The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Does the traditional education system stifle many children's opportunities to harness their natural creative talents?



What if you found out the top performing school you worked so hard to get your children into was crushing their dreams? Ken Robinson’s book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin, $15.00) claims that’s exactly what’s happening.

To be sure, The Element is in many ways a standard self-help book. It takes a difficult sell — the achievability of the fully realized You — and relentlessly counters skeptical readers’ objections with a barrage of rags-to-riches stories until they have nothing left but the fuzzy desire to immediately unlock their true potential.

But a more interesting sub-theme in the book — particularly for parents and teachers — is how the traditional education system stifles many children’s opportunities to harness their natural creative talents and, ultimately, to be happy.

The element, in Robinson’s terms, is “the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.” At schools, though, “Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests.”

The irony is that policymakers know the education system is broken: That’s where No Child Left Behind came from. But politicians’ efforts to fix the system only exacerbate the problem. “There are three major processes in education,” Robinson explains. “The curriculum, which is what schools expect students to learn; pedagogy, the process by which the system helps students to do it; and assessment, the process of judging how well they are doing. Most reform movements focus on the curriculum and the assessment.”

Focusing on just those two areas logically leads to standardized testing, which Robinson argues leads to a situation where educators end up merely teaching children how to pass tests. The results, he says, are extraordinarily high dropout rates and increasing dissatisfaction among children.

Robinson likens the current system to the kind of systematic standardization that makes every Big Mac taste the same — impressive in its far-reaching control, but it doesn’t exactly set much of a bar. A better model of quality assurance, he suggests, is the Michelin guide: You know every restaurant that earns the coveted three-star rating will be spectacular, but Michelin doesn’t set rules on how these restaurants should meet its criteria.

Schools could easily be measured by similar criteria — educational achievement remains the end measurable goal, but policymakers leave education to the educators. That way, the best schools would rise to the top not because a narrower curriculum is for children easier to parrot, but because children are incorporating what they’re learning into who they are as individuals.

That approach might sound fluffy, but it has been shown to work. Reggio schools, an international educational phenomenon with a presence in 30 U.S. states, focus on projects “in which students make discoveries from a variety of perspectives, learn to hypothesize, and discover how to collaborate with one another, all in the context of a curriculum that feels a great deal like play,” Robinson says. “The idea… is to make possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary.”

It’s an interesting approach and one Robinson says will help children to lead more fulfilling lives. He concedes that following their dreams won’t necessarily make them rich or famous, but “being in their Element, even for part of the time, can bring a new richness and balance.” Whatever your misgivings at the start of the book, by the end you’ll want to give it a shot.

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