Lifelong learning

You never stop learning

As a learning and development professional of many years standing I recognise that I am always learning whether in my professional or personal life.

The postings here are all about my experiences as a trainer and a trainee, and as a person.  I am also constantly seeking out new information and sometimes I will share my discoveries here. Your own thoughts on my postings are more than welcome.

I am also a keen photographer; you can view my postings on that topic at www.stephentaylor.photography.

Learning to fly!

“For many of us cycling is second nature. It was something we learnt as a child and when we jump on a bicycle, even if we only do it once a year, it is something we never forget. But what’s it like to learn to ride as an adult?”

A few years ago I was privileged to work as a cycle instructor training people to ride bicycles. The most magical moments usually came when I was teaching an adult to ride a bicycle for the first time. For some reason they had missed out on the chance as a child and now they wanted to make up for it. There was one young man I recall training who was in this position; as a child he had been driven everywhere with limited independence. Or there was the sixty year old woman who had recently retired; she was now catching up on all the things she had missed out on earlier in life. I learned to cycle as a child and have no memory of the experience but this is my imagining of what it is like to learn to ride a bike as an adult based upon my experiences as a cycle instructor and Level 1 of the Bikeability cycle training scheme.

“Teaching an adult how to ride a bicycle can be broken into three steps.”

Setting off

First of all you are going to practice setting off.  Right now you don’t need to know how to balance so your instructor will take hold of the handlebars to hold the bicycle upright. Sit on the bike and hold the handlebars with your fingers covering the brake levers. One foot will be on the ground and the other should already be on a pedal, at about the two o’clock for maximum leverage. You are going to practice pushing down on the pedal and picking up the other one as it comes around. For the first few goes you can look down to see what you are doing but gradually you should begin to look up and where you are planning to cycle.

Stopping safely

The second step (usually combined with the setting off) is learning how to stop safely and under control. Most new cyclists imagine they are going to  fall off and this can make it difficult for them to be able to start riding independently. If you can feel that you can bring the bike to a safe stop under your own control then you are more likely to be able to set off on your own.  Your instructor should still be holding the handlebars; all you need to do is set off for a short distance then, when you want to stop, squeeze the brakes gently and set one foot down on the ground once the bike has stopped. Practice this until you are happy you are able to stop the bike safely.

Staying upright

“For this you will need a big open space.”

Once you have got the hang of setting off and stopping the bicycle now you are ready to move on to balancing.

Bicycles don’t stay upright because of gyroscopic forces. You stay upright because you are constantly wobbling! Your bicycle is falling all the time; what stops it from hitting the ground is that it is constantly steering into the fall to bring it upright again. This is why a bicycle will fall over if its wheels get caught in a tramline for example; there is not enough room to steer into the falls. For experienced cyclists the constant steering is barely noticeable; as a new cyclist it is going to be more exaggerated until you get the hang of it. Which is why you need a large space!

“Training somebody to ride a bicycle can be hard work.”

Your helper has just spent time holding the bicycle up with the handlebars. Now they are going to move to the back of the bicycle to hold it up with the saddle or the seat post, so that you can take control of the steering. You can now put into practice what you learnt earlier and combine it with learning how to steer the bicycle to stay upright. Gradually you will get it. At some point you will set off and come to a stop a little distance away. You’ll look back to see where your helper is. Nowhere near you. You did it all on your own!  That’s when it becomes magical! With a bit more practice you will be able to ride the bicycle unaided and control where it goes.

“It was about this point when my trainee turned to me and said, “It’s just like flying!”

You can view another version of this posting at www.stephentaylor.photography

Confessions of an exhibitionist

Visitors at exhibition

When it comes to feedback, it is better to receive than to give.

When I started out as a trainer one of the first things I learnt about was feedback. Not so much how to give it as how to receive it. I don’t do much stand-up training these days but what I learnt then stands me in good stead in many other aspects of my life, and none more so than when I held my first public exhibition of photographic prints.

The art of photography is all about display.

The pictures are taken to share with someone. This might just be friends and family either face to face or on social media. In some cases on the web they may be seen by total strangers but the photographer is one step removed from them and cannot see their reaction. This is not the case when exhibiting in a public space such as a gallery where the photographer can observe their audience’s response unfiltered.

That’s what I put myself through recently when I decided to exhibit some of my photographs in the town I grew up in, Weymouth, on the south coast of England.

The subject of the exhibition was an old railway that runs along the harbourside from the station to the ferry port. In its day, it would take passengers and freight through the streets of the town. As a child, I can remember trains trundling past the houses, so high up the passengers could almost see into the upstairs windows! Sadly, no trains have run on the line for almost twenty years but the railway tracks are still there, running down the middle of the road; a trap for the unwary but mostly ignored. Most of it is gradually disappearing and, despite local efforts to reinstate it, at some point it is likely to be pulled up. I wanted to capture this piece of Weymouth’s heritage before it faded away completely.

For the first time ever I decided to put some of the pictures on public display.

