The TED Talk I Wasn't Asked To Give

Introduction By: Dan Koch @danvkoch If you've ever heard me speak before at a conference, you've undoubtedly heard me reference my non-example of a first-grade teacher, Mrs. "P," and her exploits in student-shaming. In short, she did not do wonders for me in terms of how I viewed school back then. In fact, you could say I hated it. You've also probably heard me speak of how one teacher managed to completely reignite my love of learning: My fourth grade teacher, Mr. Stasiuk. Since fourth grade, I've been able to keep in contact with Mr. Stasiuk, or Bruce, as he now prefers me to call him (I still can't do it).

I can't begin to list the ways Mr. S saved me and allowed me to create, curate and express myself in his classroom. Currently, I follow his goings-on from Facebook, where he will post videos of his dog, Mugs, share his thoughts on education in general, and publish his artwork (digital and analog). This is made all the more incredible to me considering that even before I had him as a fourth grade teacher, he was paralyzed from the waist down in a trampoline accident; which also limited the mobility of his hands. What was this to Mr. S? A mere speed bump. He continues to draw, create, and even teach a course for new teachers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

One such musing from Mr. Stasiuk that caught my eye was a recent Facebook post of his he entitled, "The TED Talk I Wasn't Asked To Give." After reading it, I instantly contacted him and asked if I could publish it to the EdTechAfterDark blog. He graciously (and humbly) obliged. I encourage you to read his thoughts below, and, as always, share and discuss!

The TED Talk I Wasn't Asked To Give

By: Bruce Stasiuk

I sat by the phone. I went to the mailbox. Nothing. I can wait no longer.

The Ted Talk I Wasn’t Asked To Give


The subject of this talk is American Education, or, as I sometimes call it…artificial intelligence.

For the benefit of Full Disclosure I admit that I don’t know much about what goes on in high school, having spent only 4 distracted years at that level. This presentation refers to the foundational years: the K-6 building blocks where I invested six seasons as a parochial student.

After completing the requirements at Adelphi Suffolk University, I was invited to teach a few graduate courses there. Afterwards, I spent 34 enjoyable, yet disorganized seasons as a classroom teacher, then 8 more years instructing a course for k-12 teachers…Thinking Inside the Box… which gave me the opportunity to examine the species up close and personal.

That comes to about 50 years… in fuzzy numbers. But, who’s counting on me?

You’re urged to disagree with anything expressed here because I make mistakes regularly, myself being a product of the American industrial-education complex.

Let’s start with the premise that all knowledge is worthwhile and desirable. There is no benefit to not knowing something. Ignorance is not blissful.However, all knowledge is not of equal value. The ability to read about the inventor of the cotton gin is of more value than knowing and memorizing his name. Likewise, although there would be some usefulness in recalling every number in the Manhattan phone book, and the cognitive exercise would be an accomplishment, it would mostly be a huge waste of edu-minutes. ® Knowing how to alphabetically look up a phone number is a more valuable skill. At least until it’s made obsolete in our advancing digital world. So, can we agree that some knowledge is of lower value, some is higher value, and some is rapidly approaching an expiring shelf-life? Since schools operate by the clock and calendar… there is a finite amount of class-time for learning. There is so much to learn, but, students can’t learn it all. So, choices must be made. Schools need to adopt a regular policy of knowledge triage. There’s got to be jetsam and flotsam in order to make room for the important cargo. But even if schools agreed to do it, would they flotsam the right jetsam?  Ask your local administrator what’s the last thing added to the curriculum. Then ask, what was removed to make room for it. If there’s no answer, it means the program was diluted (unless the school day or year was expanded…not a chance) or in a misguided way, the usual ballast of art and music were reduced.

Like the roach motel, once something enters the schoolhouse door it can almost never leave. Schools change very little. If you were in the 5th grade 25 years ago and you visited a class today it would look very familiar. Computers and tablets are used like electric paper but the substance is the same. Oh, the black boards are now smarter…but are the kids? Old wine in new bottles.

Remember, that learning clock is ticking. Time is passing.

As a child I had a fantasy of every person, at birth, receiving a huge hour-glass. Except it wasn’t designed to measure an hour. It was constructed as a lifetime-glass. The top bulb contained all the sand representing one’s life according to actuarial tables. It was inverted at birth and the sand started trickling through the narrow stem passage-way. One could see the top bulb dripping sand into the bottom bulb. Even at night, opening one eye, one could visualize their lifetime with the lower heap growing while the upper kept draining smaller. I wondered if a life would be led differently with such a visual aide.

Schools have to think that way. They must sort out, rummage through , and evaluate all available knowledge and select those age appropriate things that will help develop students into educated people with transferable skills and functional wisdom. Ideally, layer upon layer will build up until enough practical knowledge and related talents enable graduates to negotiate life in a fluid and uncertain world….a very moveable feast.

