Your Attention. Now!

A man walks onto the TED stage and introduces himself: “I was a design ethicist at Google, where I studied how do you ethically steer people’s thoughts.”.

My first thought was, how is it possible to “ethically” steer people’s thoughts? However, I think this particular speaker, now billed as a “design thinker”, may be worth listening to.

In his TED talk from last spring, Tristan Harris wants us to know about the “handful of people working at a handful of technology companies” who are working very hard to attract our attention and hang onto it for as long as possible. The better to sell that attention – us – to their advertisers. And they want to leave nothing to chance.

Because it’s not evolving randomly. There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every new site — TED, elections, politicians, games, even meditation apps — have to compete for one thing, which is our attention, and there’s only so much of it. And the best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works. And there’s a whole bunch of persuasive techniques that I learned in college at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab to get people’s attention.

Teachers especially need to understand what he’s talking about since they work with some of the primary targets of these companies looking for attention. If you teach high school students, possibly middle school, maybe even play this in class and follow it with a discussion. We need to help students understand what these adults are doing to them.

Finally, this is a good time to remember that, if you are not paying for a service, chances are you are the product, not the customer. Everything comes with a price and, on the web, that price is very often your information.

Stop Calculating, Start Teaching Math

Although it’s almost two years old, I just ran across this talk from TED Global by Conrad Wolfram this weekend. In it he advocates for teaching kids real math, instead of just calculating, which he says makes up most of our current curriculum.

On the chance that you also have not discovered this presentation (and are interested in math education), here it is, plus a few of my thoughts of course.

According to Wolfram, in math education we’re spending about 80% of the time on what he calls step 3, calculating results by hand. Processes that are done faster and more efficiently using computers, a category that includes smartphones, tablets and those computing devices still called “calculators”.

Of all the subjects in K12, the math curriculum is probably more rooted in the pre-computer age than any other, taught in very much the same way as we did in the past century. And probably the one before that.

Certainly kids need to learn some basic facts and computational processes. But when was the last time you had to divide two fractions? Or did long division of a three digit number into a six digit number? And how did you handle that messy remainder?

I’m willing to bet that for all but the most simple problems, you turned to a computing device of some kind to assist with doing the mathematics.

TED-Ed: A Site Worth Watching

It’s not going to revolutionize education, flip the classroom, or replace teachers, but the new education site from TED looks like it could be a great resource.

TED-Ed (Lessons Worth Sharing), takes presentations from their collection and elsewhere, blends in some animation to give them more context and interest, groups the videos around nine subject areas, and adds some additional instructional resources.

Although many of the articles reporting on their opening this week compare this to the Khan Academy, TED-Ed is very different and much more substantial. For one thing, this new site is more about ideas and concepts rather than providing step-by-step instructions for rote processes.

Like Kahn, TED-Ed tracks your use of the materials. But instead of a self-assessment section based solely on multiple choice questions, the site asks users to do more in-depth thinking about the presentation they’ve just watched and offers additional resources to explore.

However, the more interesting, and potentially more powerful, part of TED-Ed is the ability for teachers to create their own lessons around the material (what they call Flip This Lesson) and share them with the larger community. Even better is the open invitation to submit ideas for lessons and to participate in the creation process. It opens some interesting tools for teachers to enhance and extend their instruction but also intriguing possibilities for student creative involvement as well.

No, it’s too soon to declare that TED-Ed is the catalyst that will forever alter public education (I suspect someone has already made a similar declaration), but it is an excellent start and something worth watching as it grows.

Watch the short tour of the site and see what you think.

Moving Backwards

Big news this week: Khan Academy releases an iPad app and the TED organization opens their education channel on YouTube.

The Washington Post asks if Khan is education’s future and calls both “the new leaders in education reform“.


If that really represents cutting edge in education reform these days, the whole process is moving backwards.

Let’s face it, Khan Academy is nothing more than a large collection of lecture/demos in the classic instructional sense, and the ones I’ve seen are just as boring as those given by too many teachers who simply present information without interacting with their students. Khan’s advantage is a good press agent and some deep pockets with little understand of instructional pedagogy.

While TED’s materials are much better produced – many of them inform, motivate and even inspire, all the things you want from a great teacher – they are still lectures.

Then there’s the idea of the “flipped” classroom, a concept that the media inextricably links to the Khan videos and too often declares to the next ultimate in education reform. So, where’s the change in having students watch Khan or TED lectures at home instead of at school?

Kids are still watching a lecture with no options to interact with the presenter or anyone else. At least watching it live in the classroom they might have the option to ask questions. The only major difference with making the lecture homework is the venue (and the pause button).

And showing Khan videos during class, taking valuable time that could be spent on more immediate activities (as I’ve watch a few teachers doing in recent weeks) is bordering on educational malpractice.

No, Khan Academy is not reform. Not even close. Sending kids home to watch boring lectures is worse than most of what passes for homework now.

To me, all this emphasis on Kahn represents the desire on the part of many political and business types to automate and standardize the learning process, minimize the impact of the teacher, and turn it into something that can be easily measured.

It can’t be done. Advocates of this approach completely ignore something any good teacher could tell you: there’s very little “standard” about any group of kids.

* That’s the PG version of the explicative I really use when reading stuff like this. :-)

Happy Meal Education

This week I was rummaging through various information resources (looking for something else, of course) and I ran across Sir Ken Robinson’s talk from last year’s TED Conference.

While I still believe it’s not up to his classic 2006 talk at the same event, it was still worth the time to watch again.

Especially this excellent point about education reform.

Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment and it’s not enough. Reform is of no use anymore. Because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need… is not evolution but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.

Later in the talk he notes that “we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education” and that it’s “impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies”.

Sir Ken is exactly right: “something else” should be our starting point in any discussion about education, rather than our current policy and media debates on how to rearrange the ingredients from the current menu.

However, “something else” is scary, while fast food is comfortable and familiar.

Which is exactly why politicians and business types (America’s education “experts”) constantly cling to their happy meals when it comes to designing a vision for the future of our education system.