Sir Ken Robinson was an educator best known for his thinking on creativity and innovation in schools and government.

Robinson died in August. He had spent his life inspiring people of all ages to nurture their talents and discover – or rediscover – their passions.

In his classic book, “Finding Your Element,” he wrote that “whatever your aptitudes, the greatest source of achievement is passion. Aptitude matters, but passion often matters more… If you love doing something, you’ll be constantly drawn to get better at it.”

My own journey to finding my element was both short and long. I had always loved writing and photography, but well-meaning elders convinced me that this wasn’t a practical professional route. I spent the first half of my career working first in education, and then in international development advocacy, but all the while, I was learning to shoot with a film camera, develop my own negatives and make my own prints. I loved the smell of the darkroom; I still do. I also read the news obsessively and kept a journal, documenting anything I found interesting. Even before I was a reporter, I was a reporter in my heart.

It’s been years since I read Robinson’s “Finding Your Element,” but I thought of him on a recent photography assignment for this paper. Last week, at the Aitkin Bit and Bridle Show, I spent several hours taking photographs of the riders and horses. I got lost in the way the sun hit the horses’ muscles, the way the dust kicked up as the riders swiftly navigated around the barrels, and the silhouettes and shapes of the shadows as the sun slowly set in the horizon. Robinson would say that during this time I was in my element, that place where passion and ability meet.

Robinson believed that while it’s possible to find your element, or elements, at any age, it helps to be exposed to a rich variety of potential interests starting in our younger years. I began taking photographs when I was 13 and had begun to develop an appreciation for visual storytelling in school even earlier. That’s why it pains me to see art teachers being let go in communities like Aitkin.

A good educational system should focus less on standardization and more on personalization. The purpose of education, in Robinson’s words, is “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.”

With the right investments, we can cultivate a fertile learning environment in which students in Aitkin, as well as lifelong learners of all ages, can find their elements.

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