The Problem With TED Talks, Including Ken Robinson’s

Image via Flickr user karindalziel.

Image via Flickr user karindalziel.

As I understand it, Ken Robinson is the most popular speaker in the history of the TED lecture series. Indeed, to hear Sam Chaltain describe it Robinson’s first TED lecture – on how schools “kill” creativity – became the paradigm case for what a TED talk should be.

In Chaltain’s view attempts by subsequent lecturers to imitate Robinson’s seminal talk have essentially ruined the series:

The problem is that now, anyone that gives a TEDTalk (further disclosure: I’ve given two) has in the back of their mind that they might become the next Sir Ken Robinson. This has led to a flaw in most new talks — call it the Curse of Over-Curation. Every slide, every sentence, has been rehearsed and revised to such a point that no room is left over for spontaneity and wit — the very things that made Ken’s first talk so powerful. As a result, shows like TED Talks Education feel less like a platform for ideas worth spreading, and more like the stage of a new reality show competition in which contestants are competing against each other to give the most inspiring speech.

I agree about TED talks today being mostly unpleasant to watch. I think the problem goes much deeper, however, and would go so far as to say that Robinson’s initial talk was not really an exception to this rule. Rather, in my view Robinson’s now-famous talk was so popular in large part because it was the first to truly master the style-over-substance game that now dominates the circuit.

First, it’s worth noting that when I watch Robinson’s 2006 talk it does not feel “spontaneous” at all. The whole thing – from the jokes to his overall demeanor – strikes me as carefully planned. Preparedness does not preclude wit – and much of the talk is very clever – but the veneer of improvisation is almost certainly part of the shtick. It feels more like a stand-up routine – full of off-topic jokes and anecdotes – than an informative lecture about education.

More seriously, much of what Robinson says is too vague to be easily analyzed and when he does make clear empirical claims they are often dubious (at best). However, his mastery of the style of the genre helps to obscure the substantive weaknesses of the talks. So, for example, in his 2006 talk, when Robinson throws out the claim that “there’s a raft of research” showing that “women are better at multitasking”, he does so so confidently and casually – note the smooth segue to an amusing anecdote – that many people will likely take for granted that the claim is true.

In fact, existing research on multitasking ability is murky and inconsistent on the subject of gender differences. In some studies women do seem to be better multitaskers. In other studies, however, men have stronger performance, so it is very misleading to present the question as settled.

Image via Flickr user chacrebleu

Image via Flickr user chacrebleu

Robinson’s follow-up talk in 2011 is somewhat better, but suffers from many of the same problems. Consider this excerpt, meant to illustrate that “human talent is tremendously diverse”:

People have very different aptitudes. I worked out recently that I was given a guitar as a kid at about the same time that Eric Clapton got his first guitar. You know, it worked out for Eric, that’s all I’m saying. (Laughter) In a way, it did not for me. I could not get this thing to work no matter how often or how hard I blew into it. (Laughter) It just wouldn’t work.

Funny! But what on earth is it supposed to prove? Robinson is apparently trying to imply that Clapton was innately gifted musically while he himself was not, and that any sort of encouragement or additional training would necessarily have been futile. That line of argument runs contrary to what we know about deliberate, guided practice; Robinson may never have stood a chance at reaching Clapton-esque levels of virtuosity on the guitar, but there’s no reason given to think he couldn’t have become at least somewhat competent.

You see this pattern repeat itself over and over when Robinson talks about education: a vague-but-pleasant-sounding narrative sprinkled with clever quips and stories obscures numerous questionable leaps of logic and false or misleading empirical claims.

So what does this have to do with other entries in the TED series?

The problem with TED talks is that because the speakers are so stylistically skillful they will almost always sound compelling unless you know enough about the subject matter to identify the weaknesses of their arguments. When I listen to Robinson’s talks I can easily pick out many of the fallacies because I happen to know a good deal about education.

How seriously, then, should I take any other TED lecture when I happen not to know quite so much about the subject matter?

In my eyes, at least, by privileging wit and narrative elegance over substance and rigorous analysis in at least some very prominent cases, the TED series has undermined its credibility across the board.

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  1. Posted May 14, 2013 at 7:04 AM | Permalink

    Sugata Mitra’s recent prize-winning TEDTalk on A School in the Cloud ( is another example…. From anecdote and inaccurate history, he constructs an sparkling, deluded edifice. Inspiring presentation, flawed analysis and conclusions.

    • Posted May 15, 2013 at 12:03 AM | Permalink

      It’s amusing to me that TED would encourage somebody to lead off a talk with confident claims about “THE FUTURE OF LEARNING” as if he is a soothsayer of some kind. It’s also always odd when the speakers talk about how awesomely different education in the future will or should be while delivering what is basically a conventional lecture.

  2. Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:13 AM | Permalink

    I’ll admit that I couldn’t even get through the entirety of Sir Ken’s talk, as I found his continuous jokes annoying. I kept thinking, “get to the bloody point, will you?” Then I just stopped watching. I agree with you that the excessive “wit” seems to be a smokescreen.

    • Posted June 5, 2013 at 3:07 PM | Permalink

      The signal to noise ratio in his talks is definitely low. In fairness, I might find his jokes less annoying if I was more sympathetic to his arguments.

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