Great TED Talks for History Teachers

One of the most popular posts that I’ve written on this blog is Great TED Talks for English Teachers from 2010. Sure, it’s a listicle, but given the sheer number of TED talks, folks have said that the post has been helpful to them in suggesting some talks with which to start. I’m currently teaching history classes now, so I thought that a similar post focused on talks that might be used in the history or social studies classrooms could be useful. Some of the same talks from the English post would work in the history classroom, as well. For example, I use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk The Danger of a Single Story in a unit on globalization in seventh grade World History.

Since I wrote the English post, TED has created a site called TED-Ed. It abbreviates and animates TED talks (as well as talks created specifically for the TED-Ed site by educators) for use in the classroom.  The site also allows you to create your own lessons from TED talk videos. The lessons on the site vary in quality, but some, such as one on the Atlantic Slave Trade, can be useful introductions to a topic.

1. Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace.

Ebrahim, the son of one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, discusses how he chose a very different path from his father. Great starting point for a discussion about what leads people to make the choices they do in life and the role of education and experience as a young person in shaping those choices.

2. Eman Mohammed: The Courage to Tell a Hidden Story

Mohammed tells of the challenges that she has encountered as the first female photojournalist working in the Gaza Strip. She describes the ways in which what might have been a hinderance, her gender, has allowed her to take photos that her male colleagues couldn’t have. Her talk is accompanied by many of her incredible photographs.

3. Neil Macgregor: 2600 Years of History in One Object

Macgregor offers a biography of a very old thing, a cuneiform cylinder and how it impacts our understanding of the politics of the Middle East today. Because of the length and level of depth, it’s probably more appropriate for older students. I do really like the idea of constructing a biography of a thing and its impact on life today. That could be a great activity for students.

3. Sanford Biggers: An Artist’s Unflinching Look at Racial Violence

A short (6 minute) talk that blends history and art. It takes on America’s history of slavery and issues of contemporary violence directed at blacks in the US. A provocative discussion starter for high school students.

4. John Graham Cumming: The Greatest Machine that Never Was

Cumming describes the “analytical machine” designed by Charles Babbage in the 1800s but never built. He also describes the contributions of Ada Lovelace, who envisioned greater possibilities for this sort of machine. If students are interested in this TED talk, a great book follow-up is The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.


With thousands of TED Talks out there, I’m sure there are many more that could be added to the list. What are talks that you’ve seen that you’ve used or could be used in history or social studies class?


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