The Element

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 March, 2009, 12:00am

The Element

by Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica

Allen Lane, HK$208

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of Ken Robinson's latest book, The Element, are the stories of personal success, despite failure at school or in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

A case in point is Paulo Coelho's revelation that his parents inflicted electric-shock therapy on him when the now best-selling author announced he wanted to be a writer instead of a lawyer. And - as Robinson says - you thought your parenting style was questionable?

Robinson - a Briton living in the US - is an acclaimed leader in creativity, innovation and human capacity. In 2003 he was knighted for outstanding achievements as a writer, speaker and leader in creativity, the arts and education.

He has served as an adviser to high-profile public and private organisations, including the governments of Hong Kong and Singapore, the EU and Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. His TED lecture ( on creativity and education has been downloaded more than 3 million times, according to promotional material.

So Robinson knows his stuff. As a result, The Element is not only entertaining, at times funny and anecdotal throughout, but also an eye-opening introduction into how global education systems must be brought into the 21st century.

The book is called The Element because this is what Robinson terms 'the point at which natural talent meets personal passion'. He says we are born with natural capacities that are knocked out of many of us - mostly by the traditional education system, which was created initially to ensure a workforce for jobs that stemmed from the industrial revolution.

Those who have found their element despite hurdles and pressures are interviewed (Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, Matt Groenig, creator of The Simpsons, playwright Aaron Sorkin and actress Meg Ryan among them), creating an insight into some of the most famous artists, business people, scientists, mathematicians, singers and dancers.

Robinson's beef, however, is with education, traditional measures of intelligence and the subjects at schools with the most focus, which he believes are misaligned with what the world now requires or desires.

He says the curriculum 'must be transformed radically ... First, we need to eliminate the existing hierarchy of subjects. Elevating some disciplines over others only reinforces outmoded assumptions of industrialism and offends the principle of diversity. Too many students pass through education and have their natural talents marginalised or ignored.'

To illustrate how education has overlooked different kinds of intelligence, many of the successful subjects interviewed or discussed did not do well at school or were miserable there - Richard Branson being one of them.

This book will be a boon for parents whose children struggle through compound fractions and physics or cannot pass examinations yet are obviously intelligent. And Robinson gives some insight into newer educational methods.

When it comes to finding your element, Robinson says being surrounded by the right 'tribes' (social circles, colleagues, mentors) can be vital. Marching to the beat of your own drum is beneficial, but some of the most creative processes come from like-minded human interaction. You also need attitude and opportunity. And when you find the element, you will know: 'They connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose and well-being.'

Robinson says the element does not have to mean you're a famous composer. It can be a sideline or a hobby that ensures you enjoy your life to the full.

But do we all have the capacity to find it? Let's hope children will have their innate abilities nurtured in an educational setting that at least allows the attempt.