Wading through custard (motivating lazy teens at A level)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons CC. Nevit see information here.

I have a good size post-16 Photography group this year of 16 students, a good gender balance with some highly motivated individuals. Unfortunately, I also have an unmotivated procrastinator in there who has approached the exam preparation with all the enthusiasm of wading through custard. This reflective blog post is about my efforts to  motivate him; what I have tried and what has and hasn’t worked so far.

What is In It For Me?

Extrinsic motivation is about outside demands; authoritarian processes and threats to involve year managers, parents and even heads of Post 16 all reinforce the only extrinsic goal and that is to achieve a decent AS grade (we do non-linear A levels so students have to sit an Advanced Subsidiary qualification in the first year). Intrinsic motivation is about personal satisfaction; why choose Photography (or any other A level)? There must have been an end goal in the mind of the student when he did his option sheet.

For this individual I think the intrinsic goal was ‘unfinished business’. He opted to do a short course in Photography at High School but then was taken out to do extra maths to ensure his pass grade in that subject. This is the cultural capital element; where he wanted to show his peers that he was equally adept at technology. Second, when he started he expressed an interest in Photoshop and knew it would feature in the course. He didn’t expect it to be difficult though. Third, romantic interest – a girl in the group who he started dating in the holidays before joining sixth form. Do you separate them? They gravitate back together or worse sulk like lovestruck puppies.

Well, he seemed glad to be there at the start and although not a model student he was keen to fulfil requirements, deadlines and even stay after hours to practice with cameras and have a bit more tutorial in Photoshop. The girlfriend stayed too, so everybody happy? Interest in Photoshop wained as the simple tutorials were developed into more sophisticated ones. I tried to put him on to DVD-based work throughs from magazines like Photoshop Creative but after a few weeks got a response along the lines of “I’ll do it on my afternoon frees” and “I’m going studying around at girlfriend‘s house where I can concentrate (sic)”. Yeah, right. Where next?

Josh Shipp (a youth empowerment expert and teen whisperer) says:

You have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.”

This is a helpful in this scenario because it is true in many areas of life. Sometimes we do boring and onerous tasks for no other reason than it needs to be done. Helping stubborn teenagers see meaningless tasks as part of life’s greater goals is a valuable message to pass on.

Let Them Learn From Failure

As the first term came to an end, I had tried to enthuse and inspire mainly through humour but also regular reminders about opportunities open to him to study more. Of the six mini-projects I had set, the first four were done quite well but I could tell they were slackening off in effort, quality and quantity. Incidentally, these photography tasks were based on genres within the subject; portraits, editorial, landscapes, moving images, commercial and documentary/street themes. I had designed them to appeal to individual taste so I knew that some might just bomb out. What I didn’t expect was that with this particular student his interest would decline chronologically. So I let him fail… I set a deadline and expected him to keep to it – nothing wrong in that. I could have tried some different interventions before the deadline and maybe that would’ve been a more sensible option. Instead, I gave him a mark and feedback for his last two assignments that reflected his lack of effort and poor attainment.

This is where the extrinsic motivators move back in due to centre tracking of student performance. Heads of centre, year managers and then parents were informed and my poorly motivated student limped back to class with his proverbial tail between his legs and a thousand apologies for ‘letting me down’. Of course, I said he hadn’t let me down only himself in terms of motivation and things had better change next term. Six weeks later, this change in behaviour I can see was short term to keep ‘the man’ off his back and he is back to his old ways. I won’t be letting him fail without a fight again though. It just didn’t work as a motivator.

Make It Achievable

Some tasks can’t be linked to a larger outcome in a way that motivates a procrastinator. For someone who lacks confidence and/or natural ability, the motivation to do better in certain subjects can be very hard to find. Like a lovelorn puppy, my student goes through the motions on the easy tasks and avoids those that don’t motivate him, choosing instead to stare across the art studio at the ‘love of his life’. (Is wishing she would dump him bad? The girlfriend is doing well, has developed more fluent skill and trying to the best of her ability. What would the effect be on him though?).

