What Do We Actually Learn From TED Talk Videos?
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.
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.