The TED Approach to Education

by Mike Helsby on 2014-03-02
As TEDxUW quickly approaches, and the various efforts involved in producing and promoting the event near conclusion, I find myself reflecting on the nature of TED itself. It’s strange to think how much and how quickly the TED idea has grown in the public conscience in such a short time. TED-talks have only been available online since 2006, but they’ve quickly become one of the primary sources by which we become informed on a massive variety of subjects pertaining to the current state and direction of human culture. Any regular or semi-regular viewer of TED-talks will testify to a wide range of positive aspects about the conferences, such as their inclusivity, their diversity, and their intellectual benefits. But it occurs to me that a TED-talk has much in common with a classroom lecture, specifically with regards to structure and intention. By this I mean that both are ostensibly comprised of an “expert” “lecturing” “students” (take the quotation marks how you will) with the intention of informing and inspiring the audience. I think it’s fair to say that most of us recognize one of these institutions as coming much closer to achieving their intentions than the other. I don’t know if many people would be surprised when I say that, as a grad student and as an avid TED-viewer, I am often more interested, more inspired and more informed in the fifteen or so minutes that I spend watching a TED-talk than I am in a three-hour university lecture. I’m not out to criticize or berate our current education system, enough people make good money doing that already. But I am interested in how the differences between these two “educating” entities affect how successfully they inform and inspire.

By way of trampling on my own feet, and as a small apology for my previous remarks to all the good professors I’ve had the pleasure of learning under, my comparison will be framed by the ideas of a nineteenth-century writer whose words I would certainly have never read were it not for my university education. John Henry Newman was one of the most controversial and foremost intellects of his day. Though he is best known for his Grammar of Assent, and rightly so, his Idea of a University is the single most important text on the theory of education since Aristotle’s Politics, or so I’ve been taught by people who apparently know these things. To put it another way, Newman’s thoughts on education are the most influential in that realm since the beginnings of Western thought. It was his opinion that it is the duty of a University to promote development towards what he termed the “Illative sense” within each individual. This sense goes beyond the acquisition and storage of knowledge, informing a person’s ability to systematize their knowledge into an inter-related whole and conduct themselves according to the dictates of that internal, intellectual “culture” in all situations. The term “wisdom” could be said to approximate it, but I think Newman means something less ambiguous by it. In Idea of a University, he goes on to posit that cultivating this sort of intellect and inspiring each person to continue this development in their own lives is the only task of the University.

Apologies for the somewhat lengthy quote:

In default of a recognized term, I have called the perfection or virtue of the intellect by the name of philosophy, philosophical knowledge, enlargement of mind, or illumination;… but, whatever name we bestow on it, it is, I believe, as a matter of history, the business of a University to make this intellectual culture its direct scope, or to employ itself in the education of the intellect… I say, a University, taken in its bare idea… has this object and this mission; it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production; it professes to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty; its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.

Newman despised the university-system of his day. He accused it of teaching students only how to acquire and regurgitate shallow information. According to him, students in these nineteenth-century schools learned “many things badly, and not one thing well”. Anyone acquainted with current education-reform themes and rhetoric will surely find these sentiments familiar.  According to Newman, students would be better off congregating in a single location for four years with no instructors, no curriculum, and no hierarchy than they were in their current state. Inherent in his analysis are what I believe to be the keys to TED’s success.

TED operates outside any judgemental structures. Grading and examinations force students to understand large quantities of information quickly and, often, superficially. With these demands removed, TED audience-members are free to naturally ingest the information that is most interesting and relevant to their situation. The audience walks away with what Newman calls “real” (as opposed to “notional”) apprehension of the propositions they’ve just received.

TED is concise, and audience-specific. Strict timeframes force speakers to be as informative, engaging, and instructive as possible in a short amount of time. There is no room for tangent, redundancy, or overwhelming description of context. Every second of the less-than-eighteen-minute presentation is entirely relevant to the single subject under discussion, a subject which each audience member chose specifically to engage with. So the “inattention epidemic”, if I may call it that, which has become such a focus for education reformers in recent years is entirely absent from the TED world.

