The TED bubble

This is my last guest post, so I thought I’d take on one of my favorite big topics: the fad of the big idea. In an era of TED talks, “essential questions,” and so-called “higher-order” thinking, we are witnessing a shiny bubble that will pop sooner or later. Eventually it will come clear that we need much more than grand ideas. We need a better grasp of details and their relation to larger structures.

 TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) is a nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading”; it is chiefly known for its conferences and online videos of talks.

Over at Salon, Alex Pareene nails what TED talks tend to have in common. (Note: not all TED talks fit this formula–and not all talks that fit it come across as formulaic.)

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

Pareene takes issue primarily with the TED conference’s smug elitism and its avoidance of controversial topics. My criticism is related but different; to me the main problem is the insistence on bigness, and, with it, the avoidance of the sort of modesty, tentativeness, and probing  that could make the speeches even more interesting.

Take Salman Khan, for example. I bring him up not to pick on him (I’ve questioned the viability of the “Khan Revolution” before) but to turn toward the subject of education. At the time of his TED talk, Khan had created a library of some 2,200 instructional videos on mathematical and scientific topics. Now there are about 3,200, and the range has expanded. The talk begins with a montage of videos and topics: a hypotenuse, a map of animal fossils, integration, galaxies, and more. “If this does not blow your mind,” he says, “then you have no emotion.”

He then tells the story about how it began, how it grew, and how, bit by bit, he realized that it was more than a collection of videos. It was a way of flipping the classroom; that is, with the help of these videos, students could learn the content at home and then come to class to work in groups, receive extra help, engage in projects, and so on.

A dialogue starts up in my mind:

—But wait! I want to hear more about the hypotenuse.

—Oh, you can, in your own time. Let’s focus on the big idea for now.

And there lies the problem. If we are content with a swift montage of topics, if we choose not to bother with the actual geometry, astronomy, or calculus of Khan’s videos, then our trust in his “flipped classroom” is wishful trust indeed. By this I don’t mean that an error or flaw in the videos would invalidate his project. Rather, his presentation  excites the audience precisely because it doesn’t go far into the subjects (or at least partly because of that).

Now, we find a similar phenomenon in classrooms that emphasize ungrounded “big ideas” and “essential questions.” For example, you have classes that emphasize the “scientific method” without making clear that in order to apply it well, you have to know the science. Yes, certain principles apply to all scientific investigations, but they must be translated properly into the nitty-gritty.

Or take “interdisciplinary thematic units” that focus on a theme such as identity, prejudice, or progress. The danger of such a focus on a “theme” is that it can (and often does) encourage sloppy analysis. For instance, if you’re studying Sophocles’ Antigone in a unit on dissent, you may think the play is primarily about dissent and gloss over whatever doesn’t fit. To work well with themes, one must handle them loosely and with great caution.

Now, big ideas are not bad. Whether they’re ideas about the past, present, or future, they can help make sense of phenomena. The challenge is to determine when they do and when they don’t. To this end, one must be willing to bear with the details, to admit to error, and to do without bigness for long stretches of time.  A “big idea” economy can’t sustain itself. In fact, it could land us in a rut. If we’re too hooked on the grandeur of ideas, we won’t know what to do when they wobble or break down.

We have seen the rise of the entrepreneurial geek (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates), the person who can turn an intense, specific intellectual interest into something popular and huge. It’s dazzling, but some of the dazzle deceives; the person had to do the unpopular work behind the scenes. Spectators come to believe that they can jay drive straight to the big stuff; it rarely works that way.

So, let’s expect students to delve into the details–to practice a scale until they get it right, to memorize a poem and thus learn all its tones and turns, and to learn the binomial theorem and its proofs. Through such study, students will encounter ideas of many sizes and will learn to tolerate their temporary absence. They may not make it big; why should they have to? But whether or not they do, they will have something solid.

Now that’s a big idea. But it isn’t revolutionary, and its implementation isn’t easy.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its original posting but before any comments appeared.