You can only learn what you love

Francisco Mora

 

We live immersed in a society dominated by images, where children and adults are exposed to millions of visuals every day with little education on how to interpret them or what they express.

Images are part of our lives and reality. Therefore, just like literacy in reading and writing, understanding and producing images should be part of the training to become more autonomous, critical, and consequently free individuals.

As a method or instrument of artistic expression, photography holds all the necessary characteristics to make us more cognitively and creatively effective.

Additionally, artistic production and expression in childhood support and drive the process of development and growth. When talking about his painting, Arnold Stern said, “A child aspires to become an adult and evolves in that direction. However, childhood constitutes an important part of human life. It isn’t a provisional state. What children feel, experience, and express is important and valuable.”

Learning something new means, in neurobiological terms, changing the brain. Francisco Mora points this out in his book Neuroeducation (In Spanish), which inspired this article. If you are looking for a similar reading in English, we recommend you: The Neuroeducation Toolbox: Practical Translations of Neuroscience in Counseling and Psychotherapy.

 

ANDANAfoto en ruzafa loves kids Valencia

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Now is when education and neuroscience are beginning to understand each other, which is crucial to change, innovate, and improve education and teaching based on our knowledge about the brain. So, as teaching professionals, particularly photography teachers, delving into neuroscience will allow us to teach and learn better, but most importantly, to educate better. As Kant stated in Pedagogy, «A human being is nothing except what education makes of him.»

 

What does neuroscience say about how humans learn?

If you thought you were too old to learn or teach photography, you need to know that the brain remains plastic throughout life. It can be modified by learning at any age, although the brain’s plastic mechanisms tend to “harden” a bit as we grow older.

After birth, the brain is bustling with activity. Initially, it is governed by a genetic program, but it’s entirely dependent on the sensory and emotional world around it. In this sense, the interaction with the environment leads to continuous changes in the brain.

However, the brain does not develop continuously and permanently; there are critical periods, or plastic windows, during which certain capacities are active. These are temporal spaces where brain structures for speech, vision, emotion, music, mathematical abilities, cognitive processes, etc., are formed.

A baby in its early months, in dark surroundings without any references, will have serious vision problems. Someone who hasn’t heard any language before the age of seven or eight will never be able to speak or will face several limitations and struggle a lot with speech.

Similar things happen with birds just minutes after birth; they follow the first moving creature they see. This is called “imprinting,” as seen in the documentary “Winged Migration.”

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sebastiao-salgado-andanafoto-fotografía y neuroeducacionSebastiao Salgado

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Learning photography isn’t just about technique; it involves inspiration, expression, and creativity. That’s why the temporal learning spaces must be diverse and extensive to get the most out of the learning process.

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How does learning photography work?

The human brain has two hemispheres:

The right hemisphere, holistic and global, makes associations between events and places. It creates rhythms, music, images, and drawings. It’s the “creator.” Its attention is scattered and often unconscious.

The left hemisphere is language, logic, and mathematics. It’s the “analytical” side. Its attention is focused and conscious.

Neuroscience suggests that both hemispheres work together and collaborate. Any cognitive function requires dialogue and the exchange of information between them. But they are not alone.

There is another brain within the brain: the limbic system or emotional brain. It is essential to grasp the essence of teaching photography. What is seen, smelled, touched, heard, or tasted goes through the limbic system, where these sensory perceptions are labeled as good or bad, interesting or boring. This emotional information moves to the areas of the cerebral cortex where our mental processes or thoughts are constructed.

In essence, the ideas processed by our hemispheres are already impregnated with emotion. Cognition and emotion are inseparable; there’s no reason without emotion. And this is crucial for our work: learning is emotional. If we simply ask for our students’ attention, we won’t achieve anything; we must always evoke emotions, and that’s easy when you love what you do.

 

isabel muñoz fotografia y neuroeducacion andanafoto.Isabel Muñoz

 

How do we connect with emotion?

Some teachers have experience and knowledge but lack empathy and communication skills. Children can’t connect with these kinds of teachers. However, other educators with less knowledge sometimes open doors, inspire, and nurture curiosity because of their empathy and social skills. Empathy opens the door to knowledge through emotional connection.