Finally, there is an underlying structure within the TED community that bears a striking resemblance to Newman’s “Illative Sense”. TED is universal. It has the broadest of agendas. It is about connecting people with people as much as it is about connecting ideas with ideas. If I may be allowed a slightly liberal stretch, TED does for culture and community what the “Illative sense” does for the intellect. TED functions as a compendium of great ideas spoken by great people; it connects them, inter-relating and systematizing them for access by a global audience whose perspectives and actions are molded by the “internal culture” it represents. I think Newman would be thrilled by, and may even take some credit for, the framework and concept of TED. Spreading ideas, grasping at truth, injecting our own individualism into a body that shapes and is shaped by it and all others, not with a goal of perfection, but with an eye towards always perfecting how we think and who we are: this is the dream of Newman and the success of TED. 

You Don't Want to Miss TEDxUW 2014!

by Matt Lawes on 2014-02-28
February's almost over, which means we're one step closer to 2014's TEDxUW!  With less than three weeks until the big event, it's time to dish the Truly Exciting Details on this year's TEDx talk.  

The Event TEDxUW will be held at the Tannery Event Centre in Downtown Kitchener on March 15, but don't be discouraged if you can't make it. The event will be livestreamed for those who want to watch online, and of course videos of the event will be available afterwards.  

The Theme
The theme of this year's event is Ideas worth spreading”, which probably sounds familiar to anyone who knows TED's general slogan. This year is all about staying true to what made TED such a successful phenomenon in the first place — taking great ideas and putting them out on a forum where people can listen to them, and be inspired.  

The Speakers
As usual, to present these wonderful ideas, TEDxUW has assembled an amazing group of speakers from all walks of life. Here's a rundown on the speakers you can look forward to this year:  

Paul Salvini:    To say that Dr. Salvini knows a thing or two about computer science would probably be an understatement. As the chief technological officer of Christie Digital Systems Canada and former CTO of Side Effects Software, as well as Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, he has lots of experience in technology and successful business ventures. But before all his high-level positions, before he won the Top 40 Under 40 Canadian leadership award, before he received his MASc, MBA and Ph.D. Engineering degrees at the University of Toronto, he was getting his BMath in Computer Science here at UW, and he's the president of UW's own Alumni Council, making it all the more thrilling that he's speaking at this year's TEDxUW.  

Dave Wilkin:    If you want to talk serial entrepreneurship, Dave Wilkin is your man. With founder of Ten Thousand Coffees and co-chair of the Cannes Lions Young Marketers jury under his belt, among other accomplishments, Wilkin has his fair share of entrepreneurial experience and is always looking for new opportunities to change the way global organizations interact with the young minds of today.  

Frank Gu:      Dr. Gu has had quite a few prestigious names attached to his quest for knowledge. Getting his BSc at Trent University before getting his Ph.D. at Queen's, Gu received a NSERC postdoctoral fellowship which let him do research at MIT and Harvard. In 2008, he became an assistant professor in UW's Department of Chemical Engineering, and landed a position on the Canadian Research Chair in 2012 in his area of expertise, nanotechnology. Couple his vast knowledge with his work on over 100 scientific publications and 15 US and global patents, and you can be sure that he has a lot of wisdom to share.  

Mike Kirkup:    A man who needs little introduction, Mike Kirkup is the director of Velocity, UW's designated startup incubator. In his ten years of experience, Kirkup has been involved with startups like MappedIn and Thalmic Labs, among other successful businesses. On top of that, Kirkup has had plenty of experience at uWaterloo, completing his bachelor's degree and his Masters at the school.    

