We need a revolution in education, and we need to turn upside down the notion that schools exist to prepare young people for the world of work, rather than schools exist to enable young people to develop all of their intelligences, and through doing so enable them to discover their unique creative selves, and discover their Element.
The best way to guarantee young people the ability to survive and thrive in the world is to enable them to become three-dimensional beings with a strong sense of their true selves, and a strong appreciation of their individual strengths and weaknesses. They also need to become creative and imaginative beings. Is this setting our sights too high?
Of course they also need to know what strengths and qualifications they will need to have in order to follow certain paths in life, and in order to pursue particular occupations and professions. Such an understanding can be developed alongside the development of an understanding of themselves, and the development of all their intelligences.
As things stand, very few schools even begin from the needs of the individual. Sadly, a great many of our schools take it as read that their main purpose is to process children through the results factory that they’ve allowed themselves to become. They offer a set curriculum, or a range of courses, and children have little or no say in what they do, when they do it, or how they do it. The minute they step through the school gates they’re expected to conform – or else. The idea of children and young people being partners in their own learning and having a strong voice in what goes on in schools in this country is frankly laughable.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and as we often say, it doesn’t happen this way in countries where the children achieve more and where children are demonstrably happier and enjoy both life and learning.
Here are some further thoughts from Sir Ken Robinson on the Element and the Zone.
In all likelihood, you’ve had instances in your life where you’ve become “lost” in an experience . . . You begin to do something you love, and the rest of the world slips away. Hours pass, and it feels like minutes. During this time you have been “in the zone”. Those who have embraced the Element find themselves in this place regularly. This is not to suggest that they find every experience of doing the thing they love blissful, but they regularly have optimal experiences while doing these things . . .
Different people find the zone in different ways. For some it comes through intense physical activity, through physically demanding sports, through risk, competition, and maybe a sense of danger. For others it may come through activities that seem physically passive, through writing, painting, maths, meditation, and other modes of intense contemplation. However, there are some common features to being in that magical place.
One of the strongest signs of being in the zone is a sense of freedom and authenticity. When we are doing something that we love and are naturally good at, we are much more likely to feel centered in our true sense of self – to be who we feel we truly are. When we are in our Element, we feel we are doing what we are meant to be doing, and being who we’re meant to be.
You can see and experience this shift in all sorts of performances, in acting, in dance, in musical performances, and in sports. You can see that people have suddenly entered a different phase. You see them relaxed, you see them loosen up and become instruments of their own expression.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi performed “decades of research on the positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the total involvement with life that I call flow”. In his landmark work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he writes of a “state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and people want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” What Dr. Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” (and what many others call “being in the zone”) “happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task in hand and momentarily forget everything else.”
“The key element of an optimal experience,” he says in Flow, “is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”
Activities we love fill us with energy even when we are physically exhausted. Activities we don’t like can drain us in minutes . . .
Mental energy is not a fixed substance. It rises and falls with our passion and commitment to what we are doing at the time.
Being in your Element, having that experience of flow, is empowering because it’s a way of unifying our energies. It’s a way of feeling deeply connected with our own sense of identity and it curiously comes about through a sense of relaxing, of feeling perfectly natural to be doing what you’re doing. It’s a profound sense of being in your skin, of connecting to your own internal pulse or energy.
However we get there, being in the zone is a powerful and transformative experience. So powerful that it can be addictive, but an addiction that is healthy for you in so many ways.
[Consider] the value of asking a vitally important question: If left to my own devices – if I didn’t have to worry about making a living or what others thought of me – what am I most drawn to doing?
This is [also] about looking into the eyes of your children and those you care for and, rather than approaching them with a template about who they might be, trying to understand who they really are . . .
What kinds of activities do they tend to engage in voluntarily? What sorts of aptitudes do those activities suggest? What absorbs them most?
We need to understand what puts them and us in the zone.
And we need to determine what implications that has for the rest of our lives.
There’s an excellent example of someone who decides to move closer towards her Element in this blog piece by Brenna Gee:
Brenna has written an insightful and descriptive account of her need to engage with her own creativity and to discover her own voice. She did so through three, not one, fields of creative expression – music, writing and painting.
How many of us have creatively engaged with any of these activities, let alone all three? Yet we all have the potential to do so. In 3Di’s opinion our school experiences ought to encourage every one of us to do so. As things stand, more often than not, our school experiences teach us that we’ll never be any good as musicians, writers or graphic artists, so we may as well not try. The amount of talent that our school systems waste, let alone fail to develop, is shocking. The waste happens through low expectations, lack of opportunities, poor teaching and because very few teachers understand the importance of enabling children and young people to discover their own voice, or their Element. This has to change.
Ken Robinson’s description of what it feels like to be in one’s Element ought to be characteristic of any child who loves learning for its own sake, which of course every child should. Children who have discovered the joys of creative learning can’t get enough of it.
One might say that learning is what children do best, and yet how many children dislike school and given the chance would rather not go to school – were it not for the fact that their homes are often just as boring, apart from the stimulation on offer from their games consoles, their computers, their friends and their other hobbies and interests?
We need children to be more than merely interested in their own learning – we need them to be excited about it, and to feel in their Element whenever they are doing it.