Book review – The Element by Ken Robinson

My rating – 9/10


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.


Sungei Buloh 18th Anniversary Walk 2011

Today a couple of us organized by Otterman took 109 participants around Sungei Buloh as part of our yearly celebration of the opening of Sungei Buloh in 1993. I have been doing this Sungei Buloh walk ever since I was a teaching assistant at NUS.  And now as a teacher, I bring students every now and then to the wetlands reserve.  I never get bored of it and every time I promise myself to sit and be more mindful of the migratory birds every december when I am free and when they are around.  Sungei Buloh at this time of the year is extremely pleasant and cool; no mozzies along the boardwalks and bird hides so there really is no excuse not to be there.  And it costs a $1 entry fee on weekends and public holidays for adults, 50cts for kids.

Anyway, the guides today are pretty well trained for this as most of us either have been teaching assistants bringing year one NUS students around this walk or have been trained by Siva or done this many times over.  Each year Siva issues the invites for us to guide but I missed last year as I was at Resorts World Sentosa with my family on a “staycation”; well no more RWS for me until the dolphins are set free so I this year I made sure I freed up the 1st week of december to guide (I sorely regretted my stay at RWS last year and missed out on the Sungei Buloh Anniversary Walk as a result).



That’s the Otterman doing a pre-walk briefing and handing out our registration slips and handouts to participants


Every guide is is on the ball as Siva barks orders in the Sungei Buloh visitor centre.



This handout apparently was done by Ria in 2003.  The back of it has a map drawn in a similar exuberant style.

The walk is centered around the visitor centre, bird hide (Station 1) and the mangrove boardwalk.  We all hope to see the Crocodile and Otters but really the highlight of Sungei Buloh at this time of the year are the migratory birds.  It’s always amazing to contemplate that these birds are overwintering and have flown from the northern hemisphere (as far as Siberia) to feed on the Sungei Buloh wetlands or use it as an important stopover before the fly further down under to Australia AND New Zealand


Before the September-March migratory season, a few resident birds are seen on the mudflats but by December, Sg Buloh mudflats teem with waders with names like Whimbrels, Redshanks, Sandpipers etc.  They aren’t that difficult to identify if you have a guidebook, binoculars and some patience.  This is the part where I encourage everyone (including myself) to spend some quiet time at the hide to observe and get to know the waders and some of the adaptations they have (different length bills) to reach different levels of mud for their food.  The scenery plus birds is sure to calm your soul.



That is Marcus (facing you), the youngest of the guides and most energetic of us; what a way to get people excited about the wildlife we have.



It was a pleasure to have ex-students in the crowd; they haven’t changed a bit – more mature but still crazy about nature.


I wonder what Oi Yee, our other energetic guide is pointing to over the sluice gates?



A contemplative guide, Cheng Puay –  he was pretty excited about seeing the croc surface.



2 of the triplets in the family I was guiding, looking for fish, anemones and mudskippers.  Most of the time I was really talking about what could be eaten or not…  It is a great way to introduce biodiversity of the mangroves as most of the things in the mangroves can provides a service to us.

I love pickled tree-climbing crabs in Thai papaya salads.  I had them in Bangkok once and they beat some of the sashimi I have tried.



That’s Marcus gesticulating nature.


That’s Bruguiera gymnorrhiza adding to the festive spirit.


Lighter moments towards the end of the walk.



The date of the Anniversary also happens to be Otterman’s birthday so we either get cake or this time a very satisfying Punjabi meal.

Avaaz – Save the saddest dolpins

Now the campaign to save the dolphins has gone global and by reputable group Avaaz at Save the saddest dolphin online petition. What a nice phenomenon and finally I feel the dolphins might have a chance of being free and perhaps we have a chance to redeem ourselves here in Singapore. I really admire the efforts by ACRES in their “Save the Saddest Dolphins” campaign.

What was RWS thinking? Anway, how can they use excuse that the dolphins can be used for “Interactive SPA” to heal the sick and disabled children. (I have no doubt dolphins make anyone feel better but it would be so wrong if the dolphins are captive). If RWS is really sincere about this, they should donate their earnings to hospitals, hospices and other organizations who are in a better position than an integrated resort whose main expertise is food, entertainment – namely gambling, to do these things.

If you want to know how many people are signing up go look at the window on the “recent signers highlighted in the screen capture below at their website for

A very small forest, the central catchment area is…

Last week I presented some of my students’ work at the 8th Flora Malesiana conference. It was on the gene flow of some species of native plants in Singapore (which included Rhopaloblaste singaporensis) and also a short highlight on palm distribution projects that I am starting with my current JC students. The gene flow work was from Shufen’s excellent work for her Honours thesis.

