If you don’t recognize where the words in my title come from, they’re from the ‘90s song “Another Night” by the group “Real McCoy.” I cannot tell you how many times when I consider the topic of talking, this line pops into my head, and it turns into an “earworm.” I don’t remember much about the song otherwise—it’s that one simple line that all these years later remains with me.
I’m not trying to put an earworm in your head—rather, this blog will address TED talks. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I had the opportunity to give a TED talk at the January Faculty Work Day for Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC; you can watch a video in this previous post) I really came to like the format, and find myself thinking it’s a very useful way to do faculty development presentations. Let me tell you why.
In part, my appreciation is a credit to Jeremy Osborne, who works in faculty development at GRCC and put this workday together. He built the day around a series of TED talks addressing a variety of topics. The TED talk format has several advantages. For one thing, it made it possible to address a number of topics. In addition to my talk about engaging students the first day of class, there were talks ranging from making introverts feel more comfortable in a course to using game theory in class. This resulted in a number of interesting presentations; besides, if you didn’t like one, you just had to wait 15 minutes and it’d be over! (Honestly, we’ve all been at faculty work days with keynote addresses that leave us feeling several hours of our lives have just gone to waste.) As a presenter, I can tell you that having a short time to share something compels you to really focus on what you want the audience to walk away with, and thus makes you think more carefully about what you will say. In short, you find yourself avoiding grandiose objectives. What is great about that is that the presentations generally offer the audience ideas or steps that are easily understood and implemented. This stands in contrast to a lot of keynote presentations that ask you to reinvent your courses two days before the semester starts. The format also allowed Jeremy to bring in a number of people to present, both from GRCC and outside institutions. This provided a good mix of people, topics, and perspectives. Compared to a typical “keynote” format, this allowed him to make use of very able presenters from GRCC, as well as folks from neighboring institutions. Finally, the talks really set a good pace; time did not seem to drag. Of course, this was not just due to the talks. Jeremy made sure to have breaks every 3-4 talks, as well as a long lunch hour, which allowed time for reflection and discussion.
Jeremy was also kind enough to invite Tammy Looman, the head of faculty development at my university as well. We both came away impressed with the format of the work day. In fact, we were so impressed that we went back to the faculty development team at our university and convinced them to format our work day along these same lines. We anticipate being able to draw on a number of our own faculty who can provide very useful talks based on one idea. We also expect that we can draw in people from neighboring institutions, with some different perspectives and insights. In sum, it offers a lot in terms of opportunity for members of our faculty, but also opportunities for outside faculty. This also facilitates building relationships outside our institutional circle, and thus offers potential for some synergy in faculty development. In addition, we anticipate that following this format will offer a number of advantages. In the past, mixing keynotes with breakout sessions, group activities, and discussion has made timetables difficult to plan and maintain. Speakers run over time, and discussions seem to be hitting their stride when they must end. The tight structure of TED talks allows for more effective planning in this regard. There is also the concern about whether the dispersal of people to breakout sessions will be even. With the TED format, people get the variety without the risk of an empty room at a breakout session that proves not-so-popular. In sum, it will simplify our planning, especially as we use it more than once.
As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve wondered why I don’t see this used more in faculty development. I’ve been to a number of conferences and workdays, and have never seen it, even it programs with 20-minute time slots where it would be ideal. Having talked about this with some people, I’ve come to realize that TED talks do not fit the model or ideal of many education conferences and workdays. Educators are regularly told not to be the “sage on the stage” but instead the “guide on the side.” As a result, the idea of a session where someone walks onto a stage, talks for 20 minutes, and leaves with no Q&A or breakout activity only to be followed immediately by someone who does likewise—well that just sounds like the worst possible way to do things.
Yet I find myself thinking that there’s something wrong with this perspective. The simplicity, the variety, the pace of the TED talk format is well suited to the disposition of many faculty who want useful, straightforward ideas, rather than long exercises in educational theory. For many who attend a workday or conference in the midst of a semester, a simple takeaway—as opposed to a revolutionary restructuring of one’s teaching—seems much more “doable.” Ironically, instead of trying to revolutionize how faculty teach, maybe we might revolutionize how we teach faculty to teach by focusing on simple, straightforward messages. After all, often it’s not the whole album or even the song that you remember all those years later. Sometimes it’s just a single line from the song.