Designing a university for the new millennium: David Helfand at TEDxWestVancouverED

Translator: Luiza Valente
Reviewer: Queenie Lee Universities are on the verge
of an apocalyptic and terminal collapse. At least, that’s what
you’d have to believe if you went to a bookstore and looked
under the education section at the titles. By my account in the last couple of years,
there have been 39 books written on the demise
of the North American University. These attacks come
from the political left and right; they come from inside the academy
and outside the academy. I reviewed a couple of these books,
a few months back, for the International
science magazine, Nature, and I began my review as follows: universities today are fractious places populated by customers,
formerly known as students, who play increasingly large amounts of,
mostly, borrowed money in exchange for high grades
from researchers with large frequent-flyer miles account,
formerly known as professors, who report to real estate developers,
formerly known as university presidents. Now this, of course, is a caricature, but as in most caricatures,
it conveys elements of truth. One of the many problems
of the modern university is that they have taken on, or perhaps, had imposed on them
by society, too many goals. Universities are supposed
to be triggers of urban renewal, and engines of economic growth. They’re supposed to cure sick people; they’re supposed
to generate new knowledge, and train the next generation of scholars, and if possible, spin off
biotech companies in the process. They’re supposed to provide
an endless supply of talking heads for the 24/7 news cycle. Now, all of these things, with the possible exception
of the talking heads, are social goods. There is nothing wrong
with economic development, or certainly curing sick people,
or generating new knowledge, but they have created a culture
in which the language tells it all. You talk to any university faculty member, and they’ll tell you about
their teaching load and their research opportunities. And being mostly rational people, they attempt to minimize their loads
and maximize their opportunities. Thus, we have a reward system
with multiple levels of faculty: assistant professors,
associate professors, full professors, chaired professors, and then, in some institutions,
university professors; they are at the top of the pinnacle, 1/10 of the 1%
of the distinguished faculty. You know what the distinguishing feature
of a university professor is? They never have to teach again. So the problem with these
multiple roles and this culture is that they’re inimical to the purpose
for which universities were founded, and that is to educate young people, and they use educate
in the sense of its Latin root: ‘educatus’, ‘educare’. It does not mean
to pour bits of information from my full vessels
into your empty vessel. What it means is to open up
and lead forth, to open up minds to new perspectives, and then, lead them forth
to a lifetime of learning. I think to describe
where universities are today, I can do it by a story
that really encapsulates the problem that occurred to me, a few years ago,
in my American university. I had the opportunity to go
and teach a class of fourth-grades. I’m an astrophysicist,
and so I talked about the universe. I showed them beautiful Hubble pictures, I waxed eloquent about black holes
in the cosmic background radiation; at the end, these there were
about 80 fourth-graders in the room, there were 160 hands in the air, right? Everybody had a question.
In fact, two questions, one for each hand. And, it went on and on and on,
and they just were insatiable. They were finally dragged out with their shirt collars
by the teacher to go to lunch. They were still asking questions. And then, I took the bus
back to my 4 o’clock seminar with first-year students, a seminar in science that all students
have to take at my university, and I only had 20 of them in the room. I walked in a few minutes before class,
and, you know, it was the usual situation: two of them were texting,
three of them were on Facebook, a couple of them were asleep, but, the rest had their pads
at exactly the right angle, they had their pens poised, and you could read
what was behind their eyes. OK, so in 1 hour and 55 minutes,
this seminar will be over, and five more of these seminars,
and my first term will be over, and I’ll be one-eighth on my way
to Harvard Law School. Sir Ken talked about the linear approach
to education that we have, these students have bought into it. They’re on a road, there are some hurdles they have to jump,
and they keep going in a straight line. We were going to discuss
this fascinating article on the neuroscience of the brain, and I looked at them, and I said, why
aren’t you more like 4th graders? Being first-year students,
not recognizing a rhetorical question, five hands were up. (Laughter) So with some trepidation, I called on
the first young woman in the front. She said, Well, Professor Helfand,
you have to understand; when you’re in 4th-grade, and you’re curious about something,
you ask a question. But by the time you get to our age – 17,
by the time you get to our age, there’s sort of an an infinite
amount of stuff to know, all it’s all on Google, anyway, so what’s the point of asking a question? Which the appropriate response is: What’s the point of not shooting yourself?
But I didn’t say that. I called on the next young man; he said,
Prof. Helfand, you have to understand – I’m not making this up by the way,
this’s the true story – he said you have to
understand this is a seminar. And I said that’s why we’re in this
small little room with chairs around, so we can talk to each other. He said yes, but the point of being here is to come out on top
and beat the competition, and asking a question
is a sign of weakness, so in seminars you only make statements,
you never ask questions. In a lecture, where youre anonymous,
you can raise your hand and ask a question, but in a seminar,
you only make statements. Well, I am an obstreperous guy,
so I kept going, you know. I called on the next two people,
and it was just as grim; finally, there was the fifth one
who was sitting in the front, and he was sort of
sitting there like this, and he was watching this
go back and forth, and he finally did this, and I said yes. He said, Professor Helfand,
