Thinking about Learning

It’s safe to say that I am loving my course already. After months of writing about how I want to learn and improve, I have spent the last few days in seminars listening to talks about learning. I love that I am being challenged to really think about things like this and hopefully it will be really helpful in moving forward.

One of the things we have been asked to think about was a time where we tried to learn about something, but were unsuccessful in doing so. For anyone who has read this blog before, you will know exactly what I am going to say as it is something I have written about before!

I am talking of course about GCSE Maths. Maths was the bane of my life for the last few years of school. I’m not naturally academically gifted, but usually, with a little hard work I can grasp most things if I apply myself properly. However, with Maths, it just wasn’t meant to be.

From Primary School it was always my weakest subject and my understanding of a lot of it was very hit and miss. That’s not to say I am mathematically illiterate, I can count, subtract, multiply, add and divide. I can tell time and calculate probabilities. I can also draw you up a very pretty pie chart if data is your thing, but anything involving algebra and formulae is where my understanding ends. My brain dries out and my eyes just won’t co-operate when you throw letters and numbers together.

I remember being in about Year 8 or 9 and my Mum getting into an argument with my maths teacher at the time about how unsupportive she had been when I’d asked for help. Her response was amazing. She said because I do well in all my other subjects she thought I was just playing up to get attention and genuinely didn’t believe I actually needed help.

Come GCSE years, I actually got a pretty good teacher. He was very patient with me and actually did help me out a lot. I even stayed behind after class for extra help. Then my parents enlisted the help of an external tutor, a lovely lady named Steph who broke everything down into the simplest terms possible. I still couldn’t grasp it and I walked away from school with a D grade. I was ashamed.

A few months later, I actually ran into my maths teacher and I sheepishly told him I hadn’t got the C grade he had so much faith I could get. I apologised for being so ‘thick’ and all he said was; ‘47% of people in your year didn’t get a C grade either, does that make all of them thick?’ I’d never thought of it like that before, and no, of course it didn’t make them all thick. There were some super intelligent people included in that statistic, people who were creative, sporty or academic in other areas – and definitely not thick.

Fast forward to my first term at college, pretty much every tutor I had all asked the same question in my first week. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to retake?’ My answer was a firm ‘No.’ I had spent so much time, effort and energy trying to understand the things I needed to pass that exam, and I didn’t. My parents had paid good money to help me pass that exam and I didn’t. Not only am I just not confident with using numbers and formulae, by this point I decided I now wanted to spend that time and energy on things I did care about. I probably could have done better overall if I hadn’t concentrated so hard on passing that one exam, but the emphasis on passing English and Maths with a C was just so great, tunnel vision set in and I went into panic mode.

I can think of many reasons why I was unsuccessful on this occasion, but after a lot of thought, I just didn’t have the natural aptitude to deal with that particular task. I had the drive to succeed, the willingness to learn, and certainly the support of my parents, but I couldn’t make it happen. Had I tried again, could I have done it? Well, I’ll never know. I don’t need to know, because choosing to spend my time on things I did enjoy, led me to where I am now and I’m glad I didn’t let those things suffer for the sake of some information that I’ll never need to know again.

Although, I think the one thing that confused everyone the most was that I was good at Chemistry! My answer was always that Chemistry is a visual subject. I can see what is in front of me and deconstruct it, put it together and make sense of that. You can’t do that with a page full of numbers swarming around.


The next thing we have been asked to think about is when we were successful at learning something.

I had to think a lot harder about this, because the good things I’ve done leave me after I’ve done them and don’t still haunt my dreams 15 years later. After chatting with my Mum, I think I have found a pretty good example.

During my last year of University, I decided I wanted my final major project to help me as a commercial photographer rather than a fine art or documentary photographer. The course I was on didn’t really support that goal at the time and a lot was done to try and dissuade me from doing the project I planned in favour of something that would pass me with a higher classification. It was never about classification for me at this point, I just wanted to be able to apply for jobs in the relevant field after graduation. Don’t get me wrong, I love fine art, conceptual work, documentaries et all, but I just wanted to practise skills which would make me employable.

I ended up teaching myself a lot that last year of the BA course. I read, I looked at what other photographers were doing, I looked at pictures in magazines to try and figure out how something had been lit and I practised, practised, practised. Occasionally, one of the technicians would come and help out too. I would block book one of the studios for days at a time and experiment with lighting using my friends, local models or whatever I could get my hands on. I wasn’t perfect. Far from it, but I knew I wanted to get good and the only way to improve was to keep doing what I was doing.

My final exhibition images weren’t the best. We were due to exhibit at the D&AD Fresh Blood awards once the end of year show had been taken down and there was no way I was going to let me substandard work let me down for that. Against all advice, I decided to exhibit some images from the portfolio I had inadvertently acquired during all the practise I’d done. Everyone was concerned that I wouldn’t be displaying something that wasn’t part of a larger body of work or part of a concept. I don’t know what it was, but intuition told me to go with what felt right on this occasion.

I didn’t win any awards. I wasn’t expecting to. There were some hugely deserving people exhibiting who rightly won. However, my gamble did pay off.

When I returned to take my work down, one of my tutors handed me a business card that had been left for me. I asked if they’d left them for everyone, but apparently not. They’d seen my images and asked if I was around. I’d left for the day so I’d missed them.

I sheepishly called the number on the back of the card and to my absolute amazement, I was invited to an interview the following week. That gamble paid off. Big time. Next thing I know I’m undertaking some work experience for a large, online, premium fashion retailer at their headquarters in London just two short weeks after completing the course.

There is a part of me that regrets being so headstrong about the whole experience. I probably should have exhibited my final major project along with everybody else. I lucked out. Intuitive learning is definitely not the way forward.

On the other hand, I had taught myself everything I needed to know in order to create those images in the first place, so perhaps that success was earned. It all depends on how you want to look at it.

Since then, I have been lucky enough to have a successful Photography career within the E-Commerce industry which has been amazing. However, in future, I definitely know that I need to put a lot more thought into my learning objectives. Intuition worked for me on this occasion, but that’s not to say it always will.

Look at that. I may just have learned something already.


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Self-Conscious Photographer and Crazy Cat Lady from Birmingham, UK.

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