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TED talks – inspiration or stand up?

Authors: Renée David Aeschlimann Published:

Chances are, if you haven’t heard them, you will have heard of them. TED talks are lectures featuring high profile speakers, broadcast on the internet for free. The topics of the talks range from science to culture and societal issues. The talks are part of a special, privately-owned brand of event, the TED Conference, which

Chances are, if you haven’t heard them, you will have heard of them. TED talks are lectures featuring high profile speakers, broadcast on the internet for free. The topics of the talks range from science to culture and societal issues. The talks are part of a special, privately-owned brand of event, the TED Conference, which started life in the 1980’s focusing on technology, entertainment and design (hence the abbreviation TED).

A common feature of most of the talks is hooking the listener through powerful story-telling. This flair for entertainment has also been criticized as relegating the scientist to a stand up comedian of sorts, watering down whatever substance the talk might otherwise have.

Some of the talks available on the TED website focus on education, and also touch upon the theme of youth unemployment. LLinE picked three of them and asked two education experts to review the talks of their choice.

Renée Aeschlimann is a French journalist specialising on themes of education. Stephen P. Heyneman is Professor of International Education Policy at Vanderbilt University, USA.

Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies

Richard Wilkinson argues societies that are more equal are healthier and happier.


Charles Leadbeater: Education innovation in the slums

All schools should become as disruptive and informal as those Charles Leadbeater saw in the slums of Brazil.

Ken Robinson: Bring on the revolution

Sir Ken Robinson champions a rethink of our school systems, from standardised to individualised education.

You Say You Want a Revolution:
Responses to Three TED Talks on Education

Stephen P. Heyneman

The Ted Talks of Charles Leadbeater, Education Innovation in the Slums, Sir Ken Robinson, Bring on the Learning Revolution, and Richard Wilkinson How Economic Inequality Harms Societies, share a common element – they all want a revolution.

Leadbeater focuses on slums in Brazil, Kenya and India and the inability of formal schooling to respond adequately to children’s needs from those slums. Robinson’s lecture covers issues of technology with the focus on the assertion that today’s youth need to be attracted to knowledge, and not have knowledge pushed at them. Wilkinson’s presentation concentrates on the inequalities in income and wealth suggesting that societies with more equality are blessed with greater standards of health, welfare and education.

All three ring true. The audiences are uniformly impressed with the punch lines, the compelling graphics, the jokes and asides. These TED Talks are effective. So what is the problem?

The problem is that they are not lectures, but sermons. They are, for instance, uniformly uninformed as to history. In the case of Wilkinson, no mention is made of the economic equality of the former Soviet Union and the mindless suppression of individual initiative. In the case of Robinson, no mention is made of the fact that technological changes have happened before. Much is made of the fact that teenagers do not wear wristwatches because there are so many other available digital devices to tell time.  Yet how many older adults use pocket watches?  Technical change did not start yesterday. But the case of Leadbeater is even more egregious. He points to the Kenyan public school children as still being forced “to memorize the kings of England” thus getting a loud laugh from the audience at how stupid the formal school system is, while completely ignoring the half century of Kenyan curriculum development. It sounds funny to those who don’t know Kenyan education; to those who know Kenyan education it sounds insulting.

But there is worse. Just as Wilkinson ignores work done on the dangers of over regulation and the recent policy shifts for instance in Sweden, the other presenters appear to ignore anyone who has had a similar message. No mention is made of A.S. Neal.  Nor is Maria Montessori, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol, Robert Coles, Pestalozzi and Vygotsky anywhere to be found. And this is too bad. It is not as though a TED talk should be dry, but there is no reason why a TED talk should lack balance, and these particular presentations are to education as the Holy Rollers are to theology.

So what is the right approach? The fact is that all three talks have a point worthy of attention. It is true that extreme inequality has counter-productive consequences, and these need to be corrected. It is true that slum children require considerably more education system innovation to meet their particular needs, and these innovations are of immediate importance. And it is true that “pulling” students to knowledge can be more effective than “pushing” knowledge at them, and new efforts should be made to make learning intriguing.

But it is also true that forced equality can have counter-productive consequences. It is also true that slum children need effective school systems, not just innovative systems. And it is also true, that school children have to want to learn before education innovations can take hold. If children come to school, any school, without understanding their obligations and responsibilities, then no matter how innovative, new pedagogy doesn’t work. The fact is that children too, have a role to play in helping make schooling effective.

And what about these TED talks? They are very entertaining. Audiences laugh and clap and everyone agrees on how important the point is and how stupid everyone else has been to not recognize the point up until now. Should we be satisfied with this? I think not. The problems of youth unemployment are serious, and the educational needs of slum children are paramount, but that is no reason to treat their problems by using “straw man” arguments. There is no reason to ignore the evidence of counter-productive tendencies on all sides. And there is no need to treat complex problems as if they had simple solutions not yet noticed by those who “control” the status quo. We deserve better.

Dinosaurs still tread freely on the French youth employment market

Renée Aeschlimann

Yes indeed. It would be “educational paradise” on earth if, as Sir Ken Robinson, advocates on TED website, each and every child and youth would be able to develop his or her own talents and get eventually a job perfectly suited to them.

