• Sep 72014

Learning Through a Lens — a review

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If you’ve read our blog articles (like A Spinnin’ Safari) or follow us on Twitter, you may have noticed that we’re heavily inspired by the visual. The work of clever designers, photographers, web-designers, film-makers, street artists and illustrators is a constant source of appreciation and inspiration for us.

The statement “Ooh, that’s interesting. Can that be used somehow?” is something we’ve thought about so many things we’ve come across on the internet… From the work of a giant duck artist (a story starter for KS1?) to then and now wartime photographs (a great way to bring the past to life?).

The problem, of course, is locating all these wonderful images and ideas. Twitter’s excellent, as is Pinterest, but for the time-pressed teacher sometimes it’s more helpful to not have to go trawling on the off-chance you catch something useful.



Jane Hewitt is a teacher, author and photographer similarly inspired by the visual. In her new book, Learning Through a Lens she takes inspiration from all sorts of places to show us how photographs (and the skills involved in photography) can be used to powerful effect in the classroom — whatever the age-group, whatever the subject. It’s also not just a book for teachers (as you’ll notice if you leave it lying around when visitors come).

We began teaching in September 1999. It’s not that long ago and yet we’ve witnessed several changes in the use of photographs and photography in the time since. If not already, we will all one day look back at this period of time in awe at the speed of change when it comes to technology.

When we started, photographs in the classroom entailed bought packs of laminated resources (photos of life in Lesotho or images of the water cycle) that sat in the back of the classroom cupboard until time came to study that particular topic and dust off the photos for another year. Any photos of the class were taken using a camera with film in (imagine such a thing!) and developed.

Then came the IWB and the ability to display electronic images large. This put pay to the laminated photo packs. At this point the school had one digital camera, shared between all the classes. Usage was limited and you had to book your slot with the camera when there wasn’t a school trip on.

Over time, colleagues’ confidence in using digital cameras increased, they became cheaper and the school we were teaching at could afford one per class. Students learned how to use the camera and were allowed to do so — two or three at a time.

Now we live in a world where most devices — iPads, phones etc — have cameras built-in. Better cameras than the original one-per-school digital cameras we began with. Not only does every child have access to the means to be a photographer, most may well arrive at school already having dabbled. There’s certainly no excuse on our part for not using this opportunity.

In other words, the time is ripe for this book.

We are all becoming more tech-savvy and, with a camera on most phones (and the ability to do something with the photos there too in the form of apps), the art of taking, uploading, sending, storing — even editing — photos is easier than ever. Our students are often better at it than we are. Learning Through a Lens gives you the tools to tap into their abilities and enthusiasm and use photography for so much more than the obvious. The strapline on the back of the book reads,

Transform the way you and your learners look at, think about and capture the world around you.

Whoever came up with it, it’s a clever strapline — encapsulating the book’s subject matter in just a few words. It deals with the sheer power of images (“transform”), the use of already-taken photos to provoke in the classroom (“look at” and “think about”) and the use of the camera to get your students doing the taking (“capture”). This isn’t a book about Art, it’s about “the world around you.” Photography can be used to explore patterns and sequences in the world around us in Maths lessons. It can also be used to record a great javelin technique in PE. Or to understand more about right and wrong in RE. Through the lens of Jane Hewitt’s camera, we therefore learn about how to get out students to learn through their own.

And so, the world around us is explored in 217 pages. In Part I, the author covers the ‘Background and Basics’ which, in this day and age, are more neglected than you might imagine. Yes, cameras are everywhere, but how many of us know why we might want to change the shutter speed or know what altering the aperture does?

A particularly interesting section is ‘Ethics in photography — looking at questions that photos raise’. It taps into a crucial idea. Photos have the power to shock, provoke and demand a response. They are also personal things and the question of whether an addition of a lensman/woman to a situation is a good thing. The author also touches on “compassion fatigue” — another fascinating idea to discuss in class. Perhaps for a photograph to retain its potency, it has to be used sparingly.

And of course there are then the ideas. Part II is ‘Projects and Applications’ and Jane Hewitt bombards the reader with idea after idea (all of which are visually stunning) to use different photography techniques in the classroom. From street art to the golden ratio. From capturing student aims to recording their worries. From designing a book cover to developing a mini character. From stimulating writing to talking about feelings. You will come away from this book buzzing with ideas. And your classroom will become more vibrant place (in both senses of the word) as a result. If you’re a Head of Department or Headteacher, buy a load for your teachers. You’ll see the effect on the corridors of your school.

Learning Through a Lens is a really well-designed book and special mention has to go to something we noticed whilst writing this review. Probably around 1/3 of this book’s 200+ pages have at least one photograph on. These range from those that demonstrate photographic skills and techniques to artistic pieces. You might be forgiven for expecting that the author might have dipped into stock art images or got permission to use photographs to demonstrate her points. And yet, the vast majority of the photographs here were taken by the author. This book is not only written by, but “illustrated” by Jane Hewitt. No mean feat and one that didn’t go unnoticed. Her photography skills are superb and if she is running a training course near you, check it out.

Here’s an idea for a follow-up, if Jane Hewitt is so inclined… Learning Through a Lens II — the use of videos in class. We can see how that would make a really interesting companion piece.

Learning Through a Lens is a book you will keep on your desk and dip into whenever you’re faced with a new topic or a lesson you want to look at differently. “Can I use that somehow?” won’t just be a phrase you say sometimes — this book is crying out to be used regularly and you’ll come away from it knowing how you plan to use it. Above all, it will teach you and your students one thing — the use of photography in the classroom is simply about looking more closely at the world around us. And, in that sense, it’s less about learning through a camera lens and more about learning through the lenses in our eyes.

The world is an amazing place. You have the tools. Now get out there and capture it.

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So, what do you think?

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