what I think you’re missing here is I’m paying for a degree,
not for an education. Well, you’ve grown,
so there is hope, that’s good. (Laughter) And I think that sums it up. They’re paying for a degree,
not for an education. And who can blame them? For this cynicism, when the entire structure of universities
is set up to reinforce it. So, as you can imagine, I was intrigued by the concept
of starting with a completely blank slate and creating a university
for the 21st century; a university that will allow its graduates
to face the daunting problems that this century holds for them, that equips them with tools to do that; and is also aimed at them, at digital natives immersed in a culture
that celebrates multitasking. So what we have to do
to design a university from scratch? First of all, forget almost everything
you know about universities; and think about what you need to do. One: you need to set goals
for your university. Two: you need an institutional
structure for your university. Three: you need
a curriculum for your university. And four: you need a way to deliver
that curriculum to meet your goals. So, what did we do? We created something,
not very far from here, called Quest University, Canada The goal was simple: rather than that multiplicity of goals
at other universities take on; we had one, and that was to educate undergraduates, to open up and lead forth their minds. So that was done: check. Now institutional structure: well, there we do have to take lessons
from what exists in universities today. All modern universities are designed
on the basis of the 19th century, German model of the modern university. I’m not sure what they were
thinking in Germany in the 19th century but it must have gone something like this: so I’ve got this group of experts in some particular field over here,
and they work really well together; and then another group of experts
in a different field over here; a third group of experts over here, so we’ll bring them all together,
on one field, a campus, put them next to each other,
and we’ll see what happens. Well we found out So they build these silos around right, and that more energetic ones built
the really tall silos, so they can throw rocks down
on the little silos around them, and stage raiding parties at night
to steal their resources, these are called
departments in universities. And they’re populated by PhD’s. Now, the process of getting a PhD is learning more and more
about less and less until you know absolutely
everything about nothing. (Laughter) The problem is when you
put all these people, who know the same thing
about the same nothing together, there is not a lot of motivation for them
to interact with each other except to steal the other guy’s resources. So the first organizing principle
of our institution is no departments. And we built it into the concrete, by building a circular academic building, so there is no edges and boundaries, and by assigning the offices
to the faculty by lottery. So a mathematician sits
next to a music professor who sits next to an economist;
who sits next to a neuroscientist; who sits next to a philosopher; and on the other side,
there is a poet and a physicist. And guess what? When you choose carefully, these people who went through that funnel of learning
more and more about less and less, remember they like academia
in the first place and that’s because they like
learning new things, and they come out the other side, and you end up with our
enumerate music professor, and our tone-deaf mathematician, collaborating on a course called:
the mathematics of music. Where in the classroom they’re modeling
learning for the students because they’re actually learning. We furthermore think the hierarchies
of my five levels and professors is not particularly helpful, so we have no faculty ranks. And everyone, including myself, has exactly the same size office
and teaches exactly the same amount; teaches the same set of courses for first-year students
through fourth year students. Also, since we don’t do
what I’m doing here, we don’t engage in this demonstrably
ineffective mode of communication called lecturing; we don’t profess, so we don’t
call ourselves professors; we actually teach,
so we call ourselves tutors. And we build into the classroom, the kind of environment,
for which our brains have evolved, which is two way communication. So we have no lecture hall
on the campus at all, every classroom is an oval
seminar table with 21 chairs around it, never more than 21,
so one faculty member and 20 students. In the case of the mathematics of music,
two faculty members and 18 students. This changes a lot. But then there is the curriculum
what would we teach. Those of us involved in founding
this university are very devoted to the notion of the liberal arts
and sciences curriculum. Liberal comes from libre,
which means free. It’s what free people do; they think about subjects, and they think about them
across the spectrum. And so the curriculum we designed
involves the faculty. Over the first two years
of the student’s education, specifying what they will do,
they will all take mathematics; they will all take biology;
they will all take poetry; they will all take economics; they will take a set of 16 courses in broad disciplines
and interdisciplinary in nature, which will open their minds
to the intellectual tools, the different disciplines have developed, so they can synthesize those tools into a way of addressing
the complex problems, which are not going to be solved
from a disciplinary perspective. But then, we think it’s time having
equipped them with these tools to turn their education over to them. And so near the end of the second year,
15 students in every group, get together with a faculty member
and spend an entire month, developing an individualized question, something about which they want to know,
a question about the world; and in developing this question, they find
a mentor, a single faculty member, with whom they’re going to work
for the next two and a half years. They define a set of books, seminal works
they’re going to read with that faculty member and discuss
to understand the basis of the field. They select a set of courses that’s going
to help inform their question; they define an experiential
learning component, which is required
of all students to go out into the real world,
into a research laboratory, into a K-12 classroom,