Another important element highlighted in neuroscience is the environment. A stable, stimulating, and protective environment shapes effective learning in a child’s brain. On the other hand, an adverse, punishing, and stressful environment inhibits the normal development of brain circuits necessary for learning. Mechanisms that produce anxiety diminish the attention processes, affecting cortical neural inhibition mechanisms. This delay in inhibition can result in impulsiveness.

Also, carefully selecting the space for your workshops is important. Bigger classrooms with large windows and natural light lead to better performance than narrow, dimly lit ones. That’s why we have to look for open, inspiring environments, preferably in nature. Engaging in outdoor play, beyond the confines of four walls and in direct contact with nature, triggers emotional processes that foster curiosity. This curiosity, in turn, facilitates the acquisition of new skills and abilities, leading to rapid changes in the brain.

Nowadays, we confine children to classrooms from a very young age and show them abstract or intellectual processes through images or videos. Clearly, looking at the picture of a butterfly is not the same as recognizing it by looking at its colorful, swift, and scattered flight.

Humans need to learn what a flower is by touching and smelling it at a very young age. Children should learn by interacting with flowers, plants, and animals at two or three years old, not through images of these elements. The photographic image should come later as a memory of that initial physical experience at home or in the classroom, always under the gaze and smile of the person teaching (emotion). This is the only way they will remember things, and we will encourage the development of the abstract knowledge of love through sight and photography in a physical, emotional, real, and direct way, connecting with the genetic and evolutionary roots of learning in contact with nature.

Therefore, we must create methods and resources tailored to each age group that make people curious about what they are learning. Methods that promote joy, awakening, and pleasure, and never punishment.

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 “One thing is to know; another is to know how to teach.”

Cicero

 

What ignites emotion?

Curiosity.

It’s the gateway to attention, essential for creating knowledge.

When curiosity is satisfied through learning, it triggers pleasure in the brain, reinforcing the idea that seeking knowledge is biologically enjoyable.

Humans are naturally curious; they explore and investigate the unknown, which is why we are captivated by images of things we don’t know or discover in unique ways. No one can learn unless what they are learning excites or ignites their curiosity.

Here are several strategies to evoke curiosity in photography classes:

  1. Start the class with something thought-provoking, like a phrase, a photo, or a striking idea: “What is beauty to the blind?” This phrase could incite curiosity among adults and young people and encourage them to explore and investigate Sophie Calle’s work.
  2. Introduce a common problem that triggers curiosity: “Today, I noticed the expressions of dogs while coming here. Do they express themselves like humans?” This statement could lead to discussing Amparo Garrido’s work.
  3. Foster an atmosphere for student dialogue where students feel relaxed and comfortable, not judged for asking “silly” or “uninteresting” questions.
  4. Give enough time to solve the problem: “How would you capture truth through photography?”
  5. Instead of posing a problem, encourage spontaneous problem-solving within the group. This boosts self-esteem and personal motivation: “Let’s think about how we can showcase female artists.”
  6. Incorporate elements of incongruity, contradiction, innovation, surprise, complexity, confusion, and uncertainty during the class. For instance, taking a group picture with a toy camera, looking through the viewfinder of an old camera like a box camera, or explaining the difference between a selfie and a self-portrait using one’s picture.
  7. Avoid causing anxiety among students.
  8. Encourage active participation and personal exploration. In photography, there’s an effective tool for this: designing your own photography project.
  9. Acknowledge and applaud good questions or problem-solving efforts.
  10. Guide, but don’t dictate the answers to questions or provide immediate solutions to problems. Teach photographic techniques when necessary, tailored to what is needed for their individual projects.

 

All these elements will ignite curiosity and a willingness to learn. Naturally, the content that sparks curiosity varies between ages, times of the day, the state of the organism, and the physical, familiar, and social environment. We have to take this into account.

 

sophie calle ciegos andanafoto fotografía y neuroeducación Sophie Calle, Photography Project

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Curiosity initiates attention. Attention is the brain’s mechanism needed to become aware of something. Without attention, there’s no learning.

We know that simply demanding a student’s attention won’t guarantee we will have it. We need methods associated with reward rather than punishment to grab their attention, and we know emotions are essential.

