By Alex Warren, National Geographic Learning Teacher Trainer
If I told you that TED Talks started in the same year that one pound notes were taken out of circulation, the miners had their strike, Virgin Atlantic had its maiden flight, the first GCSE’s were taken, Band Aid was #1, Michael Jackson released Thriller, and Ghostbusters, Gremlins and The Karate Kid were some of the year’s biggest films, what would you think? Would you believe me? TED might be hugely popular and influential now as a purveyor of 21st century creative thinking and for spreading ideas, but back at the very first TED conference no one really blinked an eye (even though it showcased the CD and was one of the first outings of the Apple Macintosh).
In actual fact it wasn’t until around 2006 (a staggering 22 years after the first talk) that the TED juggernaut started to pick up speed and become globally renowned. It was hardly a coincidence that this was also the year that YouTube began to take off. And then someone, somewhere decided that it would be a good idea to use TED Talks in their classes. This in turn started its own movement of teachers using them to teach English and the skills of English. And why not? They make a fantastic resource for learning and teaching. Indeed, it could be argued that there are as many reasons to use TED in the classroom as there are TED Talks (which is 2,300 and counting).
The topics are contemporary and cutting edge, they’re interesting, they’re relevant and they’re inspiring. Don’t be mistaken, you can find TED Talks for any topic covered in a course book and as such they’re a great way to go ‘off piste’ while still being ‘on topic’. In this respect they make learning English ‘real’ for students. If you didn’t know already, English lessons are more than just learning English nowadays– they’re about learning about the real world and preparing for it through this wonderful lingua franca of ours. And that’s just the talks. The speakers themselves are diverse, engaging and truly global – you don’t have to be Bono or Bill Gates to be a TED speaker, just someone with a great idea that’s worth spreading. And in many respects TED speakers represent the epitome of what it is to be a 21st century global citizen – they are critical and creative thinkers who communicate their ideas brilliantly, and as such are role models to be listened to and followed.
But how about linguistically? Well TED Talks also provide great input for language acquisition and the development of authentic listening skills. As we all know, language learning requires substantial comprehensible input and there’s no questioning the fact that TED Talks are jam-packed with that. Yes, they’re challenging for EFL students, but so is listening in real life. So shouldn’t we be helping them by giving them the practice they need? Of course we should. They also act as great models for speaking – these guys are the experts at public speaking – as well as being the perfect springboard for discussion, critical thinking and follow-up project work. In other words, they get students talking. And they really do. TED Talks are talked about – just see how many times they’ve been viewed online. And so by using them in class we’re giving them a platform from which to participate in a global community.
So, the question you should be asking yourself isn’t “Why should I be using TED Talks in my classes?”; rather it should be “Why shouldn’t I be using TED Talks in my classes?”.