The most popular Ted Talk of all time is one of Ken Robinson’s where he argues that schools kill creativity. His popular books, The Element and Finding Your Element also talk about how traditional schooling often gets in the way of students finding their passions.
According to Robinson, your element is the point where your passion and talents intersect. He asserts that being in your element allows you to be fully who you are — that without doing it you are not truly yourself. He also thinks that many people go through life without ever finding their element, sort of coasting through the years without true passion and zeal for anything in particular.
While I agree with his arguments and think traditional schooling needs a dramatic overhaul, I used to fret over the logistics. How in the world are we supposed to help millions of students find their own unique path — to find the point at which their talents and passions intersect? After working with hundreds of teachers on four continents, the number one obstacle I hear for doing education differently is… TIME. Or lack of it. Lack of time to teach deeply, lack of time to plan, lack of time for professional development, lack of time to co-plan or collaborate, lack of time to give students detailed feedback, lack of time to build authentic assessments…
But, there is hope.
Finding your element, according to Robinson is a deeply personal journey. We can help kids along the way but they have to cultivate it for themselves. It’s probably more about helping them understand the beliefs and principles behind the journey, which we can do for groups of students, than it is trying to help each one find their unique passion.
How do we do it? Here’s what I gleaned from The Element and Finding Your Element.
There are 3 Fundamental Beliefs:

  1. Your life is unique.
  2. You create your own life.
  3. Your life is organic.

The journey to finding your element involves a continuous cycle of focus, exploration and reflection.
The Journey copy
The principles:

  1. Get to know yourself really well.
  2. Look beyond what others have told you about yourself, including personality tests, cultural expectations and even your parents and teachers.
  3. Seek new experiences, try lots of different activities.
  4. Try doing familiar or already tried things in new ways.

I gleaned five categories for educators to help us do a better job at helping kids in their journey to cultivate their passions:

  • Self-awareness and agency
  • Experiences and opportunities
  • Creativity and non-traditional intelligence
  • Purpose, values and community
  • Well-being and positive mindsets

The first one is all about helping students get to know themselves and to believe that they are in control of their own lives. The second is, of course, trying to offer them as many diverse experiences as possible. The third is about helping them to be divergent thinkers and to recognize and value the diversity of types of intelligence, not just the traditional academic type. The fourth is about helping them to recognize and value something that is larger than themselves. And the fifth is the importance of healthy living and positive thinking on the journey to cultivating your passion.
self-assessment educators can use to evaluate how well we are currently doing these things
Passion exercises you can use directly with kids
Critical thinking tools to help them get to know and improve the quality of their thinking
Debate, deliberation and advocacy tools to help them build agency and take control over their lives
Initiative rubric to help them self-assess the important habits that are essential on the journey to finding and cultivating their passions
Growth mindset tools to help them see the value of effort
Wellness blog posts to help them lead healthy lives, essential for the journey
We are very hopeful that schools can not only stop getting in the way but can start doing way more of the things that help students become who they were truly meant to be — even on a large scale. What do you think?