Reflecting on TEDActive2013 / Education 2013

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Just returning from Palm Springs, CA and this year’s edition of TEDActive.

It was an interesting set of meetings, reunions and talks. The theme: the young, the wise and the undiscovered was fully investigated over the course of the four days, but I found the talks more inconsistent than in the past. There were amazing talks by Amanda Palmer, Beardyman, Bono, Sabastiao Salgado, Liu Bolin, and Rose George.

I found several themes interesting to see span several of the sessions: understanding animals more effectively and humans as animals, envisioning and living the next phase of the internet, finding the human in machines and the machines in humans, finding out who we are and how can we create value in the broadest sense.

This is my third TED, and I find it ambiguously one of the most positive moments of my intellectual year and also frustrating in its optimistic and decontextualized “spreading of ideas”. Nonetheless, it gets me thinking in ways that I have not encountered before and allows one to consider new ideas, connect ideas and relate ideas to one’s life and endeavors.

The TED Prize winner this year is Sugata Mitra, famous for his “hole in the wall” computer learning exercises in India. He envisions a different relationship between learners and teachers. I found his presentation incredibly interesting, but also incredibly provocative. I feel his dream to be in some ways simple and also simplistic. To state that “schools and knowing are obsolete” I feel is perhaps interestingly provocative, but not very helpful. I completely understand that he is making the point that for many people who are disenfranchised or have no access to schools or teachers, that learning can be and needs to be achieved, but I also don’t think it is as simple as providing a computer for a child and letting them go at it.

Right now the never-ending and rather depressing drumbeat of dissatisfaction with schools and teachers is so reductionist and rather inane. I completely agree that schools, teachers, universities and professors need to change systems and practices. At the same time, the quiet learning conversation between a teacher and a student, the note of appreciation on an essay that makes a student want to be a writer, even the stern challenge in a classroom discussion, all these and more are things that make teaching and learning noble pursuits.

I worry that the ever-increasing technocratic and positivistic movement in our culture will lead basically lead to a person sitting in front of a screen all day and not being prepared or even appreciating the joy of creation, of making something concrete and forging visceral ties with other human beings.

Is “knowing obsolete”? Perhaps the type of knowing that Mitra sees enforced in many traditional schools globally, where students are only really parroting back disconnected facts and ideas that they don’t really understand should indeed be obsolete and should be banned. But self-knowing, mastery knowing, understanding a complex subject deeply including all the knowledge that goes along with that-can these be obsolete?

I do worry that we are spending so much of our time bashing systems in order to build new systems. If we are to make lasting change, then I think that evolution makes more sense. We need to find ways to make our schools and teachers evolve. School, learning and teaching should be, as John Dewey and Maria Montessori, more experiential, connected more to our psyches and emotions, should be more self-organized; however, I think as John Maeda writes that we need to reform our “end-ups” rather than focusing always on “start-ups”.

That is what rethinked…* is all about. Thinking “inside the box” because we live and inhabit and appreciate the “box”.

Thanks to TED. Thanks to all the speakers. It was, as ever, an enlightening, thought-provoking and rich moment in my year.

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