Dr Paul Lowe Instructional Approaches in Photography Courses

May 22, 2017

Dr Paul Lowe, Founding Judge of the IAFOR Documentary Photography Award, and Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, UK, speaks to Professor Steve Cornwell, President of IAFOR, on the various instructional approaches he takes with students in his postgraduate photography courses, following his Keynote Presentation on communities of practice and collaboration in the classroom at The IAFOR International Conference on Technology in the Classroom – Hawaii 2016.

Professor Steve Cornwell: I know you’ve been to three IAFOR conferences thus far. What’s the appeal of IAFOR for you?

Dr Paul Lowe: Well, the three conferences I’ve been at have all had a very different flavour. I’ve worn a different hat in each one, if you like. I’ve worn my one hat as a practitioner, as a photographer, one hat as a researcher writing academic writing about photography. In this one I’ve come with my other hat, which is that of a teacher educator on the pedagogic side. Each time I’ve been really impressed by the different mix of people here, the real, true interdisciplinary nature of the conferences, the range of different backgrounds people are from, and obviously the geographic spread that people are coming from. So it is a real classic melting pot of east meets west – different ideas all coming together in this very rich environment. I find that really fascinating and really exciting, and for me it’s probably the most interdisciplinary conference I’ve ever been to.

Professor Steve Cornwell: Great, well that’s music to IAFOR’s ears. Can I ask you, maybe for the people listening in – there have been books and books written about communities of practice. Maybe you could just in a nutshell tell us about communities of practice and then we’ll segue into how you’re using it with your students.

Dr Paul Lowe: Well, I think the important thing is that they’ve always been with us. It’s essentially just talking about how humans interact and how they learn socially, so obviously the key book, the initial book, by Étienne Wenger and Jean Lave looked at apprentices. They did a study of how people are brought into a profession through a sort of apprenticeship system of learning, through peer learning, through being mentored – you learn the ropes of doing the thing by being part of the community. It’s this idea of social learning in a group, with a group, learning from established practitioners in the field, you’re an apprentice moving through it. That’s a very, very important part of it, and that’s what I’ve tried to sort of explore with my teaching. Obviously, when you’re trying to learn a new vocational subject, you’re trying to become part of that professional world, and so I find it a very, very powerful conceptual tool as well as, actually, an organisational one and a pedagogic one to use within my own teaching.

Professor Steve Cornwell: Related to that, I know from hearing your keynote but also some of my background – reflective practice is a key part, it sounds, of your programme, and you had mentioned Donald Schön and his The Reflective Practitioner. Can you talk a bit about how you get your students to get into reflective practice, because it’s not always easy.

Dr Paul Lowe: Well, what I found by interesting, you know, I started teaching – I became a professional practice photographer, started teaching, and about a year after I started I did my PG cert in teaching and learning, and I discovered work a bit like Wenger and Schön. What was wonderful about that was not that I was learning how to teach, it was validating what I’d already been doing as a teacher. So for me they were theories that fitted very, very well with my view of how I was approaching my teaching anyway, and that idea of critical reflection on your learning but also on the problems that you’re trying to solve was a very important one for me. So Schön’s ideas about reflection in action and all of his ideas about the conversation with the subject – I really love that as a metaphor.

So, you know, what we do with the students is we get them to critically reflect on their work at the end of every assignment, but also in a tutorial session you’re constantly asking them “Why’d you do this? What was it about?” One of the hardest things to get them to understand is that you do things unconsciously a lot of the time. What we have to do in an academic way is unpack that and try to explore why have you made those decisions about the thing that you’ve done? How can you articulate that? How can you defend the position that you’ve taken so it’s not an unconscious process but a conscious one? Then at the end of that we try and make it unconscious again, so they’re just going out and doing it, but they’re doing it on a whole other level of ability and understanding and conceptual breakthrough, because they’ve gone through that extra process of thinking about a problem, trying out a theory, reflecting on how successful that was, finding something in the works and it didn’t work and then trying it again, and doing that multiple times over the period of the course.