I hired the gallery space in the local library (incidentally only a short distance from the old railway) for a week. Along with the photographs and a few leaflets I left a visitors’ book for comments. This was the first time I had ever attempted anything like this so I was intrigued to see how people responded.

The gallery itself is in a section of the local library so the audience was anyone who wandered into the library to return their books or use the reference section, and not necessarily to view the photographs themselves. I publicised the event and so some of the visitors did come in purely to see the exhibition but most of them simply wandered over to look at them, as they went about their other activities in the library.

Nervously I observed my audience as they approached the photographs.

I visited the library most days of the exhibition. Occasionally I would be on hand to talk to the visitors but mostly I would observe from a distance, and nervously, as people approached the photographs. Sometimes they would walk past them in a matter of seconds, maybe pausing to read the blurb I had written on the subject; sometimes they would pause for a few moments to take in all the pictures, decide it wasn’t for them and then walk on. Others did linger a little longer, moving from photograph to photograph and stopping at each of them. I would discretely time how long they spent at each photograph. The more engaged would move backwards and forwards, returning to previously visited photographs once or twice. Then they would walk over to the visitors’ book…

After an appropriate period, I would wander over to take a look. To be honest most of the comments were complimentary about my work. What I did find was that a lot of people used the opportunity to vent their feelings about the old railway itself. Essentially there are two camps; those who want it ripped out because it represents a hazard, and those would like to see it stay as a symbol of the town’s history. Both groups could be vociferous. Extensive use of SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS was made.

Some of the people I spoke to about the exhibition expressed dismay at comments they thought were irrelevant. I am more sanguine. I had my own reason for taking the photographs but once I had chosen to exhibit them that was irrelevant. The photographs were on display to provoke a response. My audience had every right to interpret them and to respond to them on their own terms. This also included them using the opportunity to share with me their own experiences of the railway as it was in its heyday.

Once I had chosen to exhibit my photographs they had taken on a life of their own.

One of the things I learned as a trainer about receiving feedback was it helps you understand how people have interpreted what you have presented them. In those days, my role was to listen and, if necessary present the information in a different way to aid learning. As a photographer publicly displaying his works all I had to do was simply provide a space for the different responses.

Through my photographs I felt privileged to allow people to respond to them on their own terms.

Relearning old tricks

rolls of 35mm film

I recently relived the experiences (and the smells!) of the darkroom.  Many years ago in the pre-digital age I spent a great deal of time printing and developing my own photographs but, like many others, I moved away from the older technology. In a sense it is very similar to many trainers I know.They have moved from the analogue world of stand-up training to the digital world of e-learning design and development. Sometimes it is great to revisit some of those older skills.

Recently, when a family member needed a film camera for a course she was attending, I remembered that I had a Canon EOS 600 (one of their last generation film cameras) lying around at home so I loaned it to her. Once her course was finished I decided to have a go at it myself and took some black and white photographs on a cycle ride in Dorset on the south coast of England.

FILM PHOTOGRAPHY IS A MORE REFLECTIVE PROCESS THAN DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Film photography is a slower process, not only in the obvious way that I do not see the results immediately but also in the fact that I tend to take longer to take a single photograph. Rather  than taking pictures from every angle as I would with the digital camera I spent more time walking around and observing the objects from different angles before I even set the camera up and pressed the shutter button. And there were occasions, mindful that I only had thirty-six exposures rather than the  seemingly unlimited number on a digital camera, that I simply did not press the button at all and did not take the picture. I would suggest film photography is a much more reflective process than digital.

You can view digitalised versions (scanned from the negatives) here but obviously the real thing I wanted to do was to make my own prints so the other Sunday I spent several hours in a darkroom relearning the skills of creating a test strip to decide the correct exposure, and burning and dodging to manipulate the final image.

WATCHING A TRAINER TRAIN

Apart from reliving the experiences of photographic printing it was also the first time I had been on a training course for a long time so it was fascinating, as a one-time stand-up trainer to watch another trainer at work, especially if it is a subject I knew a little bit about.

The trainer was a professional printer and developer who had worked with many famous photographers including the late Linda McCartney, so he knew his subject inside out and he had swathes of enthusiasm for the darkroom! Enthusiasm always comes in handy when you are running a training course – for the delegates everything looks like it is going along perfectly but underneath there is always a lot going on including last minute re-ordering.

Being a trainer is a little bit like being a swan – on the surface you glide along whilst underneath you are frantically splashing away.

It is always interesting to observe the structure and order of the topics. What does the trainer think you need to know first before moving on to other topics. Interestingly one thing we did not cover was printing a contact sheet of our negatives which I have seen listed as a topic in other darkroom courses. There is no wrong or right way but it does reflect what the main learning outcomes of the course might be. In some cases it may be that printing a contact sheet could lead on to a discussion about choice of photographs which could include topics such as composition, exposure, etc. Our course was practical and we jumped straight into printing our own photographs. Both approaches are valid but they reflect the different ways the subject could be delivered and also, possibly, a bit of the personality of the trainer.

It was a great day and a big thank you to Nick at Photofusion in Brixton for running the course in such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable manner.