Book review – The Element by Ken Robinson

My rating – 9/10

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It’s chocked-full of inspiring stories of people like Matt Groening, Arianna Stasinopoúlou – founder of Huffington Post, musicians like George Harrison and many more who found their element. Robinson defines it here

“The Element is where your natural aptitudes meet your personal passions. It could be playing the guitar, basketball, cooking, or teaching, working with technology or with animals – anything for which you have a natural feel.” Many of these people did not do well in their schools and often had to overcome serious adversities in life. A lot of them had someone who believed in them.

Some of the stories are impossibly inspiring, for example, the story of John Wilson – blinded in both eyes at age 12 thanks to a chemistry experiment gone wrong but went on to eradicate river blindness in Ghana through an organisation he set up.

I found the beginning and the end of the book a bit more engaging. The middle part expounds on what it means to find the element and becomes academic so requires more focus. I certainly will have to re-read that part. Overall I thought it was well worth the read, very thought provoking especially if you are an educator to someone who is stuck in a rut – it does speak to humanity as a whole actually. If you have seen and heard Ken Robinson on TED, you will understand his educational standpoint and where he is coming from. To the book’s credit, and I think it’s a good book, almost groundbreaking, it did make me feel like I needed to rewind my 8 years as a teacher, start all over again and be bolder in reforming the education system in Singapore. It’s true that schools do kill creativity and that teachers and administrators should lighten up and become more innovative. I don’t think our school system isn’t innovative but it is sometimes innovative in an odd way, adding to workloads and yoking the students with more pressure. I have got lots to say about the A levels and how we drill our students with the correct answers. We say they can’t understand and are not motivated to learn and so we drill and practice… I sometimes look at some of my students and feel a deep sense of pity. They either have forgotten to learn or find the whole exercise pointless – and these are to my own judgement, bright young kids. Any kid is bright – until we start educating them! 😦 This book gives some hope but I know some will say such bottom-up change and moving away from standards-based assessments is impractical. So it was good that there were some seemingly impractical solutions exemplified in the book – like a school that set up near an old folks home. The retirees volunteered to mentor the students resulting in improved grades and engagement by the students and interestingly the need for medication by the older folks also dropped significantly.

I think educators need to take this book seriously and try to get a sense of what it’s trying to say – personalise education and look at each student, child as someone with potential and harness that with encouragement, mentorship and a validation of their personal gifts.

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