Month: August 2015

Teaching by Stealth

Teaching by stealth.

Over a couple of days I’ve been running a photography course for two young people. They’ve been learning the following.

Basic composition, camera settings, depth of field and landscape photography.

But really it’s been about seeing the world a little differently. To allow them to do this we’ve made extensive use of lego. It’s been said by many, and it’s true; lego is the best toy in the world. Its uses are only limited by the imagination of the user.

The course was split into two parts. On day one we planned to look at the urban environment and day two was to focus on the countryside.

We started in the grounds of the County Museum in Aylesbury. The first task was to assemble our lego figures that were going to explore the world.

There have been a number of articles and examples of legography over the past few years, but what is never mentioned is the sheer interest that it generates from other people. When you start photographing lego figures apparently exploring our world, people will stop. Some watch, others ask questions; children are, rightly, fascinated.

It was interesting to watch other people, especially children in the main part of the museum. Most didn’t stay very long and many were obviously brought there to be ‘educated’ in some way.  Leaving aside the excellent Roald Dahl themed area there probably weren’t more than ten visitors (other than us) in the main part of the building at any point in our visit.

We were there for two and a half hours and didn’t get round it all. The children looked at everything from the point of view of composition. What made a good photo? What colours and textures were there to be seen? How were the objects designed and what materials were they made of?

Vygotsky argues that each person has a range of potential for learning, with that learning is shaped by the social environment in which it takes place.  The role of the teacher, then, is to move the student from their actual performance, what they have already learnt, to a higher level of performance. This can be facilitated by someone with greater competence in the area being learnt, but it also depends greatly on how it is done.

As there is a gap between that which the learner could achieve unassisted and that which the learner could achieve with assistance, the facilitator can be said to be scaffolding the learner.

It isn’t enough to provide a museum. ‘Build it and they will come’? Well, no, not even if you get the quote right. We were there (uninvited) to play with lego and take photos. I’d suggest that the children took away far more than the images on their memory cards.

The rest of the afternoon was spent photographing the market square, an underpass and a strange garden in the basement of a carpark. This was done mostly independently, reinforcing the composition lessons of the morning.

The second day was based at the grounds of Waddesdon Manor – which was closed.

After parking the car in the village centre we made use of the extensive public footpaths that run through the Manor grounds to carry on regardless. Sitting on a hill we watched the changing patterns of light as clouds passed in front of the sun. A few sketches showed how the camera settings interpreted the scene in front of us in different ways. We imagined climbing the hill with Ansel Adam’s plate camera and wooden tripod, or the lengths to which Faye Godwin was prepared to wait for the clouds to be in the correct position for one of her Land shots.

Distracted from the paths by some of the many statues that inhabit the grounds, the lego re-emerged and now the children set up a number of mini installations. After the inevitable battery failures of their cameras, they moved seamlessly to using my CSC cameras, remembering exactly how to use them from the previous day.

This building activity attracted the attention of one of the many excellent staff at the Manor who was happy to share information about the estate and clearly enjoyed the images he was shown on the back of cameras.

We moved on from lego figures to different sorts of landscape photography, much to the apparent amusement of the many staff we encountered as they went about completing the many tasks made difficult by too many people like us!

On leaving the estate, we moved down to where I was convinced there was a garden centre attached to the Manor. What we found was totally unexpected. The garden centre closed about eighteen months ago, and it’s as if the staff just locked up and walked away. One of the children said it was like Chernobyl; and apart from the radiation risk, that’s exactly what it did look like. An object lesson in how nature reclaims what we decide we no longer want.

Overall we covered a huge amount of ground in two days. We covered some theory and practise of photography. We learnt a bit about the environment we live in, and shared the things we know. We learnt that people are generally OK, and if you stop and chat they’ll probably let you get on and do stuff, while being happy to share their knowledge and experience with you. We learnt that things not going to plan is not a total disaster and just because it looks like rain, this doesn’t have to stop you. And we walked miles.

And the quote of the course? When I asked one of the children if she was tired, she said, ‘my legs are tired, but when you’re having fun you forget about your legs’.

Fun, and learning – teaching by stealth.

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The Ridgeway Trail

Here’s a story I tell the pupils at school.

Some time ago I was told that I had Celtic feet – which meant that (at least partially) I was descended from the Celts who came to this green and pleasant land three thousand years ago.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true of not, but it makes a good story. So let’s assume for now that it is true.

(Even the name Celt is misleading; the Europeans who came here were a diverse group from all over the mainland of Europe. The name itself, Celt, came much, much later; and invention of a much more modern age.)

When my ancestors arrived, England was a very different place. It was covered with dense forests inhabited with bears, wolves and lynx. Getting from place to place was difficult, slow and dangerous. When my ancestors arrived, the country was already populated, and not everyone would have been happy to see the immigrants from across the channel.  Life was hard – and short.

At the end of the Iron Age, the people had begun to clear land for farming, they hunted,  built large structures and traded.

Although the population was tiny by modern standards, perhaps only a hundred and fifty thousand people, the people spread out from Cornwall to Orkney.

It might well have been the case that if my ancestors were traders they might have climbed the hill that I now work upon. In those ancient time there was a road that stretched from the south coast in Dorset, up through the chalk hills of south and east England to the Wash on the East coast. We now call that ancient road, the Greater Ridgeway, and it separates the school from the school field.

The Ridgeway (the eighty seven miles of it that remain) is crossed by our pupils every time they go to the field to play sports.

For me, I grew up somewhere else, but knew about the Ridgeway from a book that I still have; a book of photographs by the landscape photographer, Faye Godwin.

I loved her work. I bought the later works, and for a short time was taught by the lady herself.

Some forty years after The Oldest Road was published I frequently revisit Godwin’s work, and now living in Buckinghamshire walk parts of the Ridgeway Trail as often as I can. My favourite parts are, inevitably, those furthest from home, but they can still be reached in a couple of hours.

I often think of all those who have walked this ancient road before me, from my (possibly mythical) Celtish  ancestors who would have found an already ancient road by the time they arrived, to Faye Godwin, lugging her Hasselblad and tripod until she found the right location to take one of her wonderful landscapes.

I also tell my pupils that this is the best country in the world. This is the part of the story that I really believe.

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