Book Review

March 10, 2011
Shelley Svidal

Passion changes everything

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica
Pages: 274
Viking Penguin, 2009


In Alberta’s education circles, Ken Robinson is probably best known for a talk he delivered at the 2006 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference on the relationship between education and creativity. The YouTube video of the talk has been viewed almost 2 million times.

Robinson’s latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, focuses on the Element, which, as he defines it, is the point at which natural aptitude meets personal passion. Its conditions are attitude and opportunity. At the centre of the Element is the zone. To enter the zone is to “become focused and intent. We live in the moment. We become lost in the experience and perform at our peak. Our breathing changes, our minds merge with our bodies, and we feel ourselves drawn effortlessly into the heart of the Element,” he writes.

He explores the Element and its connection to intelligence, creativity, tribes and mentors through a series of engaging stories about famous people who have found their Element, including Gillian Lynne, Paul McCartney, Richard Feynman, Meg Ryan, Arianna Huffington, Vidal Sassoon, Richard Branson and even Robinson himself. Many of these people were not successful at school, at least not in the conventional academic sense. That is why the book’s final chapter, “Making the Grade,” is arguably the most important, for it is there that Robinson explicates the connection between the Element and education, dissecting the flaws in the education system and setting forth his vision of transformation.

“Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world,” he writes. “Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn.”

Because they were created in the interests and image of industrialism, schools encourage conformity and discourage creativity. They serve academically inclined students well but fail those who are not so inclined, as dropout rates attest. “Increasingly, the structure and character of industrial education are creaking under the strain of the twenty-first century,” he writes.

Robinson identifies curriculum, pedagogy and assessment as the three main processes in education. While most countries are reforming their education systems for economic and cultural reasons, they are reforming them in the wrong way, focusing on curriculum and assessment to the exclusion of pedagogy.

“The mistake that many policymakers make is to believe that in education the best way to face the future is by improving what they did in the past,” he writes. “The most powerful method of improving education is to invest in the improvement of teaching and the status of great teachers. There isn’t a great school anywhere that doesn’t have great teachers working in it. But there are plenty of poor schools with shelves of curriculum standards and reams of standardized tests.”

While standardized tests are not wrong in themselves, they can be easily abused, discouraging creativity and negatively affecting student and teacher morale, he explains. Standardized testing is now big business, and the tests have become an end in themselves rather than a diagnostic tool.  

“Given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed—it needs to be transformed,” Robinson writes. “The key to this transformation is not to standardize education but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. The key is to embrace the core principles of the Element.”

Embracing those core principles involves transforming curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, he explains. For curriculum, that means eliminating the hierarchy of subjects in favour of disciplines and taking into account individual learning styles and talents. For pedagogy, that means investing in teachers in terms of mentoring and coaching. And for assessment, that means replacing the fast-food model of quality assurance with the Michelin model used in the restaurant industry.

“For the future, education must be Elemental,” Robinson concludes. “If we are serious about educational transformation, we must understand the times and catch the new tide. We can ride it into the future, or be overwhelmed and sink back into the past. The stakes could hardly be higher for education and for all who pass through it.”

Shelley Svidal is the ATA’s administrative officer, Political and Legislative Affairs, Government program area.