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TED Talks Education

Ramsey Musallam: 3 rules to spark learning

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It took a life-threatening condition to jolt chemistry teacher Ramsey Musallam out of ten years of "pseudo-teaching" to understand the true role of the educator: to cultivate curiosity. In a fun and personal talk, Musallam gives 3 rules to spark imagination and learning, and get students excited about how the world works.

- Educator
As a high school chemistry teacher, Ramsey Musallam expands curiosity in the classroom through multimedia and new technology. Full bio

I teach chemistry.
00:12
(Explosion)
00:15
All right, all right.
00:16
So more than just explosions,
00:19
chemistry is everywhere.
00:21
Have you ever found yourself at a restaurant spacing out
00:23
just doing this over and over?
00:26
Some people nodding yes.
00:28
Recently, I showed this to my students,
00:30
and I just asked them to try and explain why it happened.
00:32
The questions and conversations that followed
00:37
were fascinating.
00:39
Check out this video that Maddie
00:41
from my period three class sent me that evening.
00:43
(Clang) (Laughs)
00:57
Now obviously, as Maddie's chemistry teacher,
00:59
I love that she went home and continued to geek out
01:02
about this kind of ridiculous demonstration
01:05
that we did in class.
01:08
But what fascinated me more is that Maddie's curiosity
01:09
took her to a new level.
01:12
If you look inside that beaker,
01:14
you might see a candle.
01:16
Maddie's using temperature to extend this phenomenon
01:18
to a new scenario.
01:21
You know, questions and curiosity like Maddie's
01:24
are magnets that draw us towards our teachers,
01:27
and they transcend all technology
01:30
or buzzwords in education.
01:33
But if we place these technologies before student inquiry,
01:36
we can be robbing ourselves
01:40
of our greatest tool as teachers: our students' questions.
01:42
For example, flipping a boring lecture from the classroom
01:47
to the screen of a mobile device
01:51
might save instructional time,
01:53
but if it is the focus of our students' experience,
01:55
it's the same dehumanizing chatter
01:58
just wrapped up in fancy clothing.
02:01
But if instead we have the guts
02:03
to confuse our students, perplex them,
02:06
and evoke real questions,
02:08
through those questions, we as teachers have information
02:11
that we can use to tailor robust
02:14
and informed methods of blended instruction.
02:17
So, 21st-century lingo jargon mumbo jumbo aside,
02:20
the truth is, I've been teaching for 13 years now,
02:26
and it took a life-threatening situation
02:30
to snap me out of 10 years of pseudo-teaching
02:32
and help me realize that student questions
02:35
are the seeds of real learning,
02:39
not some scripted curriculum
02:42
that gave them tidbits of random information.
02:44
In May of 2010, at 35 years old,
02:47
with a two-year-old at home and my second child on the way,
02:51
I was diagnosed with a large aneurysm
02:54
at the base of my thoracic aorta.
02:56
This led to open-heart surgery. This is the actual real email
02:59
from my doctor right there.
03:02
Now, when I got this, I was -- press Caps Lock --
03:04
absolutely freaked out, okay?
03:07
But I found surprising moments of comfort
03:10
in the confidence that my surgeon embodied.
03:14
Where did this guy get this confidence, the audacity of it?
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So when I asked him, he told me three things.
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He said first, his curiosity drove him
03:25
to ask hard questions about the procedure,
03:28
about what worked and what didn't work.
03:30
Second, he embraced, and didn't fear,
03:33
the messy process of trial and error,
03:36
the inevitable process of trial and error.
03:39
And third, through intense reflection,
03:41
he gathered the information that he needed
03:44
to design and revise the procedure,
03:47
and then, with a steady hand, he saved my life.
03:49
Now I absorbed a lot from these words of wisdom,
03:52
and before I went back into the classroom that fall,
03:56
I wrote down three rules of my own
03:58
that I bring to my lesson planning still today.
04:01
Rule number one: Curiosity comes first.
04:04
Questions can be windows to great instruction,
04:08
but not the other way around.
04:11
Rule number two: Embrace the mess.
04:14
We're all teachers. We know learning is ugly.
04:17
And just because the scientific method is allocated
04:20
to page five of section 1.2 of chapter one
04:23
of the one that we all skip, okay,
04:26
trial and error can still be an informal part
04:30
of what we do every single day
04:33
at Sacred Heart Cathedral in room 206.
04:35
And rule number three: Practice reflection.
04:38
What we do is important. It deserves our care,
04:42
but it also deserves our revision.
04:45
Can we be the surgeons of our classrooms?
04:48
As if what we are doing one day will save lives.
04:51
Our students our worth it.
04:54
And each case is different.
04:55
(Explosion)
04:58
All right. Sorry.
04:59
The chemistry teacher in me just needed to get that
05:01
out of my system before we move on.
05:02
So these are my daughters.
05:05
On the right we have little Emmalou -- Southern family.
05:07
And, on the left, Riley.
05:11
Now Riley's going to be a big girl in a couple weeks here.
05:14
She's going to be four years old,
05:16
and anyone who knows a four-year-old
05:18
knows that they love to ask, "Why?"
05:20
Yeah. Why.
05:23
I could teach this kid anything
05:25
because she is curious about everything.
05:27
We all were at that age.
05:30
But the challenge is really for Riley's future teachers,
05:32
the ones she has yet to meet.
05:36
How will they grow this curiosity?
05:39
You see, I would argue that Riley is a metaphor for all kids,
05:41
and I think dropping out of school comes in many different forms --
05:47
to the senior who's checked out before the year's even begun
05:50
or that empty desk in the back of an urban middle school's classroom.
05:53
But if we as educators leave behind
05:59
this simple role as disseminators of content
06:01
and embrace a new paradigm
06:04
as cultivators of curiosity and inquiry,
06:06
we just might bring a little bit more meaning
06:09
to their school day, and spark their imagination.
06:11
Thank you very much.
06:14
(Applause)
06:16
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Ramsey Musallam - Educator
As a high school chemistry teacher, Ramsey Musallam expands curiosity in the classroom through multimedia and new technology.

Why you should listen

Technological innovation in education can be a slow and painful process, with new technology difficult to acquire, implement and adopt. But that doesn't stop Ramsey Musallam, a chemistry teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco, whose mission is "to meaningfully integrate multimedia into a hands-on, inquiry-based learning cycle" and to empower other educators to do the same. Musallam is a vocal advocate for tools like flipteaching, tabcasting, video podcasting and screencasting in the classroom. He runs the education blog Cycles of Learning, where he gives written and video tutorials on how to turn everyday apps like Google Docs, screencasting from an iOS device, YouTube, KeepVid and word clouds as effective teaching tools. Musallam received an Ed.D. from the University of San Francisco in 2010.

More profile about the speaker
Ramsey Musallam | Speaker | TED.com