into a NGO in Kenya, into a local community organization,
into a government office to see how the real world functions when dealing with issues
related to the question the student has. At the end of their four years,
they do a project that doesn’t necessarily
answer the question, some of them are very broad. But arise out of the question
and produce a document, which, having seen many masters thesis
in Ivy League Universities, exceeds them almost every time, and then presents to the entire university the product of their
undergraduate education. That’s three.
Four was how do we deliver this? And here, we borrowed
shamelessly from Colorado College. And we decided to confront this neurophysical nonsense
of multitasking head on. Your prefrontal cortex does not multitask. It does one thing at a time, unlike your laptop which has 4-cores
and could do 4 things at a time, your prefrontal cortex can only do one,
which is why driving, talking, and texting on the phone together
is good for the gene pool because you will die and be removed, (Laughter) we won’t have to worry about
this multitasking 50 years in the future. So what we do rather than have students take 4, or 5, or 6 classes at a time,
which means they devote a few minutes, or maybe if you’re lucky,
a few hours a week to each class, and you as the tutor, gets to see them
75 minutes twice a week, the students take 4 courses
in the semester, but they take them in series
rather than in parallel, what we call blocks. You walk in the classroom, and you
have nothing else to do for the month, and the students have nothing else
to do for the month. So if you want to go on a field trip, don’t worry about getting back timely
for their chemistry lab this afternoon; or the fact they have
an English paper due the next day, because they don’t; they’re yours. I’m an astronomer – if I want to
keep them up all night for 18 hours, not a problem. Because that’s all
they’re doing is astronomy. If you want to teach them international
economic development, you could do that in a classroom in BC,
out of a textbook; or send them to Belize
for three and a half weeks and teach the course there. That’s the mode we operate in.
It’s called block system. And every academic
I’ve spoken to about it, says: I see how that would work in your field,
but it won’t work in my field. Everyone except the 40 tutors at Quest, none of whom will ever go back
to teaching any other way, because this is so
extraordinarily effective. And I’ll give you one example,
because I only have two minutes left, rather than the hundred that I could. Every student at Quest in their first year
has to take a math course. But the point of it and all
of the foundation courses is not to pour knowledge
from the full vessel to the empty one; not to gain a set of facts, which you can find easily on Google
as my students so eloquently said, but it is to show by example how a mathematician
asks questions about the world and goes about trying to answer them. And how a philosopher does that;
and how a poet does that; and how a physicist does that. So they can accumulate those tools
and apply them to their unique interests. So everyone takes a math class and one of the math classes
is spherical trigonometry. How many people have had
spherical trigonometry? That’s what I thought because it’s not taught at any university
in North America except ours. And the reason it’s taught there is because our math tutor,
a remarkable pedagogue, loves spherical trigonometry. His book came out
with Princeton University Press two months ago on spherical trigonometry. This was a huge development
in the 19th century, because, after all,
we do live on a sphere. It turns out trigonometry
is different on a sphere, so your GPS would not work at all
unless it know spherical trigonometry; therefore, you don’t have to; but in the 19th century, it was important
for navigation and for surveying. So Glenn teaches spherical trigonometry
and this class becomes a cult. They get these Lucite spheres,
so they can draw, carry them around like pet rock,
take to the cafeteria, show their friends
how to do this trigonometry. Two Decembers ago,
a remarkable thing happened. Glenn has taught this class
in three universities, six or seven other times. He had a group of 18 first year students,
in their 4th month of university. None of them were going to be math majors,
we don’t have math majors or departments; nonetheless, none of them
were particularly interested in math, just this course has a reputation,
so the kids all signed up for it. And on the 9th day of class,
Glenn presented a theorem, first published in 1807,
reproduced in every textbook ever since, and in his forthcoming book at that time
with Princeton University Press. And by the end of the three-hour class, the students had found
a logical flaw in the proof that had escaped mathematicians
for 200 years, which meant Glenn had to
withdraw his galley-proof, fix it, and acknowledge his class
in the acknowledgements for having advanced the field
of spherical trigonometry as a bunch of first year,
non math major students. That’s the level of analytic ability
one can cultivate, that’s the level of engagement
one gets in this regard. It’s actually I must confess,
not a completely original idea. 2,500 years ago, Confucius summed it up,
succinctly as usual. Tell me and I’ll forget,
show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand. Tell me and I’ll forget: the model
of the modern university lecture. And the ultra-modern MOOC even better. Show me and I’ll remember: I don’t think he had glitzy PowerPoint
presentations in mind there, but maybe he did. Involve me, involve me in an environment enriched
by a contrasting cultural perspectives; enabled by the ability to draw tools
from multiple intellectual disciplines; and facilitated by effective and
persuasive communication, and I will understand. Involve me in a setting
where lateral thinking is rewarded where collaboration
rather than competition is celebrated and where failure is understood
to be essential on the road to success. Involve me and I will understand. So to educate, that’s the only goal
we have at our university. To open up young minds,
and lead them forth so they have the tools,
the capacity, the will, the grit to confront and to conquer
the daunting challenges this new millennium presents. Thank you. (Applause)


