The Discovery Channel Effect

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Alex Tabarrok’s 15-minute TED talk on the economics of growth has been watched nearly 700,000 times since he gave it in 2009:

That is far fewer views than the most-watched TED talk, Ken Robinson’s 2006 talk on how schools kill creativity, which has been watched some 26 million times. Nonetheless, the 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED dominates my entire teaching career: 700,000 views at 15 minutes each is equivalent to 175,000 student-hours of teaching, more than I have taught in my entire offline career.

Tabarrok presents this as his first argument for why online education works — leverage.

But that leverage loses much of its appeal when we realize that educational videos don’t work — at all. When students see a wonderfully clear educational video, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking.

Aretae calls it the Discovery Channel Effect:

Student as passive learner, rather than active participant is a failed educational modality. Not only does lecture fail, but so does “educational” TV, and friendly advice in monologue format. The Discovery Channel Effect™ is the normal situation wherein you watch a 10 minute clip from the discovery channel on black holes, find it “interesting”, and can’t explain a darn thing after the fact. If you are going to learn, you must learn as a participant, not as a passive learner. The teacup model of learning (I will fill your teacup) is broken. The better model is the Bonsai model: I will give you sun and water and soil, and you will synthesize those into new leaves and branches. At best, I can direct the learning that is 99% yours. At worst I can stunt it, or kill the tree in trying to control it.

Lecture was instituted at various points in history by various monastic orders (Plato’s Academy, Monks around the world). It wasn’t used by almost anyone else, because it is entirely inappropriate for folks who are not excessively verbal in their learning styles. For the entire history of the world, almost all learning has been done via the apprentice model with lots and lots of repetition, because everyone knows that’s how folks learn. It was also used primarily in cases wherein written works were very expensive.

Some of Tabarrok’s other suggestions do match Aretae’s:

So, what’s the value of online education? Building more active learning experiences, and setting up feedback engines.


  1. Bruce Charlton says:

    “For the entire history of the world, almost all learning has been done via the apprentice model ”

    Indeed. I have banged on about this at my blog — Systemizing autism and poor explaining, Hierarchy of authorities — and in my recent book, Not Even trying: the corruption of real science.

    In the areas I am most familiar with — medicine and science — apprenticeship was a strong element in my training a generation ago, but has been pretty much abolished. Hence skills have pretty much disappeared — and replaced with merely following protocols (even worse, protocols written by those who themselves lack the skills they purport to embody in the protocols).

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