Ginny Dybenko:    The executive director of the UW Stratford Campus, Ginny Dybenko is known for looking at how interactive media, international commerce, and human culture interact. With prior work as a VP of Bell Canada and the founding president of Bell Advanced Communications, it's hardly surprising that she's made the Women's Executive Network's list of the top 100 women in Canada, and she is a fantastic addition to the TEDxUW roster.  

Rod Regier:    Regier's interest in planning has taken him all across Canada: from the University to Winnipeg, where he received his Honours bachelor's degree in Geography, to UW, where he earned his Masters in Regional Planning, to Newfoundland and Labrador, where he worked on many different areas of planning and development for over 15 years. Today, Regier is the executive director of economic development for the City of Kitchener, and is involved with projects like Start Up City, Cluster Development, and the Innovation District.  

Aaron Grant:    Aaron Grant is one of the co-founders of Thalmic Labs, a renowned K-W startup that's best known for creating the MYO digital controller. As a UW grad whose innovative tech company is located right in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, Grant is an excellent example of the brilliant minds on display at TEDxUW conferences.  

Christina Marchand:    The final speaker is Christina Marchand, who is actually an undergrad at the University of Waterloo right now! In her fourth year of UW's health sciences program, Marchand has still had a lot of experience through the university's co-op program, which has allowed her to work at places like St. Michael's hospital and with the Save the Mothers program situated in Uganda. Motivated by her experiences in Uganda, Marchand has also co-founded FullSoul Canada, a business that sells luxury items to raise money for medical supplies for Ugandan hospitals. For all her humanitarian efforts, she  was awarded the YMCA International Peace Medallion last fall — not bad for someone who hasn't even finished university yet.    

On top of all these fantastic speakers, the TEDxUW conference offers awesome activities, a unique atmosphere, and of course, great food. Sound good to you? Fortunately, it's not too late to apply for the TEDxUW conference and get it on all the fun! Applications can be submitted at

6 TEDxUW Videos you have to watch

by Matt Lawes on 2014-02-20
Only a month to go before TEDxUW 2014! In case you want to know what kind of excellent speeches you can look forward to this year, here are 6 talks from past TEDxUW conferences that you have to see TODAY. These inspirational, eye-opening talks are a great way to give you a motivational boost, and they're a great display of the talented people in the KW region.

Why you will fail to have a great career” — Larry Smith In this incredibly popular TEDx talk, UW professor Larry Smith sets the audience straight about their dreams of a “great career”. Combining humour with harsh truths, this video warns you about the traps your own mind will set to stop you on your quest to success. The standout talk was held in TEDxUW's first conference in 2011, and inspired the next talk about a year afterwards:

Why you have to fail to have a great career” — Michael Litt While Professor Smith's talk was focused on avoiding the causes of failure, this talk is all about embracing it. Local entrepreneur Michael Litt took the stage in the QNC during the 2012 TEDxUW conference to let you know that failure isn't as scary as it's made out to be. Talking about his early years as an entrepreneur and UW student, Litt narrates a disastrous sales pitch he experienced, and tells viewers why sometimes, failure is just the thing you need.
The point where everything falls apart” — Bill Thompson Both of the above videos view failure as a stepping stone, an obstacle which has to be overcome in order to achieve success. Of course, when you're facing failure in the face, sometimes it seems less like a stone and more like a mountain. In entrepreneur Bill Thompson's career as a bartender, he met more than a few people who were down on their luck, who had hit a wall; the goal was within sight, but all of a sudden, they had no idea where they were going. In this tough love speech, Thompson encourages people to push forward, and to realize that giving up is not the answer.

Here's how you get a job at the UN” — Tanya DeMello Want to make a change in the world around you? Then you have to check out Tanya DeMello's TEDxUW talk. As a United Nations field officer, DeMello definitely knew what she was talking about when she gave this speech in 2011, which focuses on the ways you can improve the lives of others. With a title like “Here's how you get a job at the UN”, you might expect a step-by-step instructional on working your way up the corporate ladder until you land a gig with the United Nations. Instead, Demello gives a touching plea to stop focusing on impressive resumes or important references — it's all about caring, and putting in real effort to make the world a better place.

