How TED Talks Could Be Improved

If TED changed its focus and direction slightly, it could become a forum for interesting discussion.

At present it is hampered by five factors:

  1. Too much status is attached to TED talks. A talk alone can whisk a person to fame.
  2. The talks tend to emphasize positive, inclusive big ideas rather than questions and doubts.
  3. The talks dabble in science just enough to seem credible but do not engage in serious argumentation. They do not come with bibliographies (as they should).
  4. The talks tend to sound alike; many of them include a big idea, poignant personal story, and reference to science. Many come with a prop.
  5. Some of the most popular talks make unfounded claims and demonstrate poor reasoning.

Very well. How might these problems be adjusted or overturned?

Let Daydreaming Daydream


Painting: “11” by Karen Kaapcke, an entry in the 2016 Atlas Art Contest.

I have written about daydreaming numerous times (see here, here, here, here, and here in the blog, see here in Republic of Noise, and see my story “The Diagnosis“). I have daydreamed all my life; since infancy I was able to absorb myself in something simple for hours. I was kicked out of ballet class at age six because I would dance around the room instead of following directions (and was completely unaware that I wasn’t following directions). I was terrible at sports involving quick reactions, because my mind was on other things.

Generally I like being this way. It slows me down but also allows me to play with ideas, words, sounds, images. I am usually working on a story in my head over a period of months. It may not be anything I write down; I simply enjoy working out the details and carrying it in my mind. At other times, I work on projects or just let the thoughts wander.

All of this goes to say that I have some experience with daydreaming. Usually, when I read discussions of it, I find that they are slightly on the wrong track. They seem to focus on how daydreaming helps or hinders productivity (or so-called “creativity,” which is usually meant as corporate creativity). This carries two questionable assumptions: (a) that mental processes are valuable only insofar as they serve productivity (and so-called “creativity”), and that if we just found that key to productivity and creativity, people would be ever so much more productive and creative.

So it was somewhat refreshing to see Emily Reynolds’s New York Magazine piece “Everyone Should Make More Time for Daydreaming.” After that iffy title, the piece hit some good subtleties. Challenging the assumption that daydreaming is “a waste of time,” Reynolds cites some research and commentary suggesting otherwise, and goes on to say that daydreaming takes different forms, some helpful, some not. But not all daydreaming has to boost your output, she notes:

But this isn’t to say that you should reframe daydreaming as a “productive” activity, one aimed at particular or favorable outcomes. “Positive constructive daydreaming need not have a goal,” Kaufman agrees. Whether you do it mindfully or mindlessly, it’s worth spending a little time each day imagining the world beyond the present moment.

All fine and well, except for two things. First, there was really no need to cite Kaufman here; is the idea to give her statement a kind of scientific glow? Something from Dante or Emerson (for instance) might have worked better.

Second, I am not sure that daydreaming should be practiced deliberately. That seems to turn it into something else. Reynolds advocates some kind of “mindful daydreaming”–a combination of whimsy and awareness–but isn’t that already second nature to some people? If people set out to do this for the sake of becoming more creative, wouldn’t that corrupt the endeavor?

There is something wrong with the search for a “key” to creativity (or productivity). The people clamoring for it are not typically yearning for more poetry; no, they want more creativity on the job, in the service of profit. It is creativity on someone else’s terms. Also, they neglect the interaction of subject matter and creativity. Creativity exists only in relation to something. The best way to increase your creativity is to immerse yourself in that subject. You will start thinking about it, playing with it, imagining its possibilities, daydreaming about it. You won’t get there by trying to become more creative.

In his scathing (and brilliant) article “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank writes that “the literature of creativity [is] a genre of surpassing banality” in that it exemplifies conformity, not creativity, and is directed not at artists, musicians, actors, and writers, but at the professional-managerial class. Reynolds’ piece certainly doesn’t fall in this category, but it could step more boldly outside the trend.

In short: It’s good to recognize that daydream is not just a waste of time–that it is essential to some natures and endeavors. But there’s no need for daydreamer-chic, daydreamer mindfulness training,  or Amazon (Inc.) treehouse daydreaming sessions. Let daydreaming do what it does best: take its own way.