So I created a timeline with suggested activities and deadlines, including assessment points so the students could see what should be done as a minimum. By breaking down (chunking) into smaller tasks they seem less overpowering and a bit more achievable within the timeframe. I thought that maybe he struggled with self-organisation and his some of his peers didn’t and this was a demotivating factor? I have considered incentives within the timescale too; meet the deadline, stay for an after hours studio session and choose from tub of sweets… the ‘star chart’ was rejected as too childish by the group and I got less staying behind than before. Not motivated by sweeties then. I have done the postcards home incentives but my target student isn’t bothered by that either. I intend to give him the responsibility of coming up with an incentive, something that would encourage the competitive but not discourage anyone else.


Apart from the systematic take down our academic tracking provides for the under-performer, there are quite a few responsible adults involved. Initially, the class teacher, the register/tutorial group leader, a year manager, finally a head of centre. Not to mention peers and parents. I am six weeks in to this term and now need to utilise the valuable agents of change to mentor my target student. Perhaps by sharing the cheerleading/coaching duties with others he might get to eat the elephant¹ instead of reacting like the boiled frog². I will update progress in six weeks and review which aspects may have worked.


Stupid Fables referenced above

¹How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time… via Beth Buelow

²How do you boil a frog? In very slow increments… via Forbes


Day in the Life

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This is an experiment with documentary photography. A photo taken every half hour in monochrome using a Canon 1200D with 50mm lens is an exhibition of the mundane as well an exploration of composition. I set this as homework for my Y10 GCSE Photography group with a couple of revisions. Firstly, they could use whatever was at hand to take their images (phones, iPads as well as any kind of camera). Secondly, if every half hour wasn’t a realistic preposition, then take 28 images throughout the day.

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Here’s my documentary photo-shoot WAGOLL representing my Monday ‘Day in the Life’   It is quite a challenging task! My day consisted of mainly having the MOT for my car and wandering around our local town centre. I could have contrived something far more interesting, such as a walking trip to the Peak District…

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As an alternative documentary project my Wednesday ‘Day in the Life’ https://flic.kr/s/aHsm519Tiq. This was created using a mixture of Canon 1200D with 18-55mm kit lens and an iPhone for panoramas.

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Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life.

The mini-project can work as a one-off or the launching point to a more extended piece of work. I found these great tips for documentary photo projects:

  • Documentary means as it happens, naturally in an environment
  • To capture a person’s essence, their real personality
  • Record details and scene settings
  • To think ‘big picture’, take shots for the process and expansion of an idea
  • To create a story with images, leave a legacy of a moment in time.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the students have responded to the task and any exciting or unusual responses may have developed from the challenge.


Light Subject

CC Zukiman Mohamad

In the past week I have had two students complain about the comparative difficulty of their photography courses and that it wasn’t supposed to be challenging; it was their ‘light’ subject.

One is in the third week of their AS Photography at Post 16, so maybe we can put it down to early realisation or that a fourth AS isn’t necessary. Her three other A levels might be the priority but she said she didn’t realise there would be so much work involved and that it would be so demanding of her ‘free’ time. This is an A level, not an evening class!

The second student is in the second year of her GCSE, not a case of ill-informed choice but well into the course. “You never said it was going to be so hard!” We have just 4 months to complete our coursework, now she realises how difficult it s to get to the ‘good’ grades. It was always rigorous, tricky, time-consuming, intellectually and creatively challenging. This hasn’t been an overnight change of some kind.

Photography courses aren’t an easy option. Really. Familiarity with taking images (snaps) is being confused with the artistry, creative process, refinement and competence of the photographic art. So why has this misconception taken hold?

Okay, I’ll agree that A level maths/physics and chemistry require an intellectual understanding beyond that of practical subjects and that some students are best-placed to study them than others. Other subjects require different skills, interests and ability but are ‘difficult’ in their own unique ways. Part of the problem comes from a Russell Group of Universities guide that confirms that certain courses are regarded more highly by universities than others.

According to the guide, “softer” options include media studies, art and design, photography and business studies while traditional and mostly scientific subjects are seen as more academically rigorous. Those not studying at least two of the “hard” subjects – maths, English, geography, history, the pure sciences and classical or modern foreign languages – will find that “many degrees at competitive universities will not be open” to them, it says. The guide suggests pupils taking less traditional subjects may be “trying to avoid a challenge”, adding that if pupils study more than one “soft/light” subject, “some caution may be needed.”

