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Learning to Learn

lee webb under studio light

I received news last week that the school where I took two photography courses, the Expat Learning Centre in Shanghai, has closed.

It was quite a surprise to hear, and also a little bit sad. I’m not going to talk about the school in particular.

Whatever happens, it’s their business.

Or, was.

What I am going to do though is mention my teacher, Franc Peret.

Franc taught me pretty much all the useful stuff I know about photography, and is probably the best teacher that I’ve had the pleasure to learn from in my life.

I believe the best teachers are those who can teach from experience, the ones who can answer your questions without having to look them up somewhere themselves.

Franc has been a photographer and filmmaker for a long time, since before digital, and knows exactly what he is talking about when teaching the art. Being old school as he is, he’s also a fan of the manual focus lenses that My Favourite Lens is all about.

Me the teacher

I have been a teacher myself, in a former life (up until last month, at the time of writing).

I taught English in China. This is me with one of my old classes.

teaching english in china

Thing is, for a long time I never truly understood why my students, who were mainly adults paying for the classes themselves, actually wanted to learn English.

Of course, I knew why they were there. “I want to work for a foreign company” was the most common line.

But while I knew, I didn’t understand. I couldn’t empathise. I had no chance though, because I didn’t actually think about it much at all.

It did all seem a little futile too. The competition for good jobs in China is unimaginable, and average-to-good English is no longer a stand-out quality.

And, action!

At the beginning of 2013 I read an article on Cracked, by a fellow named David Wong, that changed the way I think about life and how it should be lived.

If you’ve ever spent more than a couple of hours on the internet, you’ve probably seen it.

If you’ve not read it, I would suggest you do.

I’m not going to rehash it here, or even talk about why it had such an effect on me. That’s been done, countless times, on countless other sites.

The important thing is that it did have the effect.

Before I read it, I was in two minds about whether to even take the photography course. What I took from the article, which sounds bloody simple when put like this, was that life is all about just doing stuff.

Stop thinking about it. Stop talking about it. Get off your arse and do it.

What you do is all that counts.

A year later though, am I a better person?

If I am, it isn’t because of the photography courses.

But I am a better photographer.

Of course, there will always be massive, massive room for improvement. It sounds a little arrogant even stating that, because it goes without saying.

Photography is like most other things; if you learn something new every day until you die, there will still be something else you could’ve learnt if you’d lived a day longer.

I’m perhaps 1% the photographer I could be.

You never really stop learning, but the important thing is to start.

Hope and evolution

We all know the story of Pandora’s box. Hope is key. Without it, we have nothing. I think I now understand a little bit more about why my students wanted to improve their English.

I’ll never shoot for National Geographic, just like most of them will never work for IBM.

But I don’t need to.

I have different hopes.

Are they lower?

You could argue that, but I would say that they are mine, so who cares how high others perceive them to be?

I’m going where I want and shooting likewise.

This is me (on the right) in Wu Yuan, Jiangxi, China.

Nobody wants to buy the pictures from that trip, but I loved being there and taking them.

wu yuan china

Without wishing to parrot the Cracked article too much, I know now that, as David Wong stated, the process is the result.

That is what has always stuck with me since reading it; the process is the result.

When I was taking photography classes, I was never waiting for the point to arrive when I could sit back and say “and now I’m better”.

Nobody does.

Learning something makes a positive difference to you as you’re going through the process, week in week out, and not just at the end.

It might be the incremental improvements you make week on week in whatever it is you’re learning, or it might be the way a class can improve your general mood and outlook, making you meet new people, and motivating and inspiring you in ways beyond what you signed up for.

It did to my students (I hope), and it did to me as a student.

Hell, it did to me as a teacher.

And then in the end, you’ll without question emerge from learning in a better position than where you started.

That’s obvious, and not the greatest sentence I’ve ever written, but I can’t recommend enough learning something new.

Anything.

Whatever that thing is, isn’t important.

The learning – and the process – is.

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Signing up for photography classes by Franc Peret is one of the best decisions I ever made, but there was a doubt in my mind beforehand whether I even should. I didn't know if I could justify spending the money on the course, having just shelled out for a new camera. Then I read an article that changed my life and the way I think about pretty much everything. I signed up soon after and will always be thankful that I did. The course taught me more than just photography skills; it taught me the value of education at any age, and helped me evaluate the time I spent as a teacher too. Come on in and see exactly how.

 

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