Sir Ken Robinson is an enduring voice in thought leadership, a reference point for those who work within and think about the education system. Many of the anecdotes and research stories in The Element are familiar from his popular TED presentations and they’re predicated upon the perceived failure of the world’s education systems to prepare us for happy, fulfilled lives.
The relentless examples of successful innovators who were failed by the system but rescued by a chance recognition of their Element, as Robinson acknowledges in the book, can be grating as well as daunting. Initially the book reads like a summary collection of the anecdotes, stories and jokes that have brought him renown but the book has enough new observations and sequences to entertain anew. In fact, one of the pleasures of the book is hearing the mellifluous voice of Sir Ken behind the text. The voice is as recognisable as the stories.
Robinson describes your Element (and Robinson believes that we all have at least one), as…“the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.” The discovery of your unique purpose in life is likened to an epiphany; time passes differently when you’re engaged in Elemental activity.
Unfortunately, Robinson believes that schools are not set up to help you discover it. They are set up to produce a standardised experience that can be measured, so that we may take our place in a system that is a legacy of the Industrial Revolution.
Robinson doesn’t provide the detailed architecture to transform rather than reform Education (to do so would be, of course, be counter-intuitive), but he has an unerring ability to provoke system leaders to think again. So what did I take from the book?
To remember the power of mentors to direct minds (staff and students – it is never too late), towards seeing the potential of what is happening around them. Everyone needs a mentor; they help you make your own luck;
To encourage others to re-frame problems as opportunities and to overcome obstacles. Core behaviours and experiences shape our responses to circumstance – these can be unlearned;
A reminder of the dangers of “groupthink” and the need to overcome these personal, social and cultural barriers to creative thinking;
The difference between leisure (passive) and recreation (creative);
That someone who works outside of their Element is influenced by having found it in other areas of their lives. I should have an interest in all of my colleagues’ passions.
“Discovering the Element doesn’t promise to make you richer. Quite the opposite is possible, actually, as exploring your passions might lead to you leave behind that career as an investment banker to follow your dream of opening a pizzeria. Nor does it promise to make you more famous, more popular, or even a bigger hit with your family… The Element is about a more dynamic, organic conception of human existence in which the different parts of our lives are not seen as hermetically sealed off from one another but as interacting and influencing each other.”(p.223)
A reminder that, “There isn’t a great school anywhere that doesn’t have great teachers working in it.” (p.238) – great teachers are in their Element teaching.
Not everyone will change the world but a significant part of the human spirit is taken with believing you just might – this is one of the joys of working in education. The possibilities are endless and you’re surrounded by them.
Robinson is a master of metaphor, as you would expect from a creative, dynamic mind. The metaphor of an education system that is fast food (standardised and basically unhealthy), or Michelin starred (unique, high quality, creative) is compelling as only metaphor can be.
The problem school leaders have is to broker an experience that squares the need for personal learning experiences with the need for young people to have the “exam tickets” that will enable them, in all honesty, to have more time to make their choices and access all areas of life. Most of what we try to achieve as school leaders is described by achieving this balance. I believe it’s possible to pass exams and have time to discover your self.
A final question at this crucial time for Year 11 remains:
What do we do with the handful of students we’ve failed to reach, who don’t seem to want their ticket as badly as we believe they need it? What are the implications of the pursuit of The Element for our super-mentored students? Would finding it motivate them? I still need some help being creative here.