In preparation for one of the slides to show where the individuals of Rhopaloblaste singaporensis was collected (with permits from NParks) for the DNA sampling, I realised how small our Central Catchment Nature Reserve is. This area would include Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Macritchie reservoir, Pierce reservoir and Nee Soon Swamp forest.


I used Google Earth to measure the width of the Catchment area and what I got was a little over 5km at some points…. And then it dawned on me also that we could easily walk round Macritchie in 1.5 hours.

So that was one of those epiphanies I got in preparation for that talk and it lingers.

When I brought 2 of my students to map the distribution of palms in Macritchie, they told me their friends had asked them “why work on the forest palms when there are so many palm species in the urban landscape, along the wayside and in the gardens”… Well, it didn’t take too long, as we began to map and identify the forest species, before they realised that the forest species are special, threatened and misunderstood.

A mini-“World Food Programme”

On Tue, Oct 20, 2009 I asked for articles about Norman Borlaug from my friends when I got this email digest link on a retrospective on Norman Ernest Borlaug. Immediately Siva sent me the pdf and also mentioned that he “talks about Borlaug Borlaug in soil ecology and south east asia conservation. 3-4 slides only with Ehrlich saying millions would starve and then came along Borlaug with dwarf spring wheat…” Siva also mentioned that he had seen an episode in the West Wing that mentioned Borlaug. He blogged about it here I as discover

Norman Borlaug’s scientific contribution and industry was compelling and something I felt I could share with my science class. So I did up a just-in-time lecture. It’s true that when you teach, you learn twice as my landlady used to say. So the more I did up my slides, the more I learnt of his enormous contribution to alleviating hunger. We’ve heard so much about the Green Revolution but when I dip-stick any class about who Norman Borlaugh was, I get blank stares. Then again, lots of people I know don’t even know what types of food are made from wheat flour. And here was a man who almost single-handedly solve world hunger; and for India and Pakistan, their wheat yields went from famine levels to levels of self-sufficiency in just over half a decade, with India going on to becoming a net wheat exporter.

Within a few days of doing up the JIT lecture, I heard that the National Institute of Education was hosting Dr. M. Vijaya Gupta, World Food Prize Laureate who would talk about his fish programme in Bangladesh in the 1980s. The stories of how women become empowered through rural aquaculture were riveting and heartwarming.

It became a need for me now to package this into some sort of programme for students to get a more first-hand experience of “food”. So that was how the Raffles “World Food Programme” was born. Interestingly, this food programme idea got people I spoke to, more interested than when i spoke about any other science workshops or electives that I have carried out. Food is such a common denominator.


and our first harvest of pak choy. Extremely delicious with a taste of the earth.


And just when I thought food issues were not going to be resurfaced again, publishes a special feature entitled “Can science feed the world?” and just yesterday.

Celebrating the mangroves

I use this video very often to tell stories to new students. Somehow it also gives me credibility! I guess like the moon, I shine with borrowed light from the likes of Attenborough and our resident mangrove denizen – Otterman. The whole picture of our local mangrove Otterman pulling the legend is cause for quite and deep celebration.

I remember during the busiest part of my school teaching term, Siva asks me to be a chauffeur for some visiting scientist who wanted to visit mangroves. I said yes before even getting any details and didnt think much of it… Must be another day out with european zoologists that needed some samples and then a good prata somewhere.

The next day I drove and parked at the rendevous, Orchid Hotel Lobby where the BBC team was. I walked out of my car and towards to lobby only to see a vision of Sir David Attenborough appearing next to the concierge with a beaming Otterman in usual bermudas and torn polo t-shirt to receive him.

The only other time I was close to Attenborough was when I was hiking through Richmond in London after a lab session at Kew and someone told me he lived around there.

Here’s Otterman’s version of the mangrove episode.

The Paper Airplane Guy is here

The Science Centre is a regular place we visit with the kids – but today, there was a special treat; we got to see the Paper Airplane Guy – John Collin showing us how to make various paper airplanes that left the audience mesmerised with a craft that was both clever in terms of the science of flight and artful incorporation of Origami into the making of paper airplanes… This must rank as one of the most entertaining demonstrations I have been to.

See what I mean here

Almost all the airplanes are folded from a single sheet of US letter sized paper. My favorite are the planes built from phonebook pages which stay in flight when he walks with cardboard to create a draft below the craft and the bat plane, which flaps like a bat.

Catch him at the Singapore Science Centre (2 more days left) – see below

Singapore Science Centre: Events|The Paper Airplane Guy Show

Josh and Matt waiting for the autographed paper airplane book by John.


[He inspires a new category – “wow” in this blog]