10 TED Talks on Education

The most famous TED Talk on education comes from the author of the book, Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson delivers a touching TED Talk about

Updated May 23, 2023

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So we all know that education in America has its fair share of problems (understatement alert). Some of these problems are sociocultural, others are economic. Some problems are practical and others still are philosophical.

In the face of these numerous and mounting challenges, elected officials and lawmakers have been short on meaningful solutions. It makes you wonder if perhaps the biggest problem with our educational system is that solutions don’t always come from the smartest of folks. Feel fee to jump to the defense of your district congressman or state senator at any time…Bueller? Bueller?

Ok. Moving on.

If you’re looking for solutions to education’s myriad problems from the smartest folks, most of them have delivered a TED Talk at some point. Technology, Entertainment, Design, or TED, is a set of global conferences operating under the tagline “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

In that spirit, here are a few education ideas from among TED’s nearly endless panel of featured speakers that we feel are worth spreading. Enjoy our first installment of 10 Awesome TED Talks on Education.

10 Awesome TED Talks on Education

1. Do Schools Kill Creativity? by Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson gave this speech in February of 2006 and it has since been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube and a remarkable 39 million times on the TED Talks website. That is more than enough time to arrive at the conclusion that the answer is probably “yes” to the titular question “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

Robinson makes the argument that we need to rethink the fundamental premise by which we educate our children. Robinson is dry and hilarious in this insightful takedown of formal education as it exists to day. He argues that all children are born inherently creative and that school systematically squanders that creativity, and “pretty ruthlessly” at that. Robinson makes the powerful assessment that creativity should be viewed as equal in importance to literacy. Robinson also resolves that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. Nonetheless, schools train students to be frightened of being wrong, and of making mistakes. Robinson laments that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people are educated to believe their talents are not valued, and perhaps even that these talents are obstacles to success.

Robinson insists that we can’t afford to continue on this way, that we need to radically rethink our view of intelligence as something diverse, dynamic, and distinct.

2. How To Fix a Broken School? Lead Fearlessly, Love Hard by Linda Ciatt-Wayman

With 1.3 million views on the TED Talks website, and 87,000 views on YouTube, Cliatt-Wayman’s May 2015 Talk casts a blinding light on the reality facing students and educators alike in “low-performing” inner-city schools. As a graduate and principal of North Philadelphia schools, Cliatt-Wayman gives a stirring and personal speech, one that moved many in the audience to tears. Cliatt-Wayman charged that what we call low-performing schools are often not schools at all, that the chains on the doors, the darkened hallways and the half-empty classrooms do not imply places of learning.

Cliatt-Wayman shares her strategies as a principal for transforming dark, dangerous, and frightening North Philadelphia schools from havens for drugs, weapons and violence to havens for disincline, enrichment, and love. Her experiential wisdom makes for a poignant Talk, anchored by a few of the slogans that have produced meaningful change at her Strawberry Mansion High School (where it bears noting she was the fourth principle in four years).

Cliatt-Wayman advises that “If you’re going to lead, LEAD,” an attitude that contributed to changes large and small at her troubled school, from replacing lightbulbs and decorating bulletin boards to recasting the way the school day is scheduled and transforming the budget. She also told educators that eliminating excuses at every turn is the primary responsibility for leaders at struggling schools. Finally and fundamentally, she said that it is the job of educators to offer their students hope, undivided attention, unwavering belief in their potential, consistent expectations, and unconditional love.

3. Teaching the World Peace Game by John Hunter

Filmed in March of 2011, and viewed just under 1.3 million times on TED Talks, 228,000 times on YouTube, “Teaching the World Peace Game” provides an energizing demonstration of how we can use classroom time to cultivate students who will one day be leaders, innovators and decision-makers.

Public School teacher John Hunter is warm, funny and personable as he explains his extraordinary approach to stimulating interactive learning among gifted students. Hunter demos the multi-tiered, map-based gameboard—basically Risk on anabolic steroids—that he has used to engage students since the late 1970s. The goal of the game is to do nothing less than solve the world’s problems. Students are handed a planet and a list of encompassing crises—not unlike the world that they will eventually inherit from prior generations.

The class collaborates, debates and compromises on developing solutions for issues as far-reaching as ethnic tension, nuclear proliferation, environmental disasters, water rights disputes and basically the entire grab-bag of seemingly insoluble problems that they will one day be asked to solve. Indeed, John told the audience that he’d happily send his fourth graders to consult Al Gore because they succeeded in solving the problem of global warming in a single week.

