First course reflection

I was thrown into my first course at Houghall college without any induction, not knowing the place or the people and everyone gave me a great deal of responsibility and trust immediately. The NCFE Level 1, part-time evening course started on 12th May 2022, only six weeks since my interview for the job. In that time I had brought together an entire course, schemes of work, lesson plans, presentations, resources.

The first course has been a whirlwind of learning, development and trial and error for me. 8 weeks that feels like a lifetime, without a single moment where I felt that things were not going how I wanted them to.

As I had intended from the very beginning though, I wanted to be unswayed by anything that had been taught at the college in the past. Houghall, had never taught photography, the Arts being a new venture for the agricultural college, however there had been photography taught at the sister college. The photography teaching provision there was described to me as “severely lacking”.

My intention anyway, was to build from scratch. Using my 23 years experience of teaching / learning and practicing photography, to build a program that would inspire, motivate and capture the imagination of the students. Photography has many elements that can be complex, confusing and involves mathematics, a new language and vocabulary and significant IT skills. Many people approach it, then abandon it. It is a subject where everything is interconnected and to understand any element of it properly, you need to know all of the other elements.

I wanted to deliver the fundamental skills in a quick and effective way, so that students could move onto the ‘important stuff’- taking photographs.

I came into the role with a number of questions that I wanted to answer:

Is there a gap in photography teaching provision? My own observations tell me that there is a gap in the teaching, the learning of the critical skills that make competent photographers. This connects directly with the second question:

Should photography be taught as a stand alone subject or taught as part of a broader arts curriculum? Do we need photography specific qualifications? Photography is rapidly being absorbed into visual arts curricula. Photography transcends art, it affects everyone’s lives politically, socially and artistically, it has no language barrier. It is interdisciplinary and bridges genres and subjects. There is an argument for it be taught alongside the core skills of English, Maths and IT. However, the qualification boards are rapidly discontinuing photography qualifications. This also links directly to the next question:

Is there a demand for photography education? In the era of the online tutorial, our competition is YouTube and online courses. What can we offer that is better or different to that? Where is the value in offering face-face photography teaching and how can we integrate those online technologies into classroom teaching? How do we motivate students to keep coming back to the classroom?

I had all of these questions in mind when I interviewed for the job, they were the basis of my initial PhD Proposal, so I had all of these questions in mind when I started planning.

Starting as I meant to go on, I planned in-depth. The scheme of work for that first course was built using techniques and approaches that I had seen work in the past and wanted to put the best of everything into the package. This may seem a bit over the top for a Level 1 course, but I see it as the beginning of a photography journey for students and if successful, should prepare them for the next level.

The level 1 is incredibly important, it should be where all of the fundamental skills are learnt. It is the point at which students know the least about their subject and need the most support. For me these first steps into photography are the most crucial. Inspire someone at this point and they will be inspired for life. If you don’t get them to the point of creating great images without support by the end of this stage, you have missed the opportunity. This is usually what happens.

The scheme was built around those fundamental skills, the technical, such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO and the creative composition and subject, but more importantly learning how to read a photograph, learning and using photographic and visual language. Alongside this, I also introduced opportunities for students to present and discuss their work.

Discussion is key to it all for me. The course delivers the how, but also needs to consider the why? Why was a photograph taken, what is the story in the image, how do students then apply those storytelling techniques to their own images? From the outset, students were looking at and discussing images. Outside of photography and the arts. it is a rare thing for someone to spend a great deal of time looking at an image.

The modern way to view images, is on a mobile device, scrolling through hundreds, giving only a moments glimpse to all but the most stand out of examples. Students learn so much from pausing and taking the time to analyse images; to consider why an image was made, what the message is supposed to be and what they themselves as a view brings to the image. It also sparks ideas and without an exception, amongst my students at least, this is the bit about photography that everyone enjoys the most. I allow them to get lost in discussion over an image. I allow them to take the discussion wherever it may go. Some students will never have had the chance to do this ever.