Ralph Breaks the TED Talk

ButcherBoy_RalphBreakstheInternet.png“You know, I just saw a really insightful TED talk, and I can’t really remember what the guy said, it was more about how it made me feel . . .”

—Butcher Boy, Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Excerpt from “When Rites Go Flimsy,” in Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments:

When TED Talk-style eloquence is tested against grossly inarticulate speaking styles, researchers found that the eloquent, engaging speaker didn’t teach better. Even worse, she left the audience with the impression that they had learned more than they actually did. [1] Ritualized eloquence created a learning gap.

Infectious by design, TED Talks eventually interjected themselves into our classrooms, but not by our design. Years ago in class, while my students and I were talking through the biblical teaching on poverty relief, a young woman excitedly mentioned that she had seen a TED Talk about the dangers of such efforts. Not much surpasses the beauty of a moment when a student connects the classroom to the outside world. She felt that this twelve-minute speech had transformed her view of poverty relief, and now she heard similar ideas harmonizing in the classroom. We beamed and moved on. So far, so good.

When this kind of comment first started happening, we teachers all understood the excitement over the connection. Many of us had been profoundly impacted by one or two TED Talks ourselves. But some of us eventually began to question how a twelve-minute speech could radically transform someone’s view of anything at all, especially if transformed understanding is ritualized into us as whole persons over time.

So I started asking more questions when TED Talks came up in conversations. Actually, I would ask just one question: What was the central point of that TED Talk you saw? After all, an expertly focused talk on a single subject should have a memorable point, shouldn’t it? The answer to that question took a predictable form: “I don’t remember exactly, but it was something about sending shoes to Africa and the local economy being impacted adversely–or something like that.”


Despite being fuzzy on the details, all the people I spoke to remembered that they had enjoyed the TED Talk (or speeches like them) and that the expert spoke powerfully. But I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t quite piece together the significance of any particular TED Talk, and that seemed problematic. (This is when I started falling out of love with TED.)

After hearing such responses numerous times, my colleagues and I began to wonder what most people think happens when they gain a new insight. As professional educators,  we have a good grip on the rituals of education, what works and what doesn’t. TED Talks, if they indeed transform us, seem to violate what we know to be true about fully human learning. . . .

. . . read more about TED Talks and other rituals that can go flimsy in Human Rites. 

[1] Shana K. Carpenter et al., “Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Instructor Fluency Increases Perceptions of Learning without Increasing Actual Learning,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 20, Issue 6 (Dec. 2013): 1350–56.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s