8 Ted Talks for Teachers to Watch (Before You Start Lesson Planning)

May 19, 2020

This post contains 8 of the best Ted Talks all teachers should watch for motivation, inspiration, and ideas to develop student passions for and interests in learning.

I could watch it again and again.

Granted, Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk is *the* most-watched global speech of all time, but he never fails to blow my mind.

So let's start with why that is (and I'll keep it simple):

The guy is a creativity *ninja*.

(Right now the 16-year-old, know-it-all version of me is wondering where that career was on my college majors list, but I digress). 

As a Creativity Expert, Sir Ken has made it his mission in life to challenge the way we educate kids.

That is a mission I can get behind.

Now, if you don’t know Sir Ken Robinson, then you have yet watch *the* most watched TED Talks of all time, and a brilliant one for teachers, indeed: “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” 

Amidst his wit and humor, Sir Ken lays it all out there: 

“All kids have talents, [yet] we squander them pretty ruthlessly.”

*drops the mic*

Our world of education talks a big game when it comes to creativity, but when push-comes-to-shove, creativity is a chair short against math, science, or (gulp) writing. 

Alas, creativity remains a backburner skill.

'Do Schools Kill Creativity?'

The long-term benefits of creativity are less obvious because they're not as easy to measure. And Sir Ken says it better than most:

“The consequence [of our current educational system] is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued.”

Clearly he isn't the top TED'ster for nothin'. But there are plent of TED Talks that are chock-full of these gems.

In his TEDxFargo talk, Ted Dintersmith, education expert and leading venture capitalist, talked about an experience he had with his own children. 

He and his wife had received a message from his kid’s school inviting them to attend a session where the school would be talking about what it was doing to “teach [his] children important life skills.” Dintersmith, intrigued by this idea, came up with his own list of “Important Life Skills.”

His list was made up of skills like

  • inventive problem-solving
  • teamwork
  • communication
  • and figuring out complex situations.


He included characteristics and character traits like

  • determination
  • resourcefulness
  • perseverance
  • being able to stand up to failure
  • being bold
  • and appreciating wonder in nature and human achievement.


Lastly, he included capabilities like

  • setting bold goals
  • learning how to learn
  • being able to persevere through difficulties
  • and finding your passion and purpose in life.


My man’s got some *mean* expectations for school, but why shouldn’t he? 

Why can’t schools teach ALL these things right alongside content?

(With all due respect, I know you're apt to maintain that we ~do~ teach these things in our own way. But how do we know those 'teachable moments' are actually translating if we're not ~actually~ assessing them?)

Now I don’t mean to spoil the fun, Dintersmith was disappointed to find that what his child's school was doing to equip kids with 'life skills' was nowhere near the vision this Innovation Expert conjured.

But then a beautiful thing happened. His disappointment gave way to action. It catalyzed his mission to change education in the days to follow.

To date, his time and resources are spent on exploring the “intersection of innovation and education.”

TED Talks for Teachers, like these mentioned above, have the ability to not only motivate + energize educators, but to catalyze our action, too. 

I began thinking about how I could do things better in my classroom--not just 'do obsolete things better'-- and my idea list grew and grew. 

Visions of passion projects, units on entrepreneurship, developing lessons around wholesome and real creativity. 

I want to engage my students in discussions about their interests and introduce them to jobs they don’t even know exist. And challenge them to think about the jobs that don't YET exist, as well.

The mission of TED is to “spread ideas worth spreading.” If that is true, call me a farmer, because I want to take all the 'seeds of awesome' they're spreading and reap a whole stinking harvest of them. 

So I've created my own little TED farm for you to enjoy, talks that have shifted my mindset and inspired my action. No TED stage is too small to hear the big ideas shared in these videos below.

TED Talks to Transform your Teaching

In my mind, the future of education relies on our ability to have an open mindset, capable of both grit and growth. Consider these nerdy teacher TED Talks the catalyst for great things in the classroom.

#1 What Makes a Good Teacher Great? (Azul Terronez, TEDxSantoDomingo)

For 24 years, Azul Terronez has been asking himself the same question:

What makes a good teacher great? 