Yes indeed. No reform, however thorough, of European educational systems could achieve this. To be clear, what the former professor of education of the University of Warwick (UK) calls for, is clearly a revolution bringing individuals’ talents to the forefront, not the adequacy between qualifications and the needs of the work market now so much praised. A Copernican revolution, so to say.

As a matter of fact, the issue of education and professional training becomes especially relevant in a context of mass unemployment among our youth (16-25 years old on the work market, students excepted): 5,76 millions in Europe, that is to say 23.4 % of the active population within this age group (Eurostat – october 2012). Each year, 100.000 16-year-olds drop out of the education system without any degree or qualification!

France’s rate of youth unemployment stands above the average European figure with 25.5 %  against Germany with a mere 8.1 %. The situation is even worse in Spain (55.9 %) or Greece (57 %). Another relevant figure: 50 % of the working youth in France holds a temporary employment contract (fixed term, sometimes very short term) and once again much more in southern Europe.

So, the question could be put this way: does Germany have such good figures on account of its educational system matching individual talents and available jobs or is it because its very efficient apprenticeship system of education is closely linked, through the unions, with companies and public policies that can anticipate each business sector’s needs in skills for the future, at least, the near future.

This discrepancy between youth employment rates between European countries is also due to the fact that in Germany and many more northern European countries access to university is restricted to the most intellectually talented whereas France gives a “universal access” to universities once you obtain the secondary school certificate. This free access leads to a heavy proportion of drop outs (25 %) after the first year of studies. It is only recently that the better universities started to select the best students without hiding the means (pedagogical files, interviews, letters of recommendations) they use.

Certainly, as Sir Ken Robinson mocks in the video lecture, it is frankly outrageous to treat three-year-old kindergarten children as candidates for a City trader job with presentation of a resume, plus a long interview testing the child’s know how, hard and soft skills! It is indeed a reality in Britain among the upper middle class parents who wish their child to enter a highly ranked private primary school!

It is equally outrageous and so to say, criminal, that in France lower class pupils have to rely on the services of the state-employed “orientation counselors” who are too few in number and may, while being professional pyschologists, have insufficient knowledge of the requirements of working life. This lands us with a systematic orientation towards ill repute manual jobs in need of labourers. And for the most talented…ill repute universities !

Last February 8th, state-employed professionals called “orientation counselors” marched through the streets of Paris to protest against their planned transfer from state to regional management on the ground that “our youth talents should not be oriented according to regional companies’ needs”.

This transfer project is actually a part of a more wide-ranging reform linking professional training for the youth and unemployed, apprenticeship and orientation (guidance) under the same regional management whereas they are, for the time being, scattered among Chambers of commerce led by employers organizations, State Education ministry and Regions which finance the infrastructures of apprenticeship centers. Some envisage this future change, planned through an education reform bill in 2014, as a rational move of mutualization of very often overlapping functions. Others see it as another means of cutting expenses of educational public services to the youth.

For the time being, in France, orientation remains a very heterogeneous concept and service according to the identities of the institutions offering their services.
As a matter of fact, the state “orientation counselors” are in a drastically insufficient number (3000 for 2 million students of 4th and 7th grade of secondary schools in need of orientation) and their techniques are not suited to the present needs. This profession being reluctant for ideological reasons to come to terms with companies’ needs have become a sort of fossil pertaining to the olden times when lower and upper secondary school were reserved to the elite. So today, middle and upper middle classes parents resort to private services linking psychological aspects, skills and work market needs. These services cost from 300 to 500 € per session (from one hour to a hour and a half)…

The 1975 “democratization” of secondary school in France ended up being a farce.  Let me explain. Primary schools are usually of good quality with a mix of children from different societal classes. In between comprehensive and lycée level, we have lower secondary schools which were created in ’75 to push a whole generation to the same level of education. Unfortunately seconday education did not pedagogically adapt itself to the influx of students with less “educational capital”.  As a result comprehensive lower seconday schools became low-level and violence stricken. Upper class parents started sending their children to private schools instead. France has always had difficulty conceptualizing equality along with management of differences, especially in education. Also many universities are nowadays deemed low level due to this famous democratization fiasco. The search for good universities and highly rated professional schools is now the job of these costly private orientation services.

So, back to Sir Ken’s call for revolution. A customized education which is to a certain extent prevalent in the Finnish school model could never be achieved in France first of all for ideological reasons (equal citizens should be treated equally even if some of them are different from the dominant white middle-class model) ignoring the practical and pedagogical aspects of increasing everyone’s level of education. It is now too late to complement this purely ideological egalitarian attitude with a more customized and therefore costly educational model. In fact, France is trapped by drastic budgetary constraints.

French dinosaurs still tread on youth employment but are now under direct threat of globalization meteorites! Unless a revolution happens. After all, the French are gifted for revolutions!

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Renée David Aeschlimann Renée David Aeschlimann is a French journalist specialsed in themes of education. Contact: Show all articles by Renée David Aeschlimann
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