, but that doesn’t mean that it works better for learning complex material.

They engage the power of social learning. The robust conversation that videos can inspire, both online and off, recognizes a central principle of adult education: We learn best from other people. In the discussions, debates, and occasional arguments about the content of the talks they see, video-watchers are deepening their own knowledge and understanding.

Wait a minute — isn’t she just saying that TED talks give us something to talk about? TED talks are not themselves inherently social.  Isn’t a book discussed in a book club just as effective for “engaging the power of social learning”?  What makes TED talks so “social”?

They enable self-directed, “just-in-time” learning. Because video viewers choose which talks to watch and when to watch them, they’re able to tailor their education to their own needs. Knowledge is easiest to absorb at the moment when we’re ready to apply it.

This was the quote that inspired this blog post.  It’s an open question, but here’s my hypothesis.  Nobody watches a TED talk for “just-in-time” learning.  People watch TED talk for entertainment.  “I am about to go to my school board meeting — I think I’ll watch Sir Ken Robinson to figure out what to say!”  “I need to be able to guess birthdays — isn’t there a TED talk on that?”  There are videos that really work for “just-in-time” learning.  TED talks aren’t like that.

They encourage viewers to build on what they already know. Adults are not blank slates: They bring to learning a lifetime of previously acquired information and experience. Effective video instruction build on top of this knowledge, adding and elaborating without dumbing down.

via What Do We Actually Learn From Videos? | MindShift.

It’s absolutely true that effective instruction builds on top of existing knowledge, which is something that the best teachers know how to do — to figure out what students know and care about, and relate knowledge to that.  How does a fixed video build on what viewers (all hundreds of thousands of them) actually know?  No, I don’t see how TED talks do that.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Franklin  |  June 6, 2013 at 2:18 am

    In my personal experience, I have not absorbed or used anything truly useful by watching a TED talk online, I”m afraid to report. I remember getting even more out of TV. Here’s my hypothesis about why: a TED talk is fast-paced and short and crafted really well to hold attention in a story, and all of this goes completely against the kinds of things that lead me to remember, reflect, and plan to act. Theoretically, in watching a recorded video, I could hit “pause” and take notes and think for myself, but because the production values are so high and the story is so gripping and lacking in boredom, I just want to keep it coming, and the next thing I know, it’s over, and I got some high, but that’s it. The format is a disaster, which is why I quickly learned to stop watching almost all TED talk videos.

    • 2. Theodore A Hoppe  |  June 7, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      What do you mean by “anything truly useful?” This sounds like a you problem and not a TED problem.
      Yes, and the problem is admittedly “I quickly learned to stop watching almost all TED talk videos.”

      Their slogan is “Ideas Worth Spreading,” not “We here to teach you something.” Learning is self directed.

  • 3. Neil Brown  |  June 6, 2013 at 3:01 am

    See also this article mentioning that recent research paper on fluent speakers: http://priceonomics.com/is-this-why-ted-talks-seem-so-convincing/ and a follow-on that specifically mentions Ken Robinson: http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/why-we-should-mistrust-ken-robinson/ (and this post with similar sentiments: http://largerama.creativeblogs.net/2013/05/26/weloveken/ ).

  • 4. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  June 6, 2013 at 7:34 am

    Very well said. I understand that people may say things for rhetorical effect or based on speculation – especially when their livelihood may be impacted by such. However, it seemed to me that when someone sets themselves up as presenting “educational research” based on empirical findings and “science” that there is a bit of a duty to stick with it. For important reasons, everything presented by that person in a public fashion carries with it the implication that it is research based and/or otherwise grounded in scientific fact. If that person does present something not grounded in fact or research, but rather random speculation, there is a danger that many may be misguided and misinformed as a result.

  • 5. Alfred Thompson  |  June 6, 2013 at 9:15 am

    There is a bit of “the emperor’s new clothes” in TED talks sometimes. Really smart people are giving them (hard to dispute usually) so really smart people will get real value from them (that part is what you are disputing). I find them entertaining and even interesting. Great learning? Not so much. Although the talk on how to tie your shoes has made a difference in how I tie mine so that they don’t come loose as often.

  • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 6, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    I have to confess ignorance of TED talks. I’ve not yet managed to sit through one. I find videotaped lectures one of the most off-putting forms of information transfer. I much prefer written text (with diagrams as needed). Video is good for showing complicated motions that might be otherwise hard to convey (instruction in stretching exercises, for example, or how a mechanical watch works), for lectures, though, it seems to be of rather limited utility.

    • 7. Theodore A Hoppe  |  June 7, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      Re: “…it seems to be of rather limited utility.” The qualifier in this sentence is “To you…” it seems to br rather limited, but not to younger students. My guess is you are from my grandfather’s generation.
      Google “flipping the classroom”

      • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm

        Based on the grammar and typos in your comments, I assume that you are fairly young, and so may be young enough for me to be of your grandfather’s generation (my son is only 17, but I have grandnieces and grandnephews who are 9 and 10 years old.

        I have not seen much evidence that the younger generations learn more effectively from videos in either sense of the expression (more effectively than older generations or more effectively than from books). Videos are popular with students because they appear to take less effort than books, and with administrators because they appear to be cheaper than live instructors. I’m not convinced that either is the case when the time or cost to achieve a high level is measured.

        Note: on re-reading the comment you replied to, I regret the comma splice in the last sentence. The antepenultimate comma should have been a semicolon.

  • 9. Mike Lutz  |  June 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Recognizing that this is just an anecdote, I can say that the only TED talk that had any permanence with me was Mike Rowe’s. The rest all seem like fluffernutter sandwiches – lots of calories but low nutrition.

    • 10. Theodore A Hoppe  |  June 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      Daniel Kahneman, Antonio Demasio, E O Wilson, and Sir Ken Robinson are fluffernutter? Hmmmm

      • 11. sweng1948  |  June 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm

        In 20 minutes, even these worthies can’t say very much of value (other than “read the book”).

  • 12. Theodore A Hoppe  |  June 7, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    The sad part of this commentary is that it misses out on the TED experience. There is a faithful TED community that watches the video, but also comments and exchanges perceptives. Then there are the TED conversations which can link to severals of the talks. There are TEDx events and they are also being streamed live or captured on YouTube.

    Theres here have mentioned the that videos or the format are not to they liking but this is a personal, and I will add prejudice, point of view. Video lectures are the future and we might a well get accustom to them. But TEDTalks is not meant to be a lecture. They’re is intended to introduce new ideas and help to spread them virally.

    Learning doesn’t happen, you make it happen and TED is just a tool to promote ideas for learning.


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