Sir Ken Robinson in his Element

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.

14 thoughts on “Sir Ken Robinson in his Element

  1. Karen Stears

    Interesting read. Re: your last point I think we need to help them identify and share their element/s with their mentor. This ‘element’ may lie beyond the curriculum. Exploring this with them on a scenario where they ‘teach’ us about their passion may also enable certain of those ‘tickets’ to seem of use to them & hence re-engage them to the whole school ethos. At the same time we may have to accept that for some this may not be possible or totally successful. However if we have helped them on their life journey & to realise that finding their element is just as important as the ‘tickets’ then we shall have fulfilled our greater goal of educationalists for life. I would also add that I think it is essential that the affected have some input in the choice of mentor; sometimes the messenger is more important than the message.

  2. Thanks, Karen. I think your final sentence is crucial and may be that first associative step taken by students who have lost their way. The INSET day on the 30th March – brain theory and learning relationships with teenagers – will be a great stimulus for how we continue to improve in this area.

  3. Kevin Mitchell

    I like the idea of an organic element, teaching is my third career and I see my ‘element’ as having grown and been shaped by my life experiences without any mentoring (or very little until relatively recently) at all. Is that good or bad? How would my life be different if I had been mentored at a younger age? Easier I suspect! I am very conscious of this as I speak to all students and I constantly remind them of their individuality and their potential to do great things beyond their exam qualifications. I agree that the choice of messenger is crucial.

  4. Sarah Nicholson

    “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.”

    Everyone changes the world they live in by their interactions and engagement with others. It is not possible to live without creating and leaving an impression on colleagues, peers, friends and family. In Education we have a unique opportunity to encourage those lasting impressions and interactions to be as positive as possible.

  5. Good point, Sarah. We all have a role to play in developing a culture. Robinson’s examples relate to famous people and their discoveries and it might have been useful to have had a few more down to earth anecdotes in the book – although perhaps this would have been less entertaining?

  6. Nick Moffatt

    I particularly believe in the inspiration from and importance of the last two bullet points, especially in attempting to reach students through creativity whilst often dealing with the constraints of a curriculum.
    I came across the above link, possibly a thought provoking animation/commentary that brings up some of these issues summarised, and also poses further problems to consider while setting out possible needs that aren’t met alongside the starting points of ideas for solutions.

  7. Thanks for sharing the link, Nick. You’re right, educational debate is still intensely political. Our job is to make this point, work where we can to make the changes we know make a difference and to be unerringly positive about young people.

  8. Picaxe

    fkn buuuys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. If you haven’t already, take some time to look at this one too. It gives an interesting insight into the conflict and cooperation between Practitioners, Theorists and Politicians when dealing with the curriculum.

    Also, on the subject of Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms”, I think it would be really important to pick up on his point about “divergent thinking” as well as creativity within education.

  10. Thanks for the link – I hadn’t seen this. I like the assertion that we can all do something and I honestly believe that staff at DHSB do bring this adaptive dimension to their teaching. This process, as Robinson asserts, is dynamic. I am also a huge advocate of the “Motion and Emotion” elements of our curriculum. We are connecting in new ways – will tweet the link!

  11. Nancy C. Brown

    RE: I still need some help being creative here…any new updates?
    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? Where do you draw a line?

    1. Thanks for the post. We have improved the quality of our mentoring programme. We’re spending more time matching students with the adults with whom we think they will make a connection. We’ve also taken some big steps in developing our house system, reducing the “supervision” ratio and creating a stronger sense of belonging. More students will be “known” by others and given a chance to take the lead.

      We are determined to maintain our commitment to developing the individual and recognise that character is reflected in the eyes of significant others.

      1. Nancy C. Brown

        TY. Leadership is not always a problem, our concern at an alternative school is the path they are leading others to. I believe our PLC agrees with concerns over ratios (many of our students demand a 1/1) and the sense of belonging and certainly we are in need of more community members to mentor our youth, especially our more challenging youth that need assistance with coping skills, etc. I appreciate your thoughts. Sincerely.nb

        1. “Approve”

          *Kieran Earley*

          Twitter: @kieran_earley

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