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Using Ted Talks in the Classroom

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

(This article was originally published in Age of Awareness).

A few months ago I posed a question on Twitter asking for suggestions for my college English classes. I wanted to gather a list of favorite TED Talks that I could share with my students and build lessons around. One positive side effect of gathering this list was that I learned about many talks that I hadn’t watched before.

If you aren’t familiar with TED, start by going to the TED website to learn more. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and the videos (rarely over 22 minutes) are worth taking your time to browse through.

In a very unofficial, informal survey based on the numerous comments I received on my tweet, here are the top five suggested TED talks to use in the classroom (or just enjoy on your own), followed by a few ideas for how to use these videos with students.

Note that these are not necessarily my favorite videos, but they did come up again and again when I asked others.

My classroom suggestions focus on college-level English courses, but these ideas can be adapted for different disciplines and grade levels.

1. Introduce an essential idea

Teachers understand that ideas build. There is a certain scaffolding to the lessons presented throughout the semester. In order to understand Z, we need to first grasp X and Y. At the beginning of the semester or at the start of a particular unit, a compelling TED talk can set the stage, so to speak, for the ideas that will be discussed in the coming weeks and months. For example, Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” lays the groundwork in a literature class for discussions about the literary canon, among other topics. In a creative writing class, Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk about creativity (“Your Elusive Creative Genius”) helps us talk about the idea of inspiration and the work involved in any creative endeavor.

2. Application of ideas

If you are lucky to find a TED talk that specifically addresses a concept taught in your class, the video can often be more engaging than a lecture. No offense, of course. Video also offers another option for the varied types of learners in your classroom. For example, when I teach research, this Ted-Ed video on spotting misleading graphs (suggested to me by a coworker) goes further than my Power Point presentation and is much more entertaining. After the video, we can practice looking at actual graphs with a more critical eye.

3. How to use source material

Summarizing, quoting, and paraphrasing are skills that often need to be reinforced with practice (not just in an English class). Summary, for example, seems deceptively simple because students know how to summarize verbally. Writing a summary (and giving credit, while not giving away every example and main point) can actually be a challenge. Some students try to include everything in their summaries while others don’t go deep enough.

Try this: ask students to watch a TED talk (together, in class) and write a summary. Using a TED talk, especially a short one like “Try Something New for 30 Days” by Matt Cutts works well because they can watch it twice (just like I ask them to read a text more than cone to fully and actively engage with it). We practice writing a summary, adding more detail, and giving credit throughout.

4. Give students a choice and let them pick topics

The TED talks that I find most interesting are often not the same ones my students enjoy. Each semester, I challenge students to find TED talks that they find engaging or entertaining and share them with the class. We can share in a discussion board or during short presentations. Group work and short writing responses also work here. Students like to choose what they are writing about, but choosing topics and knowing how to write or talk about that topic doesn’t always come easily. Practice with choice and preliminary research, especially on low-stakes assignments, is worthwhile.

5. Prompt discussion

If you ever want students to talk more in class, show them a compelling TED Talk and ask questions about the ideas presented in the video. Education, for instance, is a topic they may not know what to say about until they hear someone else’s thesis. For example, after Rita Pierson’s “Every Kid Needs a Champion” video, they have much more to say about their own experience.

My students joke about how often I show TED talks, but it works to keep them engaged for a short period of time before jumping into deeper challenges. I can’t imagine teaching without TED. There’s something for everyone.


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