Hunter demonstrates both how educators can excite the imagination of their students and how they can nurture the young minds that will eventually be required to shape our world for the better. What most fascinates about Hunter’s experience is the fact that his students ultimately manifested strategies in ways that no educator could possibly predict, suggesting that the best educational results come when students are allowed to arrive at their own answers and solutions.

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4. Our Failing Schools. Enough is Enough by Geoffrey Canada

In May of 2013, Geoffrey Canada delivered an impassioned talk that has been viewed 188,000+ times on YouTube and more than 1.5 million times on the TED Talks website. Canada levies an accusation that’s pretty hard to dispute, claiming that in spite of our long track record of educational failure, we’ve basically done nothing to improve our outcomes. From both a scientific perspective and a business perspective, Canada says that our approach to education simply doesn’t make sense.

We’re losing kids, we know we’re losing kids, and yet we simply don’t allow real educational innovation to occur. He asks the audience to imagine a world in which we took the same stagnating approach to technology as we did to education. Whereas we respond to failure in this sector by probing for yet greater achievement, the education business has failed to use science to improve its approach to children.

To much approval from the audience, Canada attests that what sets him apart from many education policy-makers is that he “actually likes kids.” In this spirit, he remarks just how strange it is that we spend billions of dollars on standardized testing, that we gather enormous troves of incredible data, and that we fail to use them to actually help students in either a timely or effective manner.

Canada urges that its time to try something different. He insists that we must keep innovating in education until we nail the science down. We cannot wait another 50 years to get this right. He warns that here is an educational cliff and that we are walking over it right this very second.

5. The Nerd’s Guide To Learning Everything Online by John Green

John Green’s Talk, from November of 2012, has been viewed roughly 2.8 million times on the Ted Talks website and does not appear to have been published on YouTube.

Green takes a little bit of time to get to the point. Fortunately, he does so in a decidedly engrossing fashion. Green analogizes the lifelong quest for knowledge to cartography. Learning, he explains, makes the map of your life bigger. When you begin learning, you may not know every location on the map but you do have an instrument that tells you where you’d like to go. As Green phrases it, you’ve seen the coastline but now you want to explore the land.

When we’re young—and to the extent that we manage to develop a love for learning in school—we get to be part of a physical community of learning. Green advises that as we age out of school, we often lose that level of engagement. He shows how online forums like YouTube are restoring our opportunity to be part of a fluid, active and dynamic learning community.

Green demonstrates the variety and intuition with which YouTube can teach and invite learning, all in real-time. Green notes that videos which aim to teach are not necessarily being viewed in classrooms but independently by individuals electing to be part of a learning community. The centerpiece of his Talk is the resolution that these virtual spaces have become, for a new generation of learners, the kind of communities we used to have as students, communities that allow us to continue following our own learning maps into adulthood.

6. The Key To Success? Grit by Angela Lee Duckworth

Filmed in April of 2013, viewed by roughly 1.6 million on YouTube, and by 8.5 million viewers on the TED Talks website, Angela Lee Duckworth’s Talk brings some level of scientific rigor to a character trait that has rarely been measured thusly.

Often millennials are disparaged for being soft and entitled. If this criticism has any basis in reality, Duckworth’s concise Talk is something today’s students and parents need to watch. Duckworth argues that we need to achieve a better understanding of students and learning from a motivational and psychological perspective. She contends that schools are only really effective at measuring I.Q. and asks if success in school and life require more than just being able to learn quickly.

More than social charisma, attractiveness, and intelligence, Duckworth’s experience and research led her to conclude that grit—day-in day-out hard work and determination—is the trait that most determines success. Measuring traits of grittiness among her own students, Duckworth learned that grittier kids—marathon runners rather sprinters—generally succeeded best, independent of talent and intelligence. In spite of just how determinant an impact grit has, Duckworth concedes that science knows precious little on the subject.

Accordingly, Duckworth promotes “growth mindset,” the belief that the ability to learn can change with one’s effort. In Duckworth’s findings, the fascinating trait that most differentiates gritty people from their softer counterparts is that they don’t view failure as a permanent condition. Duckworth admits that her remarks are brief because we simply don’t know much about grit. Her speech ultimately suggests itself as a starting point for improving our understanding of what might be a key determinant of success. Among TED Talks, Duckworth’s is brief but instructive.

7. Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education by Salman Khan

Salman Khan’s Talk from March of 2011 doesn’t necessarily break any new ground. Instead it reaffirms that, at least in one regard, we are moving in the right direction. Even if schools aren’t taking the active steps to revolutionize education, at least technologists and web users are. Viewed roughly 900,000 times on YouTube and 4 million times on the TED Talks website, Khan’s Talk deals largely with the positive impact that web-based video-education can have on learners. Indeed, Khan scored his best laugh when he informed his audience that as a former analyst for a hedge fund, he wasn’t accustomed to doing something of social value.

But that’s exactly what happened when he started tutoring his cousin remotely. As part of the process, Khan began producing explanatory YouTube videos to accompany individual lessons and quickly found that his cousin preferred the videos to live instruction. Getting past the “backhanded” nature of that compliment, Khan discusses the ways that video learning can help to improve the individuality, accessibility, and comprehensibility of instruction. Rather than using video to supplement the classroom experience, Khan made a case for allowing video instruction to transform the way we approach classroom time.

Khan’s approach transposes the classroom and homework experiences. As teachers assigned his videos for self-guided after-school instruction, they found that classroom time was freed up for problem-solving, game-playing and innovation-building. Teachers also used this time to provide individual attention and in-class guidance to students while they completed assignments. Ironically, remarks Khan, the impact of replacing human instruction with video instruction was a humanization of the otherwise dehumanizing process of sitting in a classroom listening to a monolithic lecture. Khan’s presentation ultimately demonstrates that video instruction, properly dispatched, can be used to individualize learning outside of the classroom while transforming the in-class experience into something far more personal and stimulating.

8. Teachers need real feedback by Bill Gates

If you’ve ever seen Bill Gates speak, then you know this one isn’t breathtakingly exciting. It does, however, inform on a major shortcoming in our educational system, and one that may help to explain why so many other countries outperform the U.S. in math, science and reading. Filmed in March of 2013, Gates’ Talk has been viewed roughly 293,000 times on YouTube and just under 2 million times on the TED Talks website.

Gates laments that teachers receive woefully inadequate feedback on how to improve their practice. The Microsoft magnate argues that the system in place is unfair to teachers and is consequently unfair to students.

Gates diverges with a brief video featuring a teacher who uses a camera to record her classroom lessons. Not unlike a quarterback, the teacher explains that she revisits her tapes following each lesson in order to dissect her own performance. Gates suggests that this method could be a pathway to providing teachers with real-time diagnoses on their performance and could ultimately help schools develop the tools they need to act on these diagnoses. Again, this won’t be the most entertaining TED Talk you’ll ever watch (and the visual aids just scream Windows ’98), but Gates is right. Teachers need feedback that’s actually designed to help. The real value of this Talk is that a person of visible influence is making that case.

9. Mathematics and Sex by Clio Cresswell

If you’ve just finished with the Gates Talk and you’re looking for something a little more…stimulating…this one is your next logical stop. More than 3.6 million YouTube viewers have indulged their curiosity in mathematics since Cresswell delivered her April 2014 Talk.

Full disclosure, this isn’t as much about sex as how sexy math can be, whether it’s used to detect inconsistencies in how people report their sexual activeness or in designing the perfect piece of chocolate. Cresswell draws playful connections between sexuality and mathematics, two natural conditions which transcend human culture, in order to demonstrate the fact that mathematics can provide new insight and understanding into all things around us.

The value of Cresswell’s presentation is in its appeal to those who are not of an inherently mathematical disposition. She reveals just how fascinating and all-encompassing mathematics are, and just how scintillating they can be.

10. Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling by Emilie Wapnick

This talk centers around the oft-posed question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Wapnick’s Talk has been viewed 261,000+ views on YouTube and 2.7 Million on the TED Talks website since being delivered in April of 2015.

The troubling implication of Wapnick’s leading question is that we are raised to believe that we have no recourse but to choose a single path of personal and professional development. This question, which is innocent and entertaining when we’re young but which imposes stress and insecurity as we grow older, implies that we each have one great thing that we are meant to do while we’re here on this earth and that we have to figure out what that thing is and devote our lives to it.

But what of those who have many interests, whose passions and intelligences can’t be bottled as a single elixir? Wapnick calls these individuals “multipotentialites.” For those who have been instructed that they must pursue a single true calling, Wapnick says its easy to see multipotentiality as a flaw to be overcome but she argues that multipotentialites have superpowers, among them idea synthesis, rapid learning, adaptability.

We need creative thinkers to tackle the world’s problems, Wapnick argues. Accordingly, says Wapnick, we should all be pursuing careers based on how we’re wired. She advises “embrace your inner-wiring, whatever that may be. If you’re a specialist at heart, by all means specialize…To the multipotentialites…embrace your many passions, follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes, explore your intersections.”

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