Over the course of his time in the classroom, he collected 26,000 responses from 8 different schools in an attempt to answer that question.

From the responses, he noticed themes and trends, which he divulges in this TEDxSantoDomingo talk.

“A great teacher makes themselves humble before their students. They take risks. They put aside their fear to try.” 

Terronez explains in detail why our current teaching trends kill the excitement to learn. 

At one point, Terronez describes what it would look like if we learned to ride a bike at school. 

Now, I don’t want to kill the magic of this analogy, but he sheds some light on how real learning happens. When we teach a child to ride a bike, more or less, we don't work through the manual top-to-bottom for weeks on end as our Step 1...

You gotta hear it to love it, but Terronez's analogy definitely forced me to flashback to some of my earlier days in teaching, where I conducted a tough audit on the choices I made “as I prepared my students for the (air quote) real world.”

And after listening to this TED'ster, I felt inspired to take more risks in my classroom, to change the way I respond when a student turns work in late, and even rethink how I set up and focus class units.

He pulled me back to shore from a rip current of an otherwise overly planned-and-semi-canned world in his reminders to ask, and more importantly, listen to our learners.

Because good teachers love to learn.

#2 The Puzzle of Motivation (Daniel Pink, TEDGlobal 2009)

Now, this is not a typical education talk; in fact, it isn’t about education at all. This talk is actually about business, but the science behind Daniel Pink’s message can be applied to all areas, especially the classroom.

And it's one that fundamentally changed my take on teaching + learning forever.

The focus of this talk is all about extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivators and which of those has the best potential for producing results.

Dan Pink explains it like this,

“Contingent motivators, if you do this then you get that, work in some circumstances, but for a lot of tasks they either don’t work or they do harm.” 

In essence, extrinsic motivators--like grades, money, prizes, awards--don’t produce the best results.

Let that sink in. 

But, Miss, this is for point value, so I have to do it.

Sure, you might feel compelled to do the assignment to get the grade. But that doesn't mean you learned a darn thing from it.

This kind of 'dangling carrot' is no way to get real, honest dedication and focus from employees or students.

Instead, Pink suggests we build motivation from the inside out (not the other way around). If you want a student to gain anything from the learning process, you need to give them autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

We all want to direct our own lives; we have the desire to get better at something that matters; and we yearn to do what we do in service of something greater than ourselves. 

These are the three puzzle pieces of intrinsic motivation, and the examples he gives of HUGE companies embracing this change is beyond impressive.

Or as Pink puts it, these are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system that could improve organizations--and schools--all over.

#3 I Love Teaching So Much...I Quit (Tawana Weicker, TEDxTryon)

I only have four words here:

Be. Still. My. Heart.

If Dan Pink's smooth delivery is a force to be reckoned with, Tawana Weicker's radical candor comes in at a close second for me.

Her rough-around-the-edges wit brings to TED a moment in professional development we all need to hear.

Tawana Weicker (TedXTryon, 2015)

Mrs. Weicker was your everyday hard-working English teacher, until the day one of her students gave a senior presentation on repurposing oil from local restaurants into bio diesel fuel.

In that moment, in letting herself learn from the student (rather than the other way around), this became a pivotal point that forever changed Weicker’s perspective on education and also her personal path in life.

Having been bit by the 'biodiesel bug', she went on to learn more about the process of converting oil into fuel and eventually got her students involved as well. She began to see how necessary the connection between school campus and local community could be in educating her learners.

But it wasn’t until a student questioned her love for Biodiesel, and challenged her to do something with it, that she finally decided to take the leap out of the classroom.

“Am I being a hypocrite? Do I need to become a student of the 21st century and really feel in my bones what it’s like not to know what you’re going to do after graduation?” 

After 10 years of letting the outside world pass her by, she decided to walk the walk, and show her students what it looks like to be curious and take risks.

And that she did. She quit her day job teaching (!) to pursue this new passion full time, though with the intention of bringing her knowledge--and a program--back to the school base.

By the way, you often hear me tooting the horn of passion projects. I've written several posts all about them. This is a post on getting started with passion projects...and this one about using passion projects to reignite your student's minds by focusing on purpose.

