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Fathers, children and The Element

When people close to you discourage you from taking a particular path, they usually believe they are doing it for your own good. – Sir Ken Robinson in The Element

Many readers of educational blogs are already aware of Sir Ken Robinson through his TED talks, especially "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" If you've enjoyed his presentations, his new book The Element is well worth investing in. And even if you haven’t see him speak, it’s still worth it.

With sly humor and readable prose, Robinson describes through revealing interviews people who have been successful in the arts, sports, education, and business how they have found in their "Element." This wide variety of fascinating people, many who have overcome great odds to do so, all have found a way to make their livelihood from a passion or enriched their lives through it. Identifying one’s Element may be as easy as asking, “If left to my own devices - I didn’t have to worry about making a living or what others thought of me – what am I most drawn to doing?” (Does napping count?)

Robinson’ describes The Element as the “meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.” He sets the stage by arguing that there are nearly as many “intelligences” as there are individuals and that standardized tests, and thus success in school, only measure a narrow range. He believes we should not asking if people are intelligent, but how they are intelligent. The Element flourishes when one finds his “tribe” of others with similar passions “who tend to drive each other to explore the real extent of their talents.” One often needs to overcome the obstacles of both a personal, social and cultural nature. People who find their Element are often considered lucky, but tend to make their own luck through attitude. Mentors and teachers are important to most of the interviewees. – people who see “something in us we don’t see in ourselves."

Happily one does not need to be young to find one’s passion and does not need to pursue it full time. (I think this is why we see many happy retired teachers who have not retired at all, but have pursued other interesting careers.) In fact, Robinson concludes that for writers maturity can be an advantage given that our “insights and sensitivities deepen with age.” Take that, you young techno-Turks.

Robinson criticizes our factory model of education, writing:

But too many graduate or leave early, unsure of their real talents and not knowing what direction to take next. Too many feel that what they are good at isn’t valued by schools.

and cites the U.S.’s growing drop out rate as proof. He argues that schools do not need to be reformed – but transformed – by personalizing education so that it will build achievement on the individual talents of each child.

The part of Robinson's book that struck a real chord with me talked about how parents can either help or block their children finding their Element. Permit me a personal reflection...

As a teacher, I quickly realized that children who developed a passion for something early in life seemed the happiest. Whether it was an interest in horses or music or science fiction or sports or cartooning or whatever, somehow these lucky kids sort of knew who they were and spent less time thrashing about looking for identity. This is why I found the role of librarian so appealing. No matter what the interest, I could help students engage in it more deeply. If I could match the research project with a personal interest, the work was always better. It’s also why I liked directing plays and coaching speech students far better than classroom teaching - and I guess many coaches of any activity feel the same way.

For those of you who are parents, you know that one of the most difficult things to accept is that what makes your children happy may not be the same thing that makes you happy. While my daughter always seemed to be on the familiar collegiate track that was my own route to career and fulfillment, I did worry about my son.

Brady was not a reader. Did not find school of interest. Had an obsession with video gaming and moviemaking instead of reading and writing which his old man thought of more value and worth. So my suggestion that he look at a career in speech therapy went pretty much unheeded and he went to technical college to learn the art of filmmaking. He is now working in Wellington, New Zealand, just to be close to Peter Jackson's WETA studios. Perhaps he will be an orc in the Hobbit movie being made. Or the next Peter Jackson.

I worry. I suppose that is a dad's job. There seem to be a lot of starving artists in the world. But I helped Brady acquire both his video making equipment while in high school and his schooling in how to use it. My pragmatic rationale was that if he gets tired of being hungry, he can always go back to college to become the speech therapist. And should he become a rich and famous film director, a high quality nursing home might be in my future.

As I think back, I am sure I caused my own father a good deal of anxiety as well. He was a farmer and crop duster who had an oldest son who lacked any mechanical ability or interest in farming. (Actually I was just disinterested in the physical labor part of it.) I still wonder if he felt the same concern when I went off to college driving a $50 1954 Rambler station wagon with no brakes and a new wife that I felt as I watched my son head to NZ with a couple buddies and a suitcase full of video games. What goes around, comes around.

In a response to my last post in which I mentioned I was reading The Element, Charlie Roy reports that his school will be putting it on his faculty's summer reading list. Good idea. Every teacher (and parent) should be aware of and open to how she can develop the true passions in her students and even serve as mentors. There could worse legacies than knowing one has helped another human being find his Element .

Oh, have I found my Element? I am writing this just for the just plain fun of it.

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Reader Comments (7)

I really enjoyed Ken Robinson's TED talk and this book promises to be a real treat with his wit and creativity. What a poignant theme 'How finding your passion changes everything.' You're right about continuing to find new passions in life. One hopes that one can start early by igniting that potential within young people as well.

February 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul C.

or if you are interested in getting the content and ideas from The Element via video from the man himself - one to share with the 'hobbit'? .... lol - try
I must admit it is a while since I have read a 'whole' book - I am increasingly a fan of video for my own professional learning.

