Tuesday, July 05, 2011

4 Lessons Photography has taught me about Learning

If you follow me on the web, then you perhaps know that I'm big on photography. I absolutely love taking pictures - my Flickr stream with about 13000+ pictures will tell you just that. I'm no pro, but something makes me feel I've gotten better with time. As I reflect on the last 10 years of having owned cameras, I think I've some interesting insights on how adults learn. In today's post I want to share some of those thoughts with you and I'd love to hear how you feel about what I'm writing.

Learning is effective when it's autonomous and purposeful

When I got my first digital camera I wasn't fussed about technique. I was just keen to take pictures. I think I had a 256 MB card for my camera and it was an absolute luxury for me. All I wanted to do was capture every moment of my life. You need to know something about me. I didn't grow up with many of the gadgets that kids my age in the west were exposed to. So I didn't have a computer or video games. I have some photographs of my life prior to getting a camera, but the frank truth is that we were always constrained by the 36 pictures on the film roll. The ability to take pictures and see them instantly was gratification enough for me. Gradually, I got interested in photography as an art and only over the last few years have I gotten over the desire to 'snapshot' my life. Instead, I want to capture vivid moments that tell stories of their own. I haven't yet been to a photography course. I haven't let anyone dictate how I should shoot. As my purpose and subjects have changed, I have learned and my approach has evolved. I think this tells me something. It has taken me 10 years to learn what I know about photography, which frankly is precious little. On the other hand, someone else with a completely different purpose may have learned much quicker. I don't feel that I'm stupid because I took 10 years - I didn't need to. I enjoy the autonomy with which I learned. My learning has served my purpose and that's all that matters.

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Our educational systems are built around the premise of promoting success and success alone. I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating success, but we can't forget that failure is a stepping stone to success. I love shooting wildlife. Unlike many other subjects, filming wildlife is a very unforgiving experience. I can safely say I've had more failures than success filming wildlife and especially fast moving birds. A few days back I went to the lake near my house to try and follow the resident pied kingfishers. This is a curious bird and to watch it fish can provide hours of entertainment. It was no easy task filming these little geniuses given how skittish they can be. I failed at least four times before getting some satisfactory pictures on the fifth attempt. Failure was heartbreaking I must say, but the safety of knowing I have another chance gave me confidence. Each time I failed, I learned a little more. When I finally got the shot I wanted I was able to repeat my technique several times over. As you design learning experiences, how are you building in the safety to learn from failure?

Constraints make for great learning

When I bought my first camera, a simple point and shoot Yashica film device, I'd complained heavily about the lack of zoom. That complaint carried on as I graduated to better, more expensive cameras and super-zoomers. What I failed to appreciate was that every camera has a built in zoom - our two feet! Ever since, I've moved onto better equipment and longer lenses, but I must say my favourite lens today is a the 50mm prime that I own. It's a simple piece of equipment. It can't zoom, it has no image stabilization. That makes for great learning on how to get close to my subjects and how to keep my hand steady. In a similar manner I have learnt from the constraint of having to shoot vivid images through a single frame of a prosumer camera. Cameras don't see what our eyes see - there's way too much contrast to capture. This has led me to explore techniques such as high-dynamic-range (HDR photography) - the picture above is an example. I love placing meaningful constraints in the learning programs I design. For example at ThoughtWorks University I like to place the constraint of learning while on the job of delivering software to a client. It helps the new consultants to learn how to learn and gain useful experience on the side.

There's no match to social media  and mobile platforms as learning tools

One of the things I've learned from photography is that it's extremely gratifying to get feedback from your friends, skilled or not. I often put up my photographs on Flickr and sometimes on Facebook. When people favourite my images or comment favourably on them I know that I must be doing something right. It motivates me to do more. Social media has been a big influence on my learning journey too. Twitter, Google Reader, Facebook and Flickr put together have become an integral part of my photography learning journey. The byte sized pieces of inspiration I get every day are just the right size to help me learn on a daily basis. Add to that inspiring mobile apps like Life and Guardian Eyewitness  help me analyse great professional photography. As Brent Schlenker writes on his blog, mobile apps and new media are removing the middlemen from the learning experience. I learn from the best today by following their blogs. Trey Ratcliffe's blog is far more up-to-date than his book. That's an example of how powerful the social media learning experience can be. The era of having to go to school is past. School comes to me - every day and at my own pace.
Learning is an iterative, experiential process. We however seemed to have based corporate learning around a dated model of education which lacked autonomy, had little social structure and discouraged failure. I can't say my experience with photography is representative of all kinds of learning. I do think that there is something for us to think about as we analyse experiences such as these. I'd love to hear how you feel about my musings today. I apologise my bad back has stopped me from being regular with my blog posts. As I grapple with this situation, I hope you continue to visit this blog as and when I post. I'll do my best to maintain a regular schedule as well. Hope you enjoyed today's post.


idarknight said...

These are my thoughts exactly - my blog (blog.boora.ca) is filled with how my reflections on learning photography mapped to learning problems generally. Nice to know there are others out there who have had the same experience.

David Mansaray said...

This is a great article and reflects my mind-frame towards learning. Photography has also taught me the importance of getting out there and *doing* not matter how many books you read - although they are helpful - you don't begin to learn until you actually start doing.. It's easy to get caught up in theory and the idea that you have to know all the answers before you get started stops a lot of people from going out there to learn.

Zane Hovell said...

These are absolutely amazing photos as well as true facts on learning. Wisdom from photos is what I like about photography. Back home, a photographer perth can provide many photos that speaks a thousand life's lessons.

Betty Helton said...

Learning is also effective when people experience it first hand. The old adage "experience is the best teacher" still holds true. For instance, one will only learn and appreciate the value of preventive medicine after getting sick for a long time.

Sheila Hawkins said...

I like visiting your blog because I learn a lot from it. I'm a novice and photographer and your insights and tips helps me on my journey to capture moments with the best of my ability.

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