5 Ways to Incorporate TED Talks into Learning


Photo Credit: Mike Linksvayer

With a motto like, “Ideas worth spreading,” it’s almost like TED Talks were made for the classroom — after all, spreading ideas is fundamental to what education is all about. The TED Talk format is great too: talks are relatively short, deal with the most pressing issues of the day, and are packed with interesting ideas and inherently shareable information. It’s no wonder that they’re embraced by all kinds of learners in every stage of life across the world.

 And yet, for a teacher tasked with ensuring students learn very specific kinds of information, a TED Talk on its own won’t always provide the comprehensive exploration of a topic that a good lecture would. How can today’s educators use TED Talks to their full advantage? Let’s take a look at a few creative ways to do just that.

1. Use TEDTalks to Spark Conversations

The most obvious way to use TED Talks in the classroom is to show talks that relate in some way to the subject material you’re currently covering. However, in doing so, it’s important not to restrict yourself to thinking linearly, i.e. “We’re covering Hamlet, therefore the only relevant talk will be a TED Talk about Hamlet” (though they certainly do exist!).

This excellent piece written from the perspective of a student captures the “how” and the “why” of this point well. In it, Olivia Cucinotta describes how her teacher had the class watch anthropologist Helen Fisher’s TED Talk about love and cheating after they finished reading Madame Bovary. Then the teacher gathered the students for a discussion and posed the questions, “If Gustave Flaubert and Helen Fisher were having a conversation about love, what would they say to one another? What would you say to them?”

After just a little nudging, the students dug in for a stimulating discussion — one that went far beyond a basic talk of the book’s plot. In so doing, the teacher created a multimedia learning experience, using the TEDTalk to frame a discussion that blended contemporary research with universal themes in classic literature.

This anecdote is a great model of how TEDTalks can be used to capture student attention, reframe older and denser works in a meaningful contemporary manner, and spark a high caliber discussion students won’t be soon to forget.

2. Learn to Love the TED-Ed Platform

TED is well aware of its potential utility to the world of education — so aware, in fact, that it has an entire website, ed.ted.com, devoted to using TED in the classroom.

TED-Ed is a powerful platform that helps you create entire lessons around specific TED Talks, meaning that while you can certainly incorporate any given talk into another lesson like we discussed in point 1, you can also easily create entire lessons around the talk itself. This means TED-ED is an especially powerful tool if you’ve flipped your classroom, though it is also highly effective in creating compelling homework. The video tour of TED-Ed below describes its features well:

How does it work? On the TED-Ed website, you can search for TED videos on YouTube through the search bar. Once you find a talk you like, you can use the “Share” feature to add context to the video or define learning objectives for your students. In the “Think” section you can add multiple choice questions or pose open-ended questions for your students to ponder. In the “Dig Deeper” section you can add links to articles, references, and the class blog. Using these tools, you can provide a deeper context for the talk, encourage students to engage rather than just watching passively, and spark deeper discussion both online and in the classroom.

You can also browse other teachers’ lesson plans, or share your own and see it featured on the site. You can create custom URLs for your discussion so you can share it exclusively with your students. Best of all, you can use the site to track student progress to see who’s on board and who needs help. It’s all of the best collaborative and engagement tools right next to the best ideas around.

3. Make Your Own TED-Ed Club

It’s not just adults that have good ideas; in fact, if you browse through any number of TED Talks, they often hold up young people, who see fewer limits than adults do, as the creative ideal. So why not feature student “ideas worth spreading” by giving them a platform of their own?

TED-Ed Clubs makes running your own mini-TED event easy:

Just fill out an application on the TED-Ed site and the organization will send you a free set of tools, including 13 suggested meeting topics. In these meetings, students will learn all about what makes a great TED Talk, and will work on practicing their speech writing and presenting skills until they’re ready to put on an event of their own. In so doing, students will not only gain confidence in their own ideas, but they’ll also be learning a lot about writing, discussion, and storytelling — skills you can translate into more traditional essay writing and analysis in other settings.

And best of all? You can submit the best speeches to be featured on TED-Ed, where your student might win a presenter’s slot at TEDYouth. How’s that for a confidence booster?

4. Have Students Give Subject-Specific TED Talks

So far, we’ve discussed the ways students can benefit from hearing or discussing big ideas in the most general sense. But there’s no reason you can’t use the TED Talk model as inspiration for more specific school units. Let’s say, for example, that you are a history teacher and you’re currently focusing on the Tudors. Why not have each student pitch their own big theory about this famous dynastic family and then have a TEDTudor day of presentations? Certainly would beat the typical presentation style!

Alternatively, you could propose big ideas ahead of time, and assign them directly to students to challenge them into thinking deeply about the topic — much like you would do in a debate unit where you assign students opinions to argue for, regardless of whether or not they personally support their give position (great for building rhetoric and analysis skills). Or best of all, you can assign each student a Tudor character, and then have them give a TED Talk from that person’s perspective. You better bet a student will have a much deeper understanding of Anne Boleyn’s perspective when they have to represent her on your class TED stage!

No matter what route you take, the idea here is to take the TED Talk format and apply it specifically to whatever subject or unit you’re currently teaching.

5. Create a TED Talks Unit

Underpinning all of these ideas is the concept of having students not only brainstorm great ideas but also put them together in a compelling, cogent, and convincing manner. The TED-Ed Clubs packet will go a long way in helping your students do just that — but why not also devote an entire unit just to teaching these kinds of storytelling skills directly?

From writing a thesis to making eye contact with an audience, a TED Talk unit will drive important lessons home. Use your TED Talks unit as a way to teach your students argument, rhetoric, and presentation skills — skills that should permeate throughout their writing and other schoolwork.

In Short

TED Talks make for a great base for so many different kinds of educational experiences. Whether you’re simply using a talk to spark discussion or you’re creating a TED series of your own, TED Talks make a creative, exciting, and rewarding teaching lens.

How have you used TED Talks in the classroom? Let us know in the comments below.



    December 17, 2014 at 6:49 am

    Do also bear in mind that a number of TED talks are pretty bad in terms of presentation, argument and content. The speakers are not always experts in their subjects and your students should be aware of this.

    Encourage the class to view the talks with a critical eye and get them to pick holes in what the speaker is saying!

    • Leah Levy

      December 17, 2014 at 7:16 am

      Thanks for the thoughts. I think that applies to any media source, especially with what students can find on the internet these days! Critical thinking skills (especially those related to identifying credibility, thoroughness, and bias) are more important than ever.

  2. Leah O.

    January 11, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Ted Talks are an excellent hook and engagement tool for high school students. Students can relate to the topics and more high schools are incorporating Ted Talks into advisory programs. As public-speaking is becoming an essential aspect of 21st century skills, using Ted Talks as a tool in speech classes, or in other areas of curriculum are worth while.
    Using Ted Talks on the student level, as mentioned in the article, such as creating a “Ted Ed” opportunity is inspirational and could motivate less engaged students on a variety of topics relevant to their lives.

    • Leah Levy

      January 12, 2015 at 9:58 am

      Thanks for your comment, Leah. I of course agree, and think TEDTalks are a great tool for keeping teaching relevant. Plus, the ideas they discuss are just pretty neat!

  3. Sara

    January 27, 2015 at 1:40 am

    What about research about the subject or matter exposed in ted talks improving research information skills, presentation of different opinions and points of view. Can also be a platform to nurture critical thinking. Fonts and diversity. Foster constructive criticism.

    • Leah Levy

      January 27, 2015 at 7:21 am

      Yes, great ideas! Love them all.