Getting a TED Education

As a science writer working on a book about how people learn, the TED phenomenon presented Annie Murphy Paul with an irresistible case study.

When I stepped out onto the stage at TEDGlobal last summer, what I felt—besides the buzz of nerves—was sheer wonder: Hundreds of people, faces open and expectant, were waiting to hear what I had to say. As I discovered over the course of a week in Edinburgh, it was like that at every session: conference-goers, clutching pens and notebooks (or smartphones, the better to tweet the speakers’ best lines), lined up day after day to learn about biomedical engineering, peace activism, political economics—an array of challenging subjects that thousands more people would view and learn about once the videos of the talks went online. As a science writer working on a book about how people learn, the TED phenomenon presented me with an irresistible case study. What—and how—do people learn from this conference and its online videos?

First and foremost, they learn about their own capacity to expand their understanding. It wasn’t so long ago that scientists were convinced that the adult brain had little room for new knowledge. We were born with all the brain cells we’d ever have, researchers believed, and adulthood was simply a drawn-out process of decline. Over the past decade, scientists have discovered that the adult brain does in fact continue to generate new neurons, at a rate of thousands a day. But fans of TED’s conferences and videos didn’t need this finding to know that adults can continue to learn, with great utility and great enjoyment, long after the impressionability of youth and the structure of formal schooling are past. So just what makes TED such an uncannily ideal vehicle for learning? On my return from Scotland I got out my reporter’s notebook and jotted down some ideas.

  1. TED gratifies our preference for visual learning. From the gorgeous images of algorithmic “mountains” displayed by Kevin Slavin, to the lightning-quick “techno-illusions” performed by Marco Tempest, TED talks treat our visual sense as being integral to learning. This elevation of the image—and the eschewal of text-heavy Power Point presentations—comports well with cognitive scientists’ findings that we understand and remember pictures much better than mere words.
  2. TED engages the power of social learning. The robust conversation—begun in Edinburgh and continued online—engendered by, say, Paul Bloom’s talk about humans’ essentialist nature, or Rebecca MacKinnon’s talk about the struggle for freedom and control in cyberspace, recognizes a central principle of adult education: We learn best from other people. In the discussions, debates, and occasional arguments about the content of the talks they see, TED participants are deepening their own knowledge and understanding.
  3. TED puts practitioners in the role of teachers. We take in knowledge most readily, not when it’s presented in the abstract, but when it’s embedded in a rich context of stories and experience—like doctor Abraham Verghese’s meditation on the importance of human touch in medicine, or actress Thandie Newton’s exploration of “otherness” as played out in her performances. TED’s speakers are such effective teachers because most of the time, they don’t teach; they do.
  4. TED enables self-directed, “just-in-time” learning. Because TED’s online viewers choose which talks to watch and when to watch them, they’re able to tailor their education to their own needs. Knowledge is easiest to absorb at the moment when we’re ready to apply it—whether it’s Tim Harford’s advice about making better mistakes, or Mikko Hypponen’s measures for making our computers more secure.
  5. TED encourages viewers to build on what they already know. Adults are not blank slates: They bring to learning a lifetime of previously acquired information and experience. TED talks build on top of this knowledge, adding and elaborating: When Svante Pääbo talks about extracting DNA from ancient sources, or Lee Cronin discusses the emergence of complex self-organizing systems, it’s anything but dumbed down.

Back at home in Connecticut, I watch TED talks with renewed appreciation. I know now what it’s like to step out on the TED stage, into the bright lights and onto the big red circle, to the sound of my name and a burst of jaunty music. But I also know what’s going on in the darkened half of the auditorium in the live audience, and in front of thousands of screens all over the world: Minds are opening wide, ready to learn from a format perfectly designed to teach them.

Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins, is working on a book about the science of learning. Read her blog, “Brilliant,” at, or follow her on Twitter at @anniemurphypaul. Paul was a TEDGlobal 2011 speaker.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson / Courtesy of TED

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