Leon Klempner, a friend and amazing man, recently told me the experience of his dental school orientation at the University of Maryland. The dean advised the new students that 50% of what they’ll learn will no longer be true by the time they graduate. Furthermore, he advised, they won’t know which 50% it is. So what did we learn in school? Yes. Reading. Of course reading. And math. Although I never did divide 4/7 by 3/9 ever again. I remember some lessons quite well…Pilgrims wore funny hats and buckled shoes. We drew pictures of them. They were brought home and taped to refrigerators….or ice boxes….remember, this was the South Bronx in the fifties.

“Mary’s violet eyes…” helped us learn what was, at the time, the order of the planets. But of what practical value is there in knowing that Jupiter is nearer to the earth than Saturn?

So little time…so much knowledge.

Remember the names of Columbus’s ships, anybody?

Yes. Of course you can.

Everyone in this overflowing audience knows the 3 names.

Furthermore, you all know them in the same order.

Good for you! Doesn't matter where you went to school… from the Redwood forest, to the gulf-stream waters, to the NY Island… those names were taught to you and me… and….in order!

Quite an achievement. Or, is it?

Of what educational value are those 3 names? Virtually none…except maybe to a contestant on Jeopardy. But students are in real jeopardy if we continue to consume their limited school time with pointless facts, trivia, backward-thinking, and low-level knowledge.

I dub it the Nina Pinta and Santa Marianization of our schools.

Let’s sail back in time to Columbus. The big date…you know …it rhymes with ‘ocean blue.’

What was going on in the world during that era? Was there a printing press? Was there a global power? Were there wars going on? ( Good guess. Seems there’s always a war going on somewhere.)

Was his trip around the time of the Great Famine, or the Black Death? How long would the journey take and how was it estimated? What provisions did Columbus need to stock in order to survive the journey? How did the food not spoil? How much water could be used each day by each person and animal? How many men and animals should be boarded, realizing that each man and animal consumed food and water and made the living quarters tighter? What if winds were becalmed in the Horse Latitudes and the ships barely moved? Did they need weapons, and if so, why?

How many of us considered those questions in school? The teachers didn’t ask them, nor did they know the answers. Remember, teachers are a product of the schools themselves. They are primarily people who succeeded in school, liked it, and went on to do it…not change it. They are educational conservatives.

During the 8 years I directed a class for teachers I’d give them a test developed from 4th and 5th grade books. Not one teacher ever came close to passing. I’d tell them that they were either not very bright or that the material we’re teaching our kids is irrelevant to a functioning adult.

So, what if our educational system comes to it’s senses and realizes that constructive destruction of curriculum and teaching methods is necessary, and Common Core was not a common cure?

What should we teach?

Here’s a start.

What is fire, auto, and life insurance and how do they work. The art of being skeptical without being a skeptic. Time. What is it and how to manage it. Personal finances. Every school should create a bank where students have the option of investing in it by purchasing shares. The bank would issue loans to students and would require a student co-signer. Interest would be added to the loan reflecting the amount and length. Credit rating would be developed. Yes. I’ve done it and it works. Relationships. What are they, how do they develop, and what is their value? Introductions. How to offer and receive them. Black boxes in airplanes and cars. What do they reveal? What are mortgages and why do they exist? Waste management. Where does garbage go? What are sewers and cesspools. Water…Water…not everywhere. Logic and reasoning with and without Venn diagrams. The art of questioning and the value of wrong answers. The media. What it is, how it works, and the choices it makes. The illusions of movies and TV through editing, music, and more. PG13. How and why things are rated. The hows and whys of advertising. A school farm with irrigation. Students would have scheduled time working on the farm. A student and adult committee would handle the summer months. Kitchen duty with student assignments. Custodial duty with student assignments. The science of raising, preparing, and cooking food. What do we eat and where does it come from? What is a hamburger bun? Negotiating and compromising. The evolution of things like the medicine bottle, the telephone, the sneaker…etc. Dilemmas such as how can Italy, the world’s biggest exporter of olive oil also be the world’s biggest importer? Is there such a thing as too much? Plumb lines, centers of gravity, and sea level. Architecture and engineering and stacking blocks. Physics is everything. How technology affects our lives. Language is always changing. Objects…magnifying glasses, prisms, levels, stethoscopes, magnets, ball bearings, The magic of Perimeters. The gift of failure, and the hardship of failure deprived people. Thinking about what others are thinking by using game theory. Zero-sum games. Your body…a user’s manual.

This is an incomplete and imperfect list of subjects that schools should start encouraging students to explore… in and out of class. Learning time is too valuable and finite to keep teaching the sliderules of the past.

Our agricultural era is gone. Our industrial age is quickly being overtaken by the information age where innovation and creativity are the new currency. It’s no longer what you know, but rather, how you use what you know.

Allison Gopnik, a professor of development psychology, states in What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages:

"We don’t have to make children learn, we just have to let them learn."


EdtechZachary LeonardComment