The poetry of physics, dancing and life” — Krister Shalm You probably wouldn't expect a quantum physicist to be discussing poetry and dance moves, but that's exactly what you're going to find in this TEDx talk given by Krister Shalm. This talk encompasses Shalm's transition from an English buff to a physics major, where he points out that maybe the two subjects really aren't so different after all, and they're both important in understanding your place in the universe.

Who can you trust?” — Andrew Maxwell While a lot of business lectures may hinge on products or business models, there's not enough of a focus on the people involved in business themselves. In “Who can you trust?”, entrepreneurial professor Andrew Maxwell tries to change this, by dedicating his speech towards figuring out which kinds of people you can rely on, and how to make others rely on you. Whether you want to know how to make a successful sales pitch or just be able to tell if your friends are trustworthy, there's a lesson to be learned in this TEDx talk. It also features a British accent, Dragon's Den and heavily paraphrased Shakespeare, meaning there's a little something here for everyone. 

We're Back!

by Matt Lawes on 2014-02-08

Did you miss us?

After taking 2013 off, TEDxUW is coming back this March to bring the best in technology, entertainment and design to the Waterloo community.

Wondering just what TEDx is? It's an independent branch of TED that takes the “spreading ideas” mission of the globally-renowned TED conferences and implements it on a community level, presenting innovative ideas to locals while also being available online to the world at large. Thousands of TEDx events are held all across the world, including places like Toronto, Cambridge — the British one —, Egypt and Sydney. But you're not here to read about TEDx stuff happening across the pond or down under. Let's talk about our very own TEDx event — TEDxUW.

The University of Waterloos' TEDx conference has all the benefits of all the other TED talks — The association with a massive network, the millions of people online waiting to be inspired, the focus on assembling the diverse & exciting discussions you won't find anywhere else — but it also has the bonus of having access to the talented minds in the uWaterloo community. TEDxUW speakers come from all walks of life, and in the past have included Olympic athletes, technological savants, accomplished entrepreneurs and more, along with University of Waterloo staff and students.

TEDxUW began in 2011, with the goal of bringing together the most interesting members of the UW community to make a change in Waterloo. Hosted by comic Ron Tite in the Humanities Theatre at Hagey Hall, the event was a massive success, featuring speakers such as negotiation artist Dr. Wendi Adair, wheelchair innovator Safwan Choudhury, and quantum physicist Krister Shalm. Hundreds of people watched the show live, whether in person or online, and since then the conference's videos have been viewed by millions. TEDxUW 2011 featured Larry Smith's “Why you will fail to have a great career” lecture, which currently has nearly 2 and a half million hits on TED's website and was featured in a playlist of 6 speeches that became a phenomena in 2012.   

In November 2012, TEDx returned to the university, this time with TEDxUW being held in the Quantum Nano-Centre. The theme of the conference was “EDGE”, with a focus on pushing the envelope and making the audience ask themselves “What if?” The event was hosted by Denise Conlon, and featured presentations from local entrepreneur Michael Litt, Heather Moyse - who won the gold medal in 2010 for the women's bobsleigh competition - and UW student Andrew Wong, among others.

This year's event will be on March 15, and instead of happening on campus, the conference will be held at the Tannery Event Centre adjoined to the Communitech Hub in downtown Kitchener. The 3,500+ sq. ft convention space is a monument to both collaboration and modernization, created by converting a former Waterloo mill into the state-of-the-art technology hub and conference centre that it is today - with the help of provincial and national funding. It is the perfect site for TEDxUW, an event that seeks to inspire others towards innovation.

Sound interesting? Want to find out more? Keep coming to the TEDxUW site for info on this year's speakers, videos from the conference, and of course, more blog updates!