Professor Steve Cornwell: OK, thank you. About that, one thing you mentioned – and I could get it from your keynote and from your enthusiasm about your programme – is that it’s transformative for the students. I have a background in language teaching and learning, and there’s one method called the silent way, where one key point is that the students develop a criteria so they can judge themselves. They don’t need a teacher to tell them, because the teacher’s not always there. It sounds like you work with your students – you were giving an example to tutors with maybe 180 degrees different opinions about photographs. Can you talk a little bit on the process of getting them – my terminology – to develop a criteria.

Dr Paul Lowe: Well, I call it calibrating their judgment. I guess essentially, you know, photographers are often quite bad editors of their own work, because a photographer, when they look at their work, they’re often thinking about – and I think this is true of many different areas of practice – how difficult it was to do. They had to hike to the top of this mountain to get there, they had to get up early, they had to fight through all these barriers, the access was really hard. So they’re thinking about all those emotional things that they’ve invested in producing the picture, and actually when the audience looks at they just think is it a good picture or not? They don’t care and they don’t know about that whole journey, and I think that’s true of many different areas of practice. So one of things we’re trying to get them to do is to look objectively at their work, or more objectively at their work.

“Photographers are often quite bad editors of their own work, because a photographer, when they look at their work, they’re often thinking about […] how difficult it was to do.”

One of the ways we do that is we very consciously set it up so that we’ve got different people giving them very, very radically different perspectives on what they think is good or not good in their work. It’s then an issue they’re very confused by, like, “Well, one tutor told me this and that one told me that”. Then we say to them, well actually it’s your job to filter that and to calibrate or triangulate, if you like, between those two opinions and decide which one of them you agree with, or you may not agree with either of them – you might be somewhere in the middle. But they’re going through a process, sort of an oppositional process if you like, although we’re not trying to destroy them, we are trying to engage them and critique them – the idea of a critical friend, if you like.

“They begin to understand not what is a good photograph – because you couldn’t give a single set of criteria – but what is a good photograph for them.”

So it’s very much getting them to realise – and this is all done in a group environment as well, a lot of our tutoring is done in small groups – they aren’t just seeing their own work being critiqued, they’re also seeing the work of their peers, and we’re going to critique each other’s work. So it’s really a process of them learning what the rules of the game are, as it were, by a process of engagement with other people, other people’s work and their own work. From that hopefully they begin to understand not what is a good photograph – because you couldn’t give a single set of criteria – but what is a good photograph for them. Because that to me is the most important thing – they come out with a clear idea of what they think is good in their work. Even if nobody else agrees with that, it’s a reasoned position they’ve worked through rather than just a sort of gut reaction that they haven’t thought about.

Image | IAFOR Media

Dr Paul Lowe gave a Keynote Presentation on “Language Learning in Virtual Worlds: Task Creation and Implementation” at The IAFOR International Conference on Technology in the Classroom – Hawaii 2016 in Honolulu, USA.

Paul Lowe

About Paul Lowe

Dr Paul Lowe is Reader in Documentary Photography and the Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, UK. He was responsible for the development and launch of a new part-time version of the course delivered entirely online using web conferencing, blogs and the VLE, launched in 2008. Dr Lowe is an award-winning photographer whose work is represented by Panos Pictures, and who has been published in Time, Newsweek, Life, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Observer and The Independent, among others. He has covered breaking news around the world, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela’s release, famine in Africa, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the destruction of Grozny. He is a consultant to the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam, an independent, non-profit organisation that is a major force in developing and promoting visual journalism worldwide. His book, Bosnians, documenting 10 years of the war and post-war situation in Bosnia, was published in April 2005 by Saqi Books. He regularly contributes to international and national conferences in photography, media and education, and has published chapters in edited books on these themes as well. Dr Lowe is the Founding Judge of the IAFOR Documentary Photography Award. Image credit: Paul Lowe.

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