  • DY0Y0

    Beautiful, eloquent speech~
    I like the fact that he is passionate about collaboration & focusing on learnings instead of the capitalization of university students.
    Kudos ~!

  • ahmedx19

    Great speech, I total agree with him but it seems diffcult to apply it

  • Yannic Welle

    Teaching like a sir! I wish one day my children will be taught this way…

  • Ian Eric

    I want to go to that university.

  • Kendal Omdahl

    Spot on. I have other professors speak about part of the ideas presented here. I imagine the road to implementing these ideas will come with great resistances…. But push forth and overcome.

  • Hazel Foerstner

    looking forward to going to Quest!

  • Caitlin MF

    come!! 🙂

  • cheesepuff

    After going to a big university (University of British Columbia in Vancouver) with over 49,000 students for a year and a half with lectures ranging from 80-250 students, transferring to Quest university with a student body of less than 600 – it was totally worth it, and for the reasons that David has mentioned. I've learned much more here because there's less telling and more involvement and showing!

  • lincecumrocks

    Do it!

  • iamwarcat

    I am a recent graduate. I guarantee it will be one of the best decisions of your life to go there!

  • ASh

    Santa is real!

  • Robert Ponte

    Brilliant!!! I was totally engaged.

  • Katrin Muff

    What a wonderful example of realizing the 50+20 vision of Management Education for the world ( Hats off!

  • Sylvia Compton

    My son Tyson has graduated from Quest University. I am so grateful for David Helfand and his passion to educate the young minds by guiding them through their life quest.
    My son will make a significant difference to some complex problems that exist today, because he understands, he is a true champion. The concept of the university and the tutors that have mentored and taught my son have made a huge impact in his success affecting his whole life. There is no question,
    Quest is the answer.

  • Ken Steele

    Great talk, David, and a great model for undergraduate teaching!

  • ymhaytu

    Last year I watched this and was stoked to apply to Quest in Grade 12. Now, I'm in Grade 12 and I just watched this again, and of course I'm stoked to start my application!!

  • fernando martins

    Amazing, and this is such an obvious problem and obvious solution if youre really interested in learning, this has been an issue for me since my high school and probably even before. I really hope ppl begin to take concious of this

  • Azk

    Shit, its Santa Claus!

  • Steven Deroo

    @10:52 did he mean 2 faculty and 19 students?

  • Torrey Burke-Weeks

    I am thankful every day I am here for the great people who have paved the road to the existence of this University. I am thankful every day for the students around me who ask the tough questions that cause me to reconsider all my ideas. If your thinking about it, come tour or phone in, you wont regret it:) 

  • Mike Schultheiss

    I have spent five years writing essays for college students. My clients have variously been lazy, utterly hopeless, and in some cases simply very busy. There is quite the industry in cheating.  

    Having seen so much of the failure of higher education, I have to applaud Helfand. His model is exactly what is needed to reinvigorate higher education. 

