TED Conversations

Eric Berlow

Founder, Vibrant Data Labs


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Instead of narrow specialization, how can our educational system better train integrative, innovative, and adaptive problem solvers?

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow Eric Berlow

The world is facing many complex problems that threaten the future of life as we know it, and governments and corporations have been ineffective at implementing real integrative solutions. One problem can cause many, but on the flip side, one creative solution can cause many. The world’s most innovative problem solvers have an uncanny ability to see the entire picture and hone in on simple leverage points with widespread positive impacts, yet we are not actively teaching our students to do the same. How can we not only training more creative thought leaders, but also create a population of voters who vote for them and support holistic solutions when they are presented?


Closing Statement from Eric Berlow

Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion!

If I had to summarize, it seems like there is general consensus that we need to better enable students to tap into their individual passions and to learn fundamental, transferable skills early on. While some highly technical jobs require very specific training (e.g., brain surgery), most jobs require the ability to learn quickly, to ask critical questions, and to apply the unique skills that we bring to the table (skills that maybe were never in the job description). Related to this concept, there were some very interesting arguments for the value of philosophy, art, and ethics as providing solid building blocks for embracing uncertainty, abstracting and mapping transferable skills, and balancing critical skepticism with creative leaps of faith.

Some felt that there is enormous potential in applying online tools for making education more modular and "remixable" to help students follow their individual passions. One model for this is Khan Academy, but its main success has been in teaching a very specific (and linear) subject matter (math) rather than broad, interdisciplinary education. Some felt that current online ed tools still don't do much to foster innovation. There is clearly much more we can do to improve online educational tools that enhance face-to-face learning - but there is potential.

A recurring, and very interesting, implementation theme was the concept of a "passion to action" curriculum that helps students tap into their passions, identify problems that map onto those passions, and execute a plan to act on them.

Thanks again for all the input!


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    Sep 21 2011: Do you see any developments in the world of online education that might help address some of the problems people are raising? Not as a replacement to traditional education, but as a way of enhancing it, enabling students to follow their passions, encouraging them to make connections among apparently disparate topics, and helping engage them in critical thinking?
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      Sep 21 2011: I helped organise TEDxLondon and theme was education revolution. Worth checking out when video's up.
    • Sep 21 2011: The Kahn Academy model is create. Teacher assisted, technology fueled, self motivated. One thing it lacks is the ability to choose what one learns about and or learning things in context. Another thing it lacks is critical thinking about how to solve problems.
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      Sep 21 2011: I think many interesting things happening examples already mentioned are khan academy or HTH.

      What is most important is a culture when I or anyone can set something up in education and through a darwinian like evolution education can evolve and react. The startup culture is particular suitable.
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        Sep 21 2011: Khan Academy is an awesome model - but I think it works well because it is tackling a very linear subject which follows a similar path for most students (e.g., algebra 1, 2, 3 etc.). Other online ed sites have more variety of topics, but then it can also be alot of noise - too many thing to pick from, and the only guide to good ones is "popularity" which may not be the best indicator of "most educational".

        Any thoughts on how to have interesting 'curricula' evolve in an online learning context?

        Also, please do send a link to the TEDxLondon videos when they are up!
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          Sep 21 2011: Khan Academy, specially when it also includes grammar and basic values education is foundational as you continue to expand into higher levels of education and learning. I think that this is what most we miss. Everything else can be learned from everyday life experiences.
    • Sep 21 2011: Part of education should be giving students the faith to pursue the things that interest them even if it isn't practical. I feel so much of education is "You can't do that. It isn't practical." That attitude kills faith and confidence and destroys creativity and critical thinking. It's a think as I do and don't think for yourself model.
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      Sep 21 2011: Free and open education = awesome. The Kahn Academy is just one example, but there are many many individuals making useful videos and articles and educational games and other things that are equally wonderful. What I'm especially excited by is seeing students teaching things to each other!
    • Sep 21 2011: The philosophy in schools program around the world does address this. In my school in Sydney every student participates in a one hour philosophy session within a community of inquiry. K to 6. All teachers are trained in this methodology in the hope that this critical and creative inquiry methodology will permeate all their teaching practice.

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