I’ve spoken twice at TED. The first time was in 2006. TED was a very different event then. It was a private conference for about 1,200 people. After the event, the talks were packaged in a box set of DVDs and sent just to the attendees. I gave a talk called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” A few months later, Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, called to say they were planning to put a few talks on their website as an experiment and asked if they could include mine. The timing was perfect. Social media was beginning to take shape and the insatiable appetite for YouTube and short videos was about to emerge. The experiment was an instant success and has turned TED into a global cultural phenomenon. There are now several hundred talks on the website and the number of downloads has passed one billion.
I’m surprised and delighted to say that my first talk remains the most viewed of all TEDTalks so far. It’s been downloaded well over 20 million times from all platforms in over 150 countries and continues to be downloaded about 10,000 times a day from the TED site alone. Admittedly that doesn’t compare with “Gangnam Style” with its 800 million downloads but it’s still a lot for a 20 minute talk on education. Because it’s constantly shown at large and small conferences, workshops and meetings around the world, the number of viewers is certainly much higher than the download figure and may well be over 200 million people.
In the past six years, I’ve had countless emails and tweets from young people who’ve shown it to their parents and teachers; from teachers, who’ve shown it to their students and their principals; from parents who’ve shared it with their kids, and from leaders who’ve shown it to their whole organizations. Why is this talk so popular and what’s the significance of its popularity?
There are two main themes in the talk. First, we’re all born with deep natural capacities for creativity and systems of mass education tend to suppress them. Second, it is increasingly urgent to cultivate these capacities — for personal, economic and cultural reasons — and to rethink the dominant approaches to education to make sure that we do. One reason the talk has traveled so far is that these themes resonate so deeply with people at a personal level. I hear constantly from people around the world who feel marginalized by their own education, who want to thank me for helping them to understand why that may be and that they’re not alone. In the talk, I mentioned a book I was writing about the need to find our true talents and how often people are pushed away from them. The responses I get show that this is a common experience that’s deeply felt and ultimately resented. (Incidentally, I said in the talk that the book is called Epiphany. I later changed the title to The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. It was too late to change the reference in the talk, which has since done wonders to promote sales of books called Epiphany… )
A second reason for the impact of the talk is that people and organizations everywhere can see that current systems of education are failing to meet the challenges we now all face and they’re working furiously to create alternatives. In many countries, they’re doing this in the face of national policies and cultural attitudes that seem locked in past. The dominant systems of education are based on three principles — or assumptions at least — that are exactly opposite to how human lives are actually lived. Apart from that, they’re fine. First, they promote standardization and a narrow view of intelligence when human talents are diverse and personal. Second, they promote compliance when cultural progress and achievement depend on the cultivation of imagination and creativity. Third, they are linear and rigid when the course of each human life, including yours, is organic and largely unpredictable. As the rate of change continues to accelerate, building new forms of education on these alternative principles is not a romantic whimsy: it’s essential to personal fulfillment and to the sustainability of the world we are now creating.
To some extent, my first talk has been a rallying point for a different conversation about education and I’m delighted that it has. It’s a conversation that’s become more and not less urgent in the last six years and TED has been a powerful force in taking it forward. In 2010, I gave my second talk at TED, which was called “Bring on the Learning Revolution”, based on my book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. By then there were hundreds of TED and TEDx talks online and many that give powerful examples of new styles of education. Many others explore the nature of creativity and how emerging technologies can extend our creative abilities and can transform teaching and learning at the same time.
Educators everywhere now use TEDTalks as resources to open up and inform debate about the nature of education and to develop their own practices in new directions. It’s a great testament to TED that it has become not only a way of advocating change in education but also one of the most effective ways of bringing it about.