I truly believe passion projects have the ability to change lives. Sometimes those lives aren’t just the students.

(I also found my passion outside the classroom! Read about my journey from teacher to teacherpreneur here.)

#4 A Recovering Perfectionist’s Journey to Give up Grades (Starr Sackstein, TEDxYouth@BHS)

If you’ve been thinking about getting rid of grades in your classroom, this is the talk to watch.

Starr Sackstein is real and passionate about student self-assessment, growth mindset, and standards-based grading.

She says that her choice to remove letter grades from her classroom was because…

“It was time to change grading from an isolated judgemental experience to a collaborative conversation that didn’t seek to quantify learning but rather express the depth of it. It was time to give students the words to talk about their learning in a meaningful way.”

Ummm. Yes. To all of it, yes!

Check out the blog post she inspired me to write regarding standards-based grading.

Students are totally aware of their own successes and failures, and letter grades and single-focused report cards create anxiety and competition where none should ever exist...in a learning environment.

Unfortunately, in the system that Mrs. Sackstein teaches in, grades are still expected. But rather than grading her students, she decided to conduct conferences instead, where she and her learners could discuss the student’s level of mastery, talk about what they know they can do, and what they still need to work on. The student and teacher then agree on a grade or score, and that is what goes on the report card.

I really like this Teacher Ted Talk in conjunction with Dan Pink's talk on motivation because that is what this is about. If students are only concerned with playing the “grade game” then they aren’t really learning. 

The educational environment should always be free of judgment!

#5 How Can a Child Aspire to a Career They Don’t Know Exists (Ed Hidalgo, TEDxKids@EICajon)

Ed Hidalgo went from being a kid who didn’t believe he had anything to offer the workforce (because he was bad at math!), to being one of the minds behind Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab, which aims to show students that they can help invent the future.

Ed Hidalgo (TedxKids@EICajon,)

Ed Hidalgo spends his time on the TedX stage discussing what he believes real education needs to look like. 

“Education should provide adequate time and space for career exploration, even for kids in elementary school. How are kids going to know what to strive for, if they don’t even know what exists?”

One of the key takeaways for me in this Ted Talk for teachers and parents was Mr. Hidalgo’s take on the importance of personality and strength tests that help students learn about the qualities that make them unique.

“Imagine the impact of giving every child the knowledge that they have unique strengths, interests, and values that matter to the world. Do you think that would create a motivator for young people?” 

He goes on to say, “We want students to know [themselves] and know their impact.

I couldn’t agree more. 

(One Last Ted Talk) To Wrap it All Up...

TED Talks do nothing short of deliver...that's what they're made for, right?! They bring fresh perspectives and share new ideas that force us to constantly reconsider the status quo.

Whether it's Ted Dintersmith talking to a group of adults in Fargo, North Dakota, or Starr Sackstein talking to a group of high school students in Burlington, Massachusetts, the messages resonate with people all over the world.

And what all their messages combined come down to is actually captured in a talk given by Simon Sinek at Puget Sound, Washington, back in 2010.

In his talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, Sinek wow'd the world over with his “Golden Circle" (talk about another mind-blowing moment that changed my life forever...)

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle

Sinek reasons that although it is easier to work from the outside-in, “Inspired leaders and organizations all think, act, and communicate from the inside-out.

If we're going to accomplish anything in this world, we've got to start with WHY. Great purpose inspires great action. And action is what changes the world.

His theory applied to our world looks a lil' something like this:

  • WHY: Our society is changing more rapidly than ever, so if we're going to keep pace with 21st century society, we need great educators who can grow, change, and adapt with it.
  • HOW: Today's teachers need the kind of professional development that can inspire new ideas for instruction and call them to action within their own learning communities.
  • WHAT: TED talks like the ones listed in this post today provide inspiration, motivation, and compelling suggestions we need.


Just a few minutes each day will do...now get going!

Drop your reactions to these talks in the comments below...what ideas do they inspire, questions do they raise, roadblocks might they pose (+ how will you navigate on behalf of your learners)? I want to hear the innovative ideas you cook up!

Connect with me on Facebook or follow me on Instagram! See you there!


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