Education Opinion

Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element or Transforming Education

By LeaderTalk Contributor — April 07, 2009 5 min read
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Of course, many people do do well in their schools and love what they have to offer. But too many graduate or leave early, unsure of their real talents and not knowing what direction to take next. Too many feel what they are good at isn’t valued by schools. Too many think they’re not good at anything. (Sir Ken Robinson, The Element, p. 225)

Have you ever wondered how people become good at something they like to do? The “something” could be anything; fishing, for example, or acting, playing pool or flying the space shuttle, painting water colors, telling jokes, or unraveling the laws of physics. It could be something one does as an amateur or something one does as a professional to make a living.

I suspect the question doesn’t come up much when you are developing curriculum or designing assessments. Because of current policies and beliefs about educating children, schools often seem to be focusing on two priorities. The first priority is teaching students to be literate in mathematics, English language arts, and science and the second is preparing them to do well on the NCLB mandated and state designed standardized tests. It is time to explore another vision of 21st Century education for the good of our children and our communities.

The Element

In his latest book, The Element, Sir Ken Robinson offers the reader a series of mini-biographies, the life story of people who have become successful in spite of the education they received in the schools they attended. As Robinson explains the process, they have found their way to their Element, “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.” (21)

An Astronaut’s Inspiration

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Colonel Eileen Marie Collins, USAF, RET. and former NASA Astronaut talk about her experiences at NASA flying on the Space Shuttle. Collins served as pilot on STS-63 (February 3-11, 1995) and STS-84 (May 15-24, 1997), and was the commander on STS-93 (July 22-27, 1999) and STS-114 (July 26 to August 9, 2005). A veteran of four space flights, Collins has logged over 872 hours in space. She is a person who obviously found her Element. She developed the aptitude to do what she loved to do, be an astronaut. After her talk I had the opportunity to ask her what inspired her to become an astronaut. Here is her answer.

A NASA Astronaut’s Inspiration: Colonel Eileen Marie Collins, USAF, RET. from Dennis Richards on Vimeo.

Colonel Eileen Collins commanded the historic STS-114 “Return to Flight” mission, the first after the Columbia tragedy. Here is STS-114 at launch. Source: NASA

Colonel Collins’ story illustrates the connection between passion and aptitude that Robinson examines in The Element.

Aptitude-Passion Chart

To help explain how Robinson uses the “Element” in his book, I have created the chart below. When you look at the chart, you will find four quadrants representing the intersection of the concepts of having a passion and an aptitude for doing something.

Students, for example, represented by quadrant Q 1 are not in very good shape because they lack the passion and aptitude for doing something. We obviously try to help students avoid this, but too often it happens and this lack of interest and aptitude have consequences that are all too familiar.

If you move along the “aptitude” axis from left to right, you will find quadrants representing students who have developed greater proficiency at something, and depending on the level of passion they have developed for doing it, we can assign them to quadrant Q 2 or Q 4 on the chart. In quadrant Q 2 students are able to do something, but they don’t enjoy doing it. Whereas Q 4 represents students who have arrived at an enviable state of having a passion for what they are good at doing. These students are similar to Colonel Collins and the men and women Robinson profiles in his book.

Quadrant Q 3 represents students who have a passion for something for which they have not yet developed an aptitude. Only time will tell if they can develop an aptitude that would allow us to assign them to quadrant Q 4.

Education and Cultivating Talent

If discovering one’s Element is important, shouldn’t schools be helping students to discover their talent or talents so they can develop their aptitude and passion for what they are good at? As Robinson puts it,

Finding our Element is essential for us as individuals and for the well-being of our communities. Education should be one of the main processes that take us to the Element. Too often though, it serves the opposite function. This is a very serious issue for all of us. In many systems, the problems are getting worse. What do we do about this? (228)

We can pretend that tinkering with the system we have will be sufficient to address the issue. We want to believe adjustments in the current system will be sufficient to position the current curriculum, pedagogy and assessments so we can help students find and develop their Element. It’s easier that way, less disruptive, and it preserves the integrity of past efforts to do good by students.

Robinson argues, and I agree, tinkering will not do it; we have to transform schools because, as currently structured, the curriculum, the pedagogy and assessment systems are each designed to serve the interest of an outdated industrial model of education. If we simply tinker with the current model, its essence is retained.

The Labor of Schools

Educators and students are laboring under the burden of too much disconnected content that educators must deliver at an unreasonable pace with little time available for meaningful personal formative assessment. In this environment, imagination, creativity, and innovation are not required, taught or assessed. No wonder students graduate, if they can last that long, without these skills and without any understanding of what they are good at or what they have a passion for.

Transformed Education

Would you be disappointed if each of your students were graduating from your school inspired to pursue something that they were good at? We can no longer be satisfied with anything less. We must do whatever it takes to transform every classroom in our schools and districts so each student has the opportunity to find his and her Element.

If transformation is what we need, what will schools be like? My March post on this blog explores some of the characteristics, but Robinson offers another important perspective based on imagination, creativity and passion. What he writes in The Element reminds me of my own comments on the importance of engaging, challenging and inspiring students. A banner that I saw in Washington, D.C. hanging in front of the Library of Congress said it another way. It simply said, “Explore. Discover. Be Inspired.”

Let me conclude with a video I created from video clips I took in Orlando, Florida in March 2009 when I heard Sir Ken Robinson speak. His comments expand upon the answer to the questions above: What do we do about [the current state of education]? and What will transformed schools be like?

Sir Ken Robinson On Transforming Education from Dennis Richards on Vimeo.

Dennis Richards ~ innovation3.edublogs.org

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.