Learning how you learn, photographically and otherwise

I recently finished my annual class built around photographing the Tucson Rodeo. The weather was great and the pictures were even better! Most everyone we encountered was happy to be photographed. The class was a small group, so everyone got lots of attention. Because it was such a small group, I had time to analyze how each person learned. By the time the class was over, events had reminded me that in some ways, the most important thing ANY student should learn is exactly how they do learn.

One student, Ron Matson, has taken some of my classes before. Since our last class together, he distilled the high points of parts of my teaching into a list of shooting points. You can download that as a PDF at Wells Type Shooting. It is an interesting read for any photographer. He successfully distilled what I try to teach down to a few salient points, which others reading the document can get. (Although I do not completely agree with all of his interpretations, it is his work and his overall understanding of what I wanted to get across is spot on.)

When he told me about that document during the class that was one event that prompted me to think about how people learn. So much so, that before seeing the piece, I asked him if he had done that writing for himself or for others (or both.) He said that he had figured out over the years that writing such things out was how he learned best. I complemented him because he had succeeded at one of life’s great, under-appreciated challenges, he had learned how he learned.

When he actually gave me the printed version, I was even more impressed. It was longer and in greater detail than I imagined. As the class went on, I paid attention to how other students in the class were learning what I was teaching. That observation process was the next thing that prompted me to think about how people learn. Within the group some people learned by doing, by taking pictures and making their own mistakes. Others wanted guidance and coaching so they could understand how I might approach a situation. Other people seemed to learn best by repeating out loud the phrasing of what they had internalized from a given lesson. All of these strategies worked, but each worked best for a different person.

The last event that prompted me to keep thinking about how people learn was listening to the radio and reading in the newspaper about the various current proposals for education reform. I am not a politician nor do I play one on TV. These are just my opinions.

My mother, who was a teacher as well as a principal, in various public schools, abhorred standardized tests. Her argument, which has in essence become mine, is that learning how to learn is what matters. The rest is exercises and drills, which are necessary but rather secondary. Tests are useful barometers, she would say, but what really matters is maximizing the potential of each individual. The only way to do that is to help different people understand how they learn.

Another example of this is a document another student wrote and sent to me a few years back. In that he interpreted my lessons so he (and others) could fully understand them. In many of my classes, I offer a list of mantras, things to say over and over to your self, as you photograph. Harold Levine took those mantras and made a document that lists the mantras while also explaining what they mean. You can download that as a PDF at MantrasExplained. His interpretation of my lessons is simple but effective, like Ron’s.

Now, you might think I might be upset that students have to reinterpret my teachings so they can internalize them. Not at all! I am thrilled that these two photographers took the time to really learn the lessons, processed them so they could internalize them AND shared them with me (and by extension others.) The idea that everyone learns exactly the same way is absurdly rigid. Since all I want folks to do is learn (and enjoy) photography, I do not care how they learn my lessons.

I do hope you will look at these two documents. Feel free to copy them and pass them on, but please make sure you credit the authors, Harold and Ron. As you interact with the information, pay attention to how you learn. For example, I am not a great book learner. I am good at that but not great. I am great at trying things out and doing them till I internalize what it is I am thinking/doing.

Are you someone who reads something and gets it right away? Do you have to visualize what is being described so you can learn it? Do you find reading out loud helps the information become part of your thinking? Do you like to read things more than once or read a bit then stop and return to it later? There is no right or wrong way to learn. The key is to understand how you learn, in life and in photography.

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