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Book review: Ken Robinson and The Element

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

By Ken Robinson

Viking Penguin

$28.50

An elementary school teacher is giving a drawing class to six-year-olds. At the back of the room sits a girl who usually struggles to pay attention. Yet she's totally absorbed during the art lesson. The teacher is fascinated and after 20 minutes asks the girl what she's drawing.

"I'm drawing a picture of God," says the girl without looking up from her masterpiece.

"But nobody knows what God looks like," says the teacher.

"They will in a minute," says the girl.

Author Ken Robinson loves telling this story because it reminds us just how confident kids are with their own imaginations. Ask a class of first graders who's creative and Robinson says every hand will go up. Ask a class of college students and you'll get far fewer hands. Ask around at work and you'll be lucky to get a single hand.

"I believe passionately that we are all born with tremendous natural capacities and that we lose touch with many of them as we spend more time in the world," says Robinson. "The result is that too many people never connect with their true talents and don't know what they're really capable of achieving. They don't know who they really are."

If you're one of the lucky few who's figured that out, then chances are you've found your Element. Robinson defines the Element as the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion. You're doing what you love and what you do best. You're energized and contributing to your full potential. You're innovative and creative.

Given the economic and environmental challenges we're up against, we need everyone in their Element and dreaming up some groundbreaking solutions. "We urgently need to make fuller use of our own natural resources," says Robinson. "This is essential for our well-being and for the health of our communities.

"Our extraordinary capacity for imagination has given rise to the most far-reaching examples of human achievement and has taken us from caves to cities and from marshes to the moon. But there is a danger now that our imaginations may be failing us. We have seen far, but not far enough."

What's limiting our vision? Robinson warns we're educating ourselves out of our creativity. Our schools are putting a higher value on conformity than creativity, defining intelligence far too narrowly and putting a premium on a curriculum that only engages the left side of our brains.

Education doesn't need to be reformed, says Robinson. It needs to be transformed. "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."

Gillian Lynne almost didn't find her true passion and her teachers missed it completely. Lynne is one of the world's most accomplished and acclaimed choreographers. She's worked as a ballerina, dancer, actor, theatre and TV director. But when Lynne was eight years old, her teachers suspected she had a learning disability. Lynne couldn't sit still. Couldn't concentrate on her work. And she didn't seem to care. There was talk of sending Lynne to a special needs school.

So Lynne and her worried mother visited a psychologist. The psychologist interviewed the mother, all the while watching the daughter and recognizing some telltale signs. The psychologist asked Lynne's mother if they could speak privately. On the way out of his office, the psychologist turned on a radio.

Hidden from view in the hallway, they watched Lynne dance around the room with amazing grace and in a state of pure joy.

"Gillian isn't sick," said the psychologist. "She's a dancer. Take her to a dance school." And that's where Lynne discovered her Element and found herself in the company of others who had to move to think.

"Someone looked deep into her eyes — someone who had seen children like her before and knew how to read the signs," says Robinson. "Someone else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down. But Gillian wasn't a problem child. She didn't need to go away to a special school. She just needed to be who she really was."

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