When we pay enough attention, we are ready to learn. Learning is an innate and intrinsic part of life; it’s a survival process, just like eating, drinking, or reproducing. It helps us survive. A living thing can quickly die if it doesn’t learn or learns poorly.

We know the human brain has a fundamental tool for learning: play, which combines curiosity and pleasure. It’s the best and most powerful tool. This is why we are so interested in projects like “one photo a day” or photographic marathons. Even when we are adults, we keep learning through play.

That’s why your classes should be playful. You have to play, encourage participation, and choose those activities that involve play.

 

chema-madoz andanafoto fotogafía y neuroeducaciónChema Madoz

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On the other hand, memory is the tool we use to transmit knowledge and create culture, to remember what we have learned whenever we need it—during a conversation, a behavior, or a mental process.

There’s a conscious memory that consists of facts we can describe or evoke and an unconscious memory that allows us to ride a bicycle or press the button on a camera.

The brain areas responsible for consciously registering events are not fully developed until age two. This is why we don’t remember anything before then. However, the brain unconsciously records these events and can express them similarly. Teaching photography before age two is a way to teach how to observe, see colors, smell flowers, listen to birds, taste chocolate, or touch a cat, engaging all senses. When you teach them to appreciate sight, nature, and life, it will remain in their unconscious memories.

Neurobiology claims that recording, retaining, recalling, and evoking events at an early age lays the groundwork for learning new skills and other things in the future.

Therefore, learning photography in educational settings as a tool to develop observation skills is important. Pausing, being present, cooperating with others, and developing conscious and unconscious memory are vital for acquiring future visual skills.

 

Bleda y Rosa Serie campos de futbol blog fotografia andanafoto

Bleda y Rosa

 

Other key elements for learning include repetition—repeating a series of basic and relevant concepts from various perspectives and examples throughout the class. However, repeating the same thing without taking motivation into account can lead to boredom. That’s when we have to use emotion and playfulness.

Sleep is vital in consolidating memory and keeping students’ attention in class. Consider individual differences and select the best times for your workshop, preferably mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Providing a sweet treat halfway through class can increase glucose levels, surprise students, bring joy, and improve their focus.

As educators, it’s crucial to understand the importance of the words we use. Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo once said, “The art of speaking well becomes a key educational instrument.” Words will be our tool to transmit knowledge; use them to the best of your ability, with light, empathy, and, of course, emotion.

Physical exercise regulates stress responses and balances areas linked to learning and memory. Several studies indicate that individuals of all ages who exercise have higher scores in intelligence tests, verbal comprehension, and logical thinking. Adults show better mental abilities as they age.

Several studies suggest that within the first few minutes of a class, a student already perceives through emotion whether they’re with a good or bad teacher. This first impression is important. Some tips to create a positive first impression when teaching photography include:

 

  1. Exceptional teachers make any subject interesting and curious. Don’t improvise; prepare your material to achieve this.
  2. Learn and deeply understand the subject you teach.
  3. Read and talk about many subjects, not just photography, so your explanations come from different perspectives.
  4. Emotionally engage students. Encourage discussions and clarify doubts.
  5. Show interest in their learning and success in their personal lives.
  6. Demonstrate how your success as a teacher is part of the student’s success.
  7. Encourage student participation; make them feel they can think critically and evaluate, demonstrating their knowledge confidently.
  8. Share anecdotes about photographers, study their biographies, and tell them about the successes, failures, joys, and frustrations you’ve faced through your photographic journey.
  9. Talk about culture, respect, love, and mystery. Talk about life.

 

How can we teach creative photographic thinking?

Teaching creative thinking involves presenting problems in ways that encourage creating as many ideas as possible. This would include creating an environment for associative thinking. Then, ask students to take the time they need to think of solutions and let their “minds wander.” It is known that with enough motivation, the mind subconsciously works on a problem, leading to new, different, and creative solutions. This kind of thinking requires a different neural substrate from analytical thinking and uses the temporal lobes of both brain hemispheres, particularly the right hemisphere.

Creativity is still a complex phenomenon for neuroscience, a brain and mental construct with many components. However, neuroscience indicates that artistic activities improve language comprehension and promote better attention, perception, memory, and self-control. That’s why teaching photography is important.

It’s time for the little ones to learn photography.