Similarly and anecdotally, at parent’s evenings when GCSE option choices are being discussed, I frequently hear comments like: “Oh, you could do photography. It will be a more relaxing subject when you need a rest from the really hard ones.” Different and no less involving I would argue in these days where e-baccalaureate is causing division between the perception of academic and practical GCSEs. Besides, there are 77 UK universities offering a whopping 201 graduate degrees studying photography and surely the journey to complete such a light subject has value there.



Russell Group Guide; “Informed Choices” 2011

Education Datalab; “Which are the most difficult GCSEs?” 2016

The Guardian; “A level choices: which subjects should you pick?” 2013


Developing Photography students

This post is a reflection on how recent technology has seemed to have impacted on photography students at key stage 4 or Post-16. My thoughts centre on ease-of-use, quality and ‘quick fix’ or shortcuts.

My photography teaching started in the mid-1990s; these were pre-consumer digital camera days so it was essential to have a darkroom and chemicals and rely on a bit of hit-and-miss in terms of quality. I had a GNVQ Intermediate group (level 2 GCSE equivalent) who were largely left unsupervised in the classroom as I disappeared into the cupboard (converted darkroom) with three others of the class. This would be a safeguarding issue today but much more shocking derelictions of duty took place in those days. Without a technician, every step had to be watched, managed and dealt with; fainting kids (hot in there in Summer), smelly chemicals and dripping papers… My point is, this was a kind of alchemy, a complete mystery to all but a few who may have read the book in the library. With the time allowed and cost of materials, the students could only hope to produce something… something for portfolio to evidence they had a go until they made it to college and could explore further.

Casio digital camera 1995
Casio QV-10

Next stage, late 1990s, was the first affordable Casio and Kodak digital cameras. Our first one was a Casio QV10 from Dixons with a tiny 1.8″ screen and I think a 1/4 megapixel sensor. It saved to internal memory and cost an arm and a leg but revolutionised the idea of quick capture for developing art work. Not a truly photographic tool, unless you compared it to a pinhole camera.

My next step was to focus on Photoshop. Any crappy image could be post-produced and our usual ragtag of inept camera output could be cropped, liquified and gaussian-blurred without exception. I didn’t know anyone who owned a DSLR at this stage.

Nikon DSLR
Nikon D40

Around the mid-2000s a slew of 6mp DSLRs became very affordable for a select group of Post-16 students. The impact was incredible; these were the first quality to compare with analogue means of production. The interface was simple, meaningful settings (compared with SLR) and no reliance on pre-built in filters and ‘features’ (yack). At last, we could viably run a digital darkroom! My school at the time got so excited they bought green gloss paint for the skirting boards and matching green plastic chairs! Classroom of the future or what?! With Post-16 funding being what it was at the time, my class of 22 students enabled me to buy 15 Nikon D40 kits.

iPhone 8 screen
iPhone 8 Studio lighting mode

In the last few years the technology has been miniaturised to fit in smartphones and tablets/iPads. Without the controls, settings and understanding but with an incredible ease-of-use. There are apps that simulate SLR use (VSCO or Manual for instance) but there isn’t the thrill of getting it wrong like on a real camera. The point here is, they are easy to use and have great quality output and with apps like Snapseed, superb end-user quick fixes that you don’t need Photoshop for. But because they skim the surface of the subject, the user has no real understanding of either the technical reasons or the aesthetics of their photography. You see it all the time on Instagram – ‘pretty’ snaps, devoid of cognitive depth. Otherwise there is a proliferation of shitpics. I am not just being snobby about it here! I have recently had students say they prefer to use their phones for assignments as they are more reliable than a DSLR camera. Why take the risk of it not going to plan? This is emphatically the case for portrait mode on iPhone 7+ and on the latest models (iPhone 8 and X), portrait lighting mode (currently Beta). We seem to have gone back a leap in photography terms. I am not dissing the photographic quality; just the usefulness – the phone camera is merely a quick capture tool in the hands of the students albeit with exceptional results. The photographic process is not being explored or learned and the photographer reduced to an idiot-savant¹.

¹ Defintion at http://www.dictionary.com/browse/idiot-savant.

Art lesson resource: Film Noir Photos


Here is  a recent project I have completed with Year 9 GCSE Photography students based on the theme of Film Noir imagery. Developed from a project created many years ago for the NCFE level 2 course, there are a few essentials needed but basically it is about interpretation of the visual style. The examples presented here were all produced this half term by the students working in teams of 4 or 3 (there are 27 in my class).