February 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Carroll

I enjoyed this post Doug, as I have enjoyed many others from you. The issue that I have with the theory of "finding and then supporting the intelligence" is that it presupposes that kids live in environments where they have exposure to all of life's rich experiences from which they can see what they are good at. Here in Hong Kong, limitations of space and parental income mean that kids get to find out if they are good at shopping, helping parents in the family printing business or studying hard. These kids may excel at barefoot water skiing, golf, horse riding or film making like your son but they may not get to find out if they are never exposed to the experience. I guess that we should be aiming to expose kids to every experience possible in their environment but the local schools in this part of the world have a long way to go to achieve this for all. Depressing!
The other thing that I have trouble getting my head around is the gaming phenomena and just how far we support this as being a valid "interest" of kids. Again, to quote a HK context, every kid here would have to say that they are interested in (good at??) gaming. We have areas of Hong Kong with arcades full of gaming consoles for sale. Kids and adults alike travel the subways of Hong Kong with attention glued to the Nintendo DS or PSP. I have yet to see any of them having math formulas or foreign phrases for learning a modern foreign language on the screen and most, if not all would see them as recreational rather than educational. As a consequence, the international schools here have very strict policies about games on computers brought to school see
It would be very brave of a school to say "I think a lot of our kids seem to be very interested in gaming so we are going to let them develop this intelligence and hope it leads to a rewarding future." Even Will Richardson expects adults to direct kids into broader learning at schools. See Given this, where is the guidance for a librarian like Diane in terms of how far to support the "gaming issue" in schools?

February 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul McMahon

I am going to read this book ASAP. I have 3 children - one is almost finished medical school, the other is finishing a master's in biomedical engineering and my third just graduated with a bachelor of music in jazz performance. He wants to compose movie scores. Guess who I worry about? But you know, if I didn't have to worry about income I'd probably be in the arts as well - singing in some band! I have always encouraged my third to follow his passion and I know that he'll probably be OK but I still worry.

February 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSharon S.

Well the post makes me feel divided about allowing my free spirit soon to pursue his dreams at an expensive private univiersity in Chicago. While my family is being burdened financially with student loans so he can pursue his love in film/animation, my gut instinct tells me he will eventually return to teach this topic and probably not really work in the field for very long--he has a gift with kids and he knows it (hence the part time job working with after school kids teaching soccer drills while he is in school.) On the other hand, his workstudy program has him doing 25 hours a week with IT at the university, and his "boss" has already asked him to consider a full time job with them once he graduates. They think his calling is IT. Neither job will quickly pay off student loans. Sigh. My second child is passionate about sports, though he hasn't played organized sports since the 8th grade. He is looking at colleges that will allow him to be a student trainer with the athletic department, his major being sports management. I don't know where he will end up in the fall, but in all likelihood it will be te one that allows him to be a student trainer more so than a student. Passion driven for sure. Expensive too. My only hope for son 2 is that he will stay in state (which has recently been added to his short list for consideration) where he will get to use in state scholarship money to significantly help in costs.

While I have different ideas on how to select a post high school experience (of course I was raised in a family of 7kids), my "only-child" husband is adamant that they pursue their dream, no matter the cost or where it takes them.

So far it is working, even though its costing a fortune that two educator parents are supporting, and we will be workig LONG after retirement to continue supporting their dreams. Would I have it any other way? Nope.

Now I want to read the book. Thanks for the inspirational post. I'm sure Brady will be able to support you in your retirement home of choice.LOL.

February 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Nelson

I'm curious as to what else was listed on your faculty's summer reading list? This title sounds intriguing and may provide wisdom for many of our staff who have children beginning kindergarten this year when every day is a day of passionate pursuits.

February 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKatie K

Hi Paul,

Thanks much for you considered reply. I always appreciate the time readers take to respond to something I have written.

You can find my personal take on games in school here in a column for Education World: The nickel version is:

Let’s be clear that there are games and there are games -- just like there are movies and there are movies; there are books and there are books. Games vary widely in type -- from first person shoot em’ ups to skill attainment tutors with complex management programs. Games vary in taste, rating, maturity level, and even factual accuracy. The question shouldn’t be “Do we permit students to play games?” but “Which games should we allow our students to play?”

In regard to my own son is that my readings tell me that his gaming interest could develop into a legitimate career path. Video gaming in the US is a bigger business than film making and seems recession-proof. A good video game requires art, music, writing, computing and a host of other skills to develop.

And I could not agree more that children should be exposed to a wide variety of subjects and experiences. I readily admit that I write from a Western middle-class perspective where, I suppose, this a given. I appreciate being call to task on that. Oh, and I do think our schools are narrowing exposure to other kinds of experiences as testing-mania increases here as well. Isn’t this why libraries and good technology access is important to kids everywhere? What better ways to find new things and interests?

Again, I appreciate the conversation and all the best. It’s been 20 years since I was last in Hong Kong. It’s always been one of my favorite cities.

All the best,


Hi Sharon,

Your children all sound brilliant and motivated. You have little to worry about. I know, easy for me to say.

Thanks for the comment,


Hi Cathy,

I suspect that emotional support for our children’s passion was what Robinson was concerned about. I was fortunate that both my kids attended public post-grad training – and both worked to help put themselves through (as did their old man).

I am sure your sons will do fine.

Thanks for the comment. I am sure you will enjoy the book.


Hi Katie,

Ah, it was Charlie Roy’s reading list that I was referring to. He might be willing to share it with you. He strikes me as a pretty good fellow.

All the best,


February 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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