  • Robert Aldridge

    I have visited QUEST, I have seen it, I have spoken to it's students and faculty and I totally get this place. It is awesome and I recommend it to any student who wishes to question and to understand. To any student who has a real passion and wishes to pursue it. I wish, wish, wish this model had been available to me when I went through my UG education.

  • melartista

    Bravo!!! I desperately hope that this is an idea that spreads.

  • veronica vasquez

    I go to Quest and it's pretty incredible

  • HabsFan10

    Undergrad tuition of $31,000 is a tough pill to swallow

  • Thuy Nguyen

    Bravo for one class at a time method.  I learn best and at my deepest level of enjoyment and understanding when I focus on only one subject at a time because what I study can be nourished in my memory rather then being quickly replaced by a new subject, which is then overwhelmingly replaced with another new subject, until I don't really know anything at all.  I truly hope we adopt the one class at a time method as a nation.

  • Henry H

    I didn't know this school was founded by santa!

  • Lewis Williams

    This guy, as a presenter, looks and talks similar to Karl Marx, just an interesting thought

  • GirlFromIpanema

    This makes so much sense. Having to prioritize courses in order to achieve good grades takes away from the purpose of learning.

  • Sarah S.

    Great talk! But… to be honest, I'm a bit skeptical over the success of this program. I'm sure it is largely driven by the most enthusiastic, driven, animated, and dedicated professors. Over my educational career, I might have encountered possibly 3(out of houndreds of instructors) of these rare breeds?

  • KevZen2000

    Most professions out there do not require years of "education" to meet the demand of the job. Instead of college or University students taking classes irrelevant to the field of study they are interested in, they should only have to take the classes that are related to the major. Also, these classes should be practical in nature, and not just theoretical. This alone would save students thousands of dollars, and it would expedite the training for the job to months to a few years at most.

  • Jehan Music

    Spot on. Love it.

  • bladehh1

    Wow…thank you TEDx

  • Jeffrey Robertson

    What a great concept!  Several of my kids went to a college that began like this one, and they loved it.  Unfortunately, that school morphed into something else entirely, so it is good to know there is another school available for my younger children.

  • pleasant phucker


  • Raim Surion

    I wish more universities used the block schedule.

  • Abdulkareem Adam

    An absolutely fabulous concept brought back to life. A breath of fresh air and something I will be focusing on in the near future.

  • Hawas Bilal


  • Robert Baur

    my guess is it does not involve safe spaces

  • Xiaojing Li

    Insightful and inspiring speech! However,the following wise sayings are definitely not from Confucius, "Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn."

  • indradeep mastan

    Not a practical Idea, bcuz It doesn't seems to solve the problem stated : "We are here for Degree not education"…… Talk is about : "These are the way old universities are designed, lets design new University in new way" … but How the new design solves the base problem is not clear.

  • xamael1989

    universty should teach working skills so that people can work

  • The only TeaGuru

    I wish that Quest offered graduate programs 🙁

  • Victor Emma-Adamah

    Karl Marx is at it again, disrupting stuff!! ? Love this!

  • Samar Emara

    This is amazing!! I didn't know such a university existed.. I'm so glad it does and the students who attend it are lucky! We need more universities like this, and more professors like this! Professors (or rather tutors) who understand that the main goal of a university is education.. not any other thing!

  • Travis Zane

    Love it! Keep up the content 🙂 & feel free to check out mine if you'd like, just starting out

  • Emiel Terzieff-Godefroy

    2013 and this talk still help me 4 years later. great thinking Mr. Helfand

  • Kimmy PB

    I would do anything to go to Quest. I wish i had the money to

  • The Entropyst


  • sundiii99OWS

    I'd like to see every person start learning science and medicine, starting very young, age 5. Identify savants who learn faster. And can't we just diminish almost everything we now learn as our education. Every person should know about how their own body functions, or should function, including knowing about their children's health. Science should help all people learn how to save the earth.

  • tree of life

    8:43 ??

  • z8g9tnx4xwpftper

    And it is still way to expensive for any normal person to attend without having a high debt afterwards

  • Michael Ashworth

    What I find brilliant in this TEDTalk is not just that he gives a concrete example of how Higher Education could work – and does in one university – but that he starts by going back to basics and asking what is the mission of a University. I have never taught in a N. American university but hear a lot about students there considering themselves as customers and having an entitlement mentality. But, in the end, maybe that's fair enough: University teaching has failed to keep up with societal change and they're not getting what they need and it's time to address this.

  • Aalia Ahamed

    It's 2019, things are mostly the same 🙁


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