Using TED Talks to Teach DETERMINATION

TED is a free resource offering teachers an array of materials to enhance any subject.

Guiding or instructing students in the realm of personal values is a sometimes treacherous path to walk. Many of the traditional stories illustrating such topics are religious in nature and those are best left out of the classroom. Our world, however, can provide a plethora of new material without offending anyone. The teaching of values offers a range of cognitive, language, and critical thinking benefits, providing as they do opportunities for students to engage the subject, the material, and each other in an authentic intellectual exercise.

The TED XI have been using Ted Talks in my classrooms for years, much to my students’ delight. There is something about the presentation of a Ted Talk that gains their attention and keeps it, even though they know there will be no super heroes, no sex, no drugs, and generally, no rock and roll. One of the exceptions to this last is half of the tag team of videos on determination that I’ve developed into a lesson plan and used with great success. That is, I have used it, the students have been engaged, they have responded creatively, and discussions were lively, and the information was largely retained. Whether any of those students goes on to become the next Sir Edmond Hilary, I don’t yet know. But if exposure to this lesson helps at all in keeping them in school and working toward a diploma or a degree, then I am content.

As with any well planned lesson, this one needs something to create anticipation. Usually, a kernel of an idea will filter down to me from eavesdropping on students during the week or two preceding the lesson. I’ve overheard information on a student excelling in sports, a situation at home one of them has to deal with, such as the illness of a parent or sibling, and even trying to avoid being “jumped” into a gang. Or, failing any of that as a stimulus, there is always the news. This week we are hearing stories about the horrifying typhoon that devastated the Philippines, leaving tens of thousands dead, and hundreds of thousands injured, stranded or at risk. One caution, if there is a specific student experience available, I talk to the boy or girl ahead of time to find out if it is okay to share and discuss it for this special topic.

boy throwing starfishAs a preface to the student issue or the news, a little story is in order – something short, sweet, and pertinent. This one comes from Loren Eiseley. “While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.” I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.”

Since this topic comes up later in the semester, after the class and I are well-used to each other, I feel safe in first asking for responses. These might include:

1. Ugh, I don’t like fish.
2. Where was the beach?
3. What’s a starfish?
Eventually, though we move on to questions:
1. If you know you are going to fail, do you continue trying?
2. Are these people fools?
3. Is the situation different because they are starfish and not people?
4. What difficult situations have you faced where all you could do is try?

The last question usually elicits a response from several students, including the one I have spoken to. As the discussion develops, we take up a variation on the theme of taking determined action on behalf of someone or something else and change it to taking determined action on behalf of ourselves. Immediately, the students note the distinction and begin to squirm. Teens in public school are more willing to bend their backs and give their time in aid of another than they are to further their own education. Yet, rather than have the teacher give another lecture on self-determination, I show a video called “How I Built a Windmill”.

William Kamkwamba, a 19 year old boy from Malawi, appeared at a Ted William KamkwambaTalk event in Arusha, Tanzania in 2009. He was there to tell the story of his windmill, the first of its kind in his region and the first to have been built from scraps and garbage by a 14 year old boy. William was so in awe of his presence at the conference that he can hardly speak, and English is not his first language in any case. In that regard, he is much like many English Language Learner students that I have had over the years. In halting language, he tells how he used the resources of a local library after he had to leave secondary school due to a lack of funds. One of the books he found was about how windmills harnessed energy and produced power. It sparked an interest that grew as he read more. A seed was planted, and slowly, very slowly, his plan to build a windmill for his family took shape.

William knew a windmill would provide much needed electricity and pump water for the fields. But without materials, the windmill would never rise from the drought stricken earth of Malawi. So, he looked around and, eventually, found a dump from which he retrieved a broken bicycle, pieces of metal, wire, and an eclectic collection of other bits. Over a period of several months, William tried and failed, and tried again to construct the machine. His ultimate success and the publicity it garnered soon led to the Ted Conference.
Discussion following the video touches on several ideas:

1. William had no advantages.
2. William tried and failed several times before the windmill worked.
3. William did something that benefited his whole family, and with the windmills that followed, his village.
4. What one character trait brought him success? Was it just one?

Students are provided with a handout on which 20 personality traits are listed, including: passion, resilience, self-possession, decisiveness, fearlessness, flexibility, determination, tenacity, and generosity. Students consider the list and put down a percentage of impact on the outcome next to 5-10 traits. Next to the percentage, they have to provide proof based on the video. This is fun done in groups because the students can negotiate for meaning, remind one another of salient information, and debate the merits of various character traits.

Later, students write a reflection based on their own experience, the discussion, and William’s situation. There is one question that demands a thoughtful response. How is William different or similar to yourself?

ok goTo extend the theme of Determination but lighten the mood, the class is shown a second video, this time one focusing on the British rock group called OK Go. Their videos are on YouTube, of course, but one particular video has become the subject for another Ted Talk, Adam Sadowsky presenting “How to engineer a viral music video.” What is compelling about this talk is that Adam Sadowsky and his engineering team had to produce the “machine” which propels a song performed by the group. There were rules, dos and don’ts, things that worked and things that didn’t and it all added up to a riveting nearly four minute music video.

We learn from Adam that it took the team 80 tries to get it right. This is a different sort of determination because the “greater cause” is not obvious. OK Go and Sadowsky weren’t saving the planet, curing an illness, or providing irrigation water to parched fields. What was the purpose for putting in all this energy? Did they know the video would go viral, that it would end up on Ted? Not likely. The people at Ted are fairly canny, so they would be able to spoke a marketing ploy easily. What was the motivation then?

Again in groups, the students are set the task of comparing and determinationcontrasting the two examples, discussing the videos and deciding what the important factors were. The results are reported to the class and an overall consensus is attempted, not always successfully. Agreement, of course, is irrelevant because what we want is for students to think, discuss, and come to a conclusion for reasons based on evidence.

I would love to hear how this lesson works in your classes. Please write to tell me.


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