(This essay was 
 published by Edge.org in answer to the Question:  
"What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?")

When we think of the world's teeming billions of humans, we tend to think: overpopulation, poverty, disease, instability, environmental destruction. They are the cause of most of the planet's problems.

What if that were to change? What if the average human were able to contribute more than consume? To add more than subtract? Think of the world as if each person drives a balance sheet. On the negative side are the resources they consume without replacing, on the positive side are the contributions they make to the planet in the form of the resources they produce, the lasting artifacts-of-value they build, and the ideas and technologies that might create a better future for their family, their community and for the planet as a whole. Our whole future hangs on whether the sum of those balance sheets can turn positive.

What might make that possible? One key reason for hope is that so far we have barely scraped the surface of human potential. Throughout history, the vast majority of humans have not been the people they could have been.

Take this simple thought experiment. Pick your favorite scientist, mathematician or cultural hero. Now imagine that instead of being born when and where they were, they had instead been born with the same in-built-but-unlocked abilities in a typical poverty-stricken village in, say, the France of 1200 or the Ethiopia of 1980. Would they have made the contribution they made? Of course not. They would never have received the education and encouragement it took to achieve what they did. Instead they would have simply lived out a life of poverty, with perhaps an occasional yearning that there must be a better way.

Conversely, an unknown but vast number of those grinding out a living today have the potential to be world-changers... if only we could find a way of unlocking that potential.

Two ingredients might be enough to do that. Knowledge and inspiration. If you learn of ideas that could transform your life, and you feel the inspiration necessary to act on that knowledge, there's a real chance your life will indeed be transformed.

There are many scary things about today's world. But one that is truly thrilling is that the means of spreading both knowledge and inspiration have never been greater. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students. There are already numerous examples of powerful talks that have spread virally to massive Internet audiences.

Driving this unexpected phenomenon is the fact that the physical cost of distributing a recorded talk or lecture anywhere in the world via the internet has fallen effectively to zero. This has happened with breathtaking speed and its implications are not yet widely understood. But it is surely capable of transforming global education.

For one thing, the realization that today's best teachers can become global celebrities is going to boost the caliber of those who teach. For the first time in many years it's possible to imagine ambitious, brilliant 18-year-olds putting 'teacher' at the top of their career choice list. Indeed the very definition of "great teacher" will expand, as numerous others outside the profession with the ability to communicate important ideas find a new incentive to make that talent available to the world. Additionally every existing teacher can greatly amplify their own abilities by inviting into their classroom, on video, the world's greatest scientists, visionaries and tutors. (Can a teacher inspire over video? Absolutely. We hear jaw-dropping stories of this every day.)

Now think about this from the pupils' perspective. In the past, everyone's success has depended on whether they were lucky enough to have a great mentor or teacher in their neighborhood. The vast majority have not been fortunate. But a young girl born in Africa today will probably have access in 10 years' time to a cell phone with a high-resolution screen, a web connection, and more power than the computer you own today. We can imagine her obtaining face-to-face insight and encouragement from her choice of the world's great teachers. She will get a chance to be what she can be. And she might just end up being the person who saves the planet for our grandchildren.

- Chris Anderson, TED Curator
11 responses
Chris, well said. I'm speaking to a Graduating Class of a school in Nigeria in June. Can't wait. So much potential there. It's time to translate their Intellectual Capital into serious, big time, and outrageously productive working Human Capital. Thanks for all you do in the arena of thought. Keep it up.
Thanks for your thinking. It is an exciting time for education and I am so proud to be a teacher. I think we are at a time where the way we teach has to change. Our students are able to learn while being the experts on many different subjects and can learn from experts in many areas. Teachers have to realize this possibilities. Over the past year, my mind has gone crazy with the possibilities. I am currently the technology facilitator at an elementary school and although I think we are doing a nice job of integrating these types of technology, we have a far way to go because it is still new to so many and so overwhelming. There has not been an evolution in education like the current one since the invention of the printing press. That is a pretty big deal. I can't wait to see what happens! Thanks again for the mind food!
Chris -- I'm on your bus! There's latent potential in tech ed and if we bring the neuroscience of learning into the discussion, we can create extraordinary programs, apps, user interface technologies that grow the brain and feed the mind!

On behalf of my brain based coaching institute, I'm ready to be in discussion with any one ready to launch and expand their teaching practice!

Leave it to TED to pattern recognize the value of BIG ideas!

Dr. G. a.k.a. M. A. from L. A.
CEO and Publisher, The George Greenstein Institute, creating a sustainable future by coaching bodies, brains and minds!