Proponent of Teacher Obsolescence Theory Becomes Obsolete

Renart_illuminationExbox, SD—Nicole Intendo, professor of education at Avante University, received notice on Wednesday that she would no longer be needed in the classroom. Instead of taking her classes, students would spend the the time playing video games.

Intendo works relentlessly to propagate the theory that traditional classroom teaching (narrowly defined) has become obsolete in the wake of educational technologies. According to sources, Avante University has enthusiastically decided to apply her ideas.

“That is insulting, preposterous, and un-research-based,” said Intendo. “Research has shown that classroom teachers in kindergarten through high school have become relics of the past. But in college and graduate school, it’s an entirely different matter. We need to shape the wants of aspiring professionals. Too many young people enter our education program with fantasies of standing in front of the room and presenting something fascinating about a subject. We have to combat their outdated sense of purpose.”

According to Intendo, research has shown that all aspiring teachers are essentially “industrial and hierarchical” in motivation. They want to teach the students something they don’t already know.  Video games, by contrast, are entirely interactive; you can’t get through the game unless you are actively playing. Therefore, says Intendo, it is essential that she disseminate the research as often and as widely as possible—through classroom lectures, TED talks, radio interviews, and pocket-size bullet points—so that the American public at large will be exposed to the facts.

“If I lose my position,” she said, fighting back tears, “there will still be kids in Boston or Dallas who have to sit and listen to a teacher talk about how to solve an algebraic equation or how a sonnet is structured or how World War II came about. Why should they have to suffer through that? All that information is on Wikipedia. What they really need is a screen, keyboard, and challenge, all tailored to them. It’s so obvious, once you look at the research—but it takes me about two years to get this across to any given student.”

Asked how teachers could possibly be evaluated accurately in a class driven by video games, Intendo pointed at a bar chart on the wall. “Teachers are all-important,” she said. “Everything they do impacts a student’s future outcomes. See that graph? It shows a teacher’s direct effect on future earnings, down to the dollar. This is why they have to accept their new roles and step out of the way.”

Intendo’s students have questioned her conclusions. “I think she’s comparing apples to Apples,” said one, who requested anonymity. “I enjoy video games, but they don’t belong everywhere. I’m taking a great class on Chaucer and Cervantes right now. Is there a video game for this?” He quoted from the text:

This Chauntecleer his winges gan to bete,
As man that coude his tresoun nat espye,
So was he ravissed with his flaterye.

“What are we supposed to do—play a game where we’re the rooster trying not to be killed by the fox?” he taunted. “Oh, and maybe sprinkle in some word challenges, like ‘ravissed’ and ‘Chauntecleer’?  I’d rather take the course, thanks, and play my favorite games in my own time.”

“My favorite high school classes had teachers who actually taught us stuff,” said another. “In music theory class, the teacher taught us harmony and counterpoint.  She made it really interesting, with examples from different kinds of music. She got us to notice things. Then for homework she had us do exercises and compose pieces. That’s the kind of teacher I hoped to be.”

“That just proves my point,” said Intendo. “As you can see from these comments, new teachers imagine themselves at the front of the room. They have some favorite teacher who set the example for them in that way. But they have to get weaned off their own experiences and start looking at data. They absolutely need me for that.”

Intendo, who gave a TEDTalk about the future of education, believes that education professors, when they lecture, should do so in TED style. “I don’t lecture all the time,” she said, “but when I do, I practice every move in advance, so that I project total confidence. I make my multimedia effects really grabbing. I keep the ideas simple so the students have a takeaway. I bring emotions into the picture. I even share a little about myself. My point is not to fill their heads with useless information but to convey the most essential data in about 20 minutes.” The rest of the time, she said, was devoted to “turn-and-talk” activities, where students would come to a “scholarly consensus” about what had been said. At the end of the lesson, they would fill out a two-column chart with the headings “I used to think” and “But now I know.”

“My classes are revolutionary, if I may say so myself,” she said. “It occurred to me the other day that I am changing the face of teaching and learning. I have to keep this up. If Avante gets its way, we will slide right back into the status quo.”

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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