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An Essential Read!

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July 17, 2016

An Essential Read!

The book starts with the premise that education which is supposed to liberate the mind and expand one’s horizons, on the contrary restricts and limits human potential to manifest itself and reach its logical end. It begins with an anecdote from a real classroom experience the author is quite fond of and never tires to use.

Being a teacher I am privy to constant banter about what is and what is not good about our education system which is used as a generic term for all and any kind of organized activities we loosely call education. So, much of fretting and fuming leaves everyone with very little energy or sanity to think of and come up with practical approaches to initiate systemic changes that are deemed necessary to make educational processes truly educational in essence.

One of the oft cited symptoms of a well-conceived but badly implemented system of education is the apparent lack of interest and motivation in children to learn and lack of drive in teachers to ‘teach’. Every other drawback in our approach to imparting an education which is not only utilitarian but also holistic, can be connected to the limiting and narrow understanding that we educators have about the ennobling function of education.

This is the crux of the book THE ELEMENT: How finding your passion changes everything by Sir Ken Robinson. Though the book is actually aimed at individuals in their quest for discovering their ‘element’ and suggests pathways to attain that goal, a separate section devoted to Education very vividly captures the shortcomings and lacunae that are responsible for school and even college leaving children without a clue about their inclinations and what is it that they actually want to do with their lives to make them purposeful and meaningful. The book starts with the premise that education which is supposed to liberate the mind and expand one’s horizons, on the contrary restricts and limits human potential to manifest itself and reach its logical end. It begins with an anecdote from a real classroom experience the author is quite fond of and never tires to use. It very tersely captures the paradox of education – its actual, intended function and what it has become in the hands of ‘wellintentioned’ educators.

An elementary schoolteacher was giving a drawing class to a group of six year-old children. At the back of the classroom sat a little girl who normally didn’t pay much attention in school. In the drawing class she did. For more than twenty minutes, the girl sat with her arms curled around her paper, totally absorbed in what she was doing. The teacher found this fascinating. Eventually, she asked the girl what she was drawing. Without looking up, the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ Surprised, the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like’. The girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’

This story reminds us that young children are wonderfully confident in their own imaginations. Most of us lose this confidence as we grow up. Ironically, one of the main reasons this happens is education.

One need not look beyond one’s own schooling experience to validate the claim of the author. Most of us, barring the fortunate few who have had exceptional teachers, know this to be true from our personal experience of having to conform to a set of rigid rules and limitations placed on the inquisitive mind from the outside via a figure of authority. A clear analysis of what it is that educators world over have got it wrong , the systemic failures and the redundancy of the industrial model of education are given enough space to highlight how we have got the basics wrong .

Replete with case studies of people who had followed their heart against all conventional wisdom, the success stories of these people in their own words (as told to the author in a series of interviews conducted for the book) shows the educational systems , the world over in poor light, out of sync with the students’ aspirations, working with narrow perceptions about human intelligence and capacity and dominated by academic disciplines. Each and every point made is illumined by concrete examples and anecdotes which makes for such a strong argument that the reader can’t agree more with it. Reading through the book one will come across phenomenal insights into things which are otherwise taken for granted for a lack of proper media or channel for such discourses.

The section devoted to description of the state the author calls ‘being in the element’, how to get there and remain there is so good that the reader would inevitably relive the experiences recounted there vicariously. There are these de ja vu moments that make the book a page-turner. To be honest to the spirit of the book, the vivid description of the process of self-actualization that unfolding of true passion leads to, is something that the author does so effortlessly yet powerfully in a poignant style befitting a surreal discourse. One can hear the author’s voice as the reader discovers the path to optimize one’s strengths and use that for the ultimate experience of being in the top of the game(whatever it may be).

Through engaging narratives of people who have made it big in life, one is taken through the journey or rather journeys of self discovery. The underlying fact being how these geniuses had endured, survived and finally overcome the often insurmountable educational processes to unearth their true potential and reach the pinnacle of fame and zenith of individual talent naturally endowed on them is truly inspiring and at the same time insightful. Before one would wrongly come to the conclusion that conventional education and instructional methods are detrimental to human growth and development, the author puts all such theories to rest by asserting that the educational processes employed by institutions of learning are not bad all together or need to be summarily rejected for optimal development of human capacities. It is only that, it doesn’t cater to or does justice to the diversity of human talents.

The one-size-fits-all approach to education is not right for the majority of student population the world over. The need of the hour the author believes is not standardizing education but customizing it to the individual needs of the learners. To make the distinction clear an analogy from the catering business is used so tellingly that it leaves no doubts.

Through many such interesting and befitting analogies the drawbacks of education systems are brought out to help us understand where we are going wrong in our noble endeavour of educating the young minds. The book is a comprehensive guide to revamp and reorient our education system to equip the community of learners with the liberating knowledge of their true capacities and inherent talents and helping them achieve the highest state of their uniquely bestowed capabilities. The author doesn’t stop at that. He offers alternatives to the obsolete educational practices employed in schools through offering a glimpse of innovative teaching-learning models with proven effectiveness and success. As has been his endeavour throughout, he makes no attempt to prescribe these models for replication but only as examples to illustrate how ‘the curriculum of education’ for the twenty-first century must be transformed radically by eliminating the existing hierarchy of subjects, questioning the entire idea of ‘subjects’ and personalizing education. One cannot but be blown away by the brilliant treatment of the subject in such a lucid style with its perfect blend of anecdotes, analogies, narratives and analyses that makes the book a gripping read. His take on intelligence, imagination, creativity and their relationship with one another and how they work makes for a fascinating read. The liberal use of real life examples used to illustrate his every point is what makes the abstractions translate into concrete manifestations. It is through probing questions and a gentle nudge to think differently about things we take for granted, that the author challenges the often unsuspecting mind to have a re-think. For instance, after an elaborate delineation of how human intelligence manifests in multiple ways in different forms, the author wraps up the discussion this way:

We think we know the answer to the question, ‘How intelligent are you?’ The real answer, though, is that the question itself is the wrong one to ask. The right question to ask is ‘How are you intelligent?’ The experiences shared about the process and the product of creative imagination and what the author likes to call the ‘epiphany’ stories is bound to connect with the reader as the innumerable stories will definitely strike a chord with different people with similar inclinations.

The logical progression of the topics neatly categorized into eleven chapters covers the entire ambit of discussion on human capabilities. The refreshing insights that the author offers about human capacities and how to nurture them culled from what appears to be a painstakingly researched body of work is bound to have a positive impact on the reader towards validation of intuitive facts that often remain undefined.

Reading the book, one gets inspired to see how not all hope is lost. It puts everything concerned with education in the right perspective. It isn’t laden with statistics that the reader is forced to plough through to get a hold of things. The narratives of people who had ‘survived’ education unfolding the path to self-actualization through unlocking their special and unique powers, makes the book not only an interesting read but highly ‘educational’.

It is a must read for everyone connected with education. It doesn’t just stop at cautioning the educators and every other stakeholder against the odds that face our children and their progeny but offers a clear road map to revamping our educational system to serve the ultimate purpose of education.

P Ajitha is a teaching practitioner who has been advocating for ‘liberating’ the education process to accommodate change and give true freedom that enables the teacher to create, innovate and experiment with notions of learning; a votary of teachers’ rights to empower them to become the catalysts of change in building a national force of informed men and women with sound value system and integrity of character; a staunch believer in the transformational nature of education imparted with true commitment to the larger objectives of this noble endeavour. The author presently teaches at Delhi Public School, Coimbatore and can be reached at

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