Reading "The Element" or why I am not good at drawing (anymore)…

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I’m reading a book  at the moment called “The Element” by Sir Ken Robinson. The subtitle says “How finding your passion changes everything”. I have blogged about Sir Ken Robinson before because of his marvelous talk at the TED conference. Many points he made there are in this book that he kind of announces during the talk.
He has a simple yet powerful message: Everybody is born creative but many of us are educated out of our native creativity. He claims that school systems are predetermined on a certain type of intelligence thereby ignoring other forms and sorting out people who rely on them. According to him three features seem to be similar across school system around the world:

“First, there is the preoccupation with certain sorts of academic ability, I know that academic ability is very important. But school system tend to be preoccupied with certain sorts of critical analysis and reasoning, particularly with words and numbers. Important as those skills are, there is much more to human intelligence than that. [..] The second feature is the hierarchy of subjects. At the top of the hierarchy are mathematics, science, and language skills. In the middle are the humanities. At the bottom are the arts. In the arts, there is another hierarchy: music and visual arts normally have a higher status than theater and dance. In fact, more and more schools are cutting the arts out of the curriculum altogether. A hugh high school might have only one fine arts teacher, and even elementary school children get very little time to simply paint and draw.
The third feature is the growing reliance on particular types of assessment. Children everywhere are under intense pressure to perform at higher and higher levels on a narrow range of standardized tests.”

If you think about this for a second you immediately realise it is true. For example I went to a catholic school that focuses especially on languages and arts (and religion, which is not that important in this context). However, while we always had math, physics, chemistry up to three times a week each, languages, history and geography took place -  as far as I can remember – two times weekly at maximum while we had music and art (and sports) once a week. And in the final ‘Abitur‘ you could only have sciences and languages as primary written exams, humanities and arts were just allowed as secondary or oral exams. Dance and theater were not taught as subjects (although they had brilliant teachers ready to do it) and were rather offered as after-school activities. Same goes for sports. Also, there were much more and more intense formal exams in sciences and languages than in the other subjects. And by the end of school I guess I (and most of the other students) had learned at least unconsciously that those things were simply valued more by society. But already – after being out of school for only 7 years – I realise that this is plain wrong. My advanced level courses were math and chemistry in which I scored 8 out of 15 points in the final exams – obviously a bad choice on my part – , both of which I don’t need today studying media literacy. My basic level courses English (15 points) and Ethics (11 points) were much more relevant, yet the knowledge in computers and media that I rely on today was not formally taught at school, I did it mostly on my own. I was at a pretty good school though and we were offered a great variety of after-school courses by highly motivated teachers, but I know for a fact that this was not common on public schools back then and it probably isn’t today.

Now in the book Ken Robinson collected stories from several people like Gillian Lynne or Matt Groening explaining how they found their “element” or their talent/passion and how it changed their lifes. He also stresses the point that those talents could have been overlooked easily due to the nature of the educational systems and uniform approach to learning. I remember I used to draw a lot when I was small, maybe five or six years old. I wasn’t particularly fond of going outside and so I spend my time drawing, I had a lot of fantasy and made up stuff. When I got into primary school and we started getting drawing lessons I probably noticed for the first time that my drawing was not so good because I started to get bad grades (not really that bad but bad compared what I usually expected). But even more I realised I couldn’t do what we were supposed to do. We were told to draw certain things and I didn’t understand how to do it properly. And I could no longer choose what to draw. Everybody else seemed to get it. I didn’t. And over time I lost interest and joy in drawing which only slightly started to come back two or three years before school was over when I already had found other things I was interested in and was good at doing. Today I’m quite sure drawing is not a particular talent of mine, but then again who knows? Maybe I would have needed another approach to learning to draw.  Maybe I was just not interested in the kind of drawing we practised during the lessons. I will never be able to restore the state of mind I was in when I was a child and drew all day long. Robinson now claims that this is no error in the system but rather that the system is designed to work just that way. It’s the believe that the world consists of essential and non-essential knowledge and that we just need to feed children the essential stuff – and doing that in an uniform way – to prepare them for the future – a future we can’t possibly imagine – and the believe that there is only one relevant form of intelligence. These believes are profoundly wrong. And we start to see the symptoms.

I share this view and although I believe many good teachers know this and try to improve the educational experience  the system they rely on does not give them the freedom and ressources to properly fullfil their profession. It’s a sad fact – facing the national election here in Germany tomorrow – that none of the parties so far have actually made education a core subject in their programmes or have expressed clear ideas on what education should be like apart from the will “to improve” the situation and to raise availability and quality of education. Whatever that means. (Please feel free to prove me wrong  here!!)

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