Inspiring article! Mankind is in big trouble these days but we can not even imagine how great potential lies our mind. Yes, even one mind can change the things big time - now let's multiply it with 6 billion... But first we must learn how to utilize our brain to its full potential...
"(Can a teacher inspire over video? Absolutely. We hear jaw-dropping stories of this every day.)"
Can you give us some examples? (apart from TED)

[Btw, I read this article linked in your TED profile. It gave me confidence to follow my ('unrealistic') dream - to find a way to unlock people's potentials. I don't promise results, but I can and do promise that I'll keep searching.]

Idpsycho, all the examples I see are from TED, because those are the ones I'm privvy to feedback on. But they're enough to prove the point. A little talking head on 4 square inches of computer screen can nonetheless make people weep, or get excited, feel inspired, start looking at the world differently.
Hi Chris,

Thanks for the fascinating article on the evolution of teaching. I've not been able to think about much else....

As consumers we are developing a voracious appetite for quality information. The information age is just not good enough anymore. We want quality information delivered in a slick and sexy format (perhaps like Hans Rosling's TED talk). We want teachers with a record of achievement to match their academic horsepower, and like everything else we want the process of consuming this product to be instant, entertaining and useful.

Looking for a teacher online it is a completely different experience than looking for one locally. Why look for the local golf pro's thoughts on golf when we can look at Tiger's blog.

We ask ourselves one simple and obvious question when looking for a teacher online: 'Who is the best of the best?' We don't just ask 'Who is the best teacher at this subject?', we ask 'Who produces the best results in this subject and also has the skills to communicate that in an entertaining way?'

Websites like TED are where the future of learning is at. I call it 'Edutainment'. When a teacher is really good then we are completely captivated by not only the subject and the experience of learning but more importantly the possibilities of applying the learning to in the real world.

When potential students are selecting a traditional school, or course or teacher the deciding factors are likely to be: Proximity, Cost, Availability of time/course places. These just aren't such an issue online.

This concept is very real for me: Last week I attended an information evening from a prominent college here in Dublin on a business MBA. I wanted not just to learn strategies but to rub shoulders with result focused businesspeople, social entrepreneurs etc. As I left I couldn't help thinking that I could get more value studying certain TED speakers or similar if I could just harness that information and use it.

TED is an outstanding example of rapidly distributing cutting edge teaching (and inspiration) to the masses. I think we should take some time to focus on where the rubber meets the road for online spectators. How can we encourage people to harness the inspiration and use the learnings?

I'm excited about how we create systems to encourage people to grasp that kind of inspiration and teaching and to use it to bear fruit. Perhaps this model of learning from an ipod will be even more productive if it is supplemented with local peer groups who come together to solve local problems much the same as TED does on a global level. I'm certain that the results of this learning would be multiplied through incentives and the encouragement of peers.

The African girl you mentioned-born 5 days ago- will greatly benefit from people to support and encouragement her to feel empowered enough to overcome the problems facing her.

Godbless you and thanks for TED!

Michael Rossney

Generation Text www.generation-text.ie
The Energy Coach www.theenergycoach.ie

Interesting. The idea that situational factors mediate achievement is very much along the lines of what Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers.

But more importantly, the question we really need to ask ourselves is, "How do we assess the value – the real worth – of education?"

Here's what I mean. The other day, re-watching Philippe Starck's TED talk (my favorite), I had an epiphany: All due respect to the Ivy League, but I can honestly say that between my first weeks of TED, AcademicEarth and the BBC digital archive, I've learned more – I've been more challenged, more inspired, more enriched – than in my entire 4-year undergraduate education. And here's the problem with that: To those the social power-holders who assess cultural merit – employers, grant-givers, graduate school admission officers – a piece of paper that states my Ivy League education still holds more worth than one listing all the TED talks and AE lectures and BBC documentaries I've seen and all the ways they've pushed me outside my comfort zone and have driven me closer to contributing something of actual worth to the world.

My point is that while access to all this phenomenal wealth of human knowledge is tremendously important and is definitely redefining the very concept of "education," it's just one piece of the puzzle. The way the social reward system works in terms of recognizing and honoring real human achievement and worth will also have to be redefined before we can truly reap the rewards of this evolution.

I do agree with your theory and the unlimited potential we have. However, I think it takes more than a great teacher to motivate students. I LOVE teaching!!! I taught high school for 30 years; I've taught at the university level, within the Ohio Department of Corrections (a women's prison), and currently teach English at a community college. I have found teaching online that more than any other venue, STUDENTS must be motivated. Our international students are very motivated, take their education seriously, and are appalled by the lackadaiscal attitude of the American student. Many are lazy, feel a sense of entitlement, and sorely lacking in basic knowledge. How did this happen?? We need to make education a priority in our country and in our homes. In Ohio we are still trying to equalize funding for public districts, some of which have no cafeterias, restrooms, or current texts. I am afraid until our parents insist on great education and our government supports great education, we will fall desperately behind the little African girl who was described.
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