What you will need:

  • Ideally DSLR cameras but use what you can
  • Photo editing software, ie. Photoshop
  • Battery torches – even cheap £1 LED ones work well
  • A studio light would be great
  • Black sugar paper and masking tape
  • Costume props: police-style caps, Macintosh coats, long gloves
  • Props: plastic handguns (must be relevant style to 1940s USA), plastic Tommy guns, plastic handcuffs and/or police badges.



As a starting point we looked at clips from some of the best Noir movies of the ’40s. We used collaborative team methods to identify the key elements common to each of the examples (lighting techniques, good guys, dubious gals, the femme fatale etc). We also looked out for common costume, make-up and hair as well as props. Students went from there to research contemporary artists (and movies) that employ some of the iconography of the 1940s Noir. The mood board above shows that a student has identified Noir ideas in the work of Vandervell and Carr.


Usually in a photography project, I will start students with idea research to get visual prompts for the imagery they will go on to experiment with and develop in their own way. However, the Noir style is quite intuitive once you have the props. It is surprising how many members of staff had a classic Macintosh coat hiding (probably hardly worn) in a cupboard and I sourced three. The handgun props I found at Poundland and even got a Police Set that included a badge and cuffs. Tommy guns were trickier; eventually I got some made in Hong Kong in bright blue and orange that took an age to arrive in the UK; cost just £5 each including p&p. Trilby hats and police-style caps we had in school already from drama performances.

So session one included the smaller teams of 4 wearing/using props in a drama studio and basically improv acting, more accurately ‘acting up’! Cameras were gradually introduced to the teams who were starting to get it. These were photography students after all and didn’t want to be the ‘models’.

After a review of the first shoot, students identified what did or didn’t work the first time. Here we introduced lighting effects. Bringing in their own family torches (and the odd Pringle tube*), we blocked out all the natural light in the studio to get a more developed contrast in tone. Using our two studio lights too and lots of black sugar paper also helped create more abstract tone shapes.

*Empty Pringles tubes with a torch gaffer/duct taped to one end make a makeshift snoot or mini spot-light.

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Sample contact sheet

Contact sheets of the second shoot were compared to inspiration and to a checklist of creative studio techniques. What was missing? How could we develop further using adjustments to light meters, aperture, ISO etc.? What can be done in post-production to create a Noir look and feel?

An in-depth analysis of the projection room sequence from Citizen Kane (1945) helped us to understand how important a range of grey tones can be in obscuring detail. How could we do this without a smoke machine? This informed our next two studio shoots before post-production editing.


To help develop the Noir style, students used monochrome, spot colour, curve/level adjustments, fog layers and when a neutral back drop had been used, replaced backgrounds. The editing and refining aspect took a number of lessons to get right.

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Specific skills lessons were undertaken on picture planes (creating depth), cutting out around hair and rendering lighting and clouds.

Kids’ Feedback

“Best project so far; really enjoyed the studio sessions especially dressing’ up”

“Made me use my imagination”

“I can’t draw so this is my most creative piece of work as I could imagine being a character in an old film”

“I liked using the lights to make a Noir scene. Not using Photoshop all the time”


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Five Things (2016)


Five things achieved this year:

  1. Photography courses at GCSE and A level; planned, implemented, delivered
  2. Jungle Book sets
  3. Expressive portraits of 100 staff (not corporate ones)
  4. Focus on mastery and craftsmanship in Fine Art teaching
  5. Exhibit, exhibit, exhibit!


  1. It had been a while since the last time I taught GCSE and A level Photography (A level 2008 and GCSE 2010) so it was with a little trepidation that I undertook a one-year GCSE group and the new specification A level. Some aspects were a little trial and error but I had access to new equipment (15 x Canon 1200D and an A3 printer mostly) and very enthusiastic students. Although three hours a week for a GCSE is not ideal, students enjoyed the projects I put together, the photoshoots I arranged ( live ‘gig’ in Mansfield and street photo tour in London) and the method I selected for presenting coursework (Pink Pig black A3 ring bound sketchbooks). Some of the A level students seized upon the use of technology and creative approaches to fine art photography with impressive results. Amazing outcomes at GCSE has led to a boost in take-up for the two-year GCSE and exemplars to share with students.screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-16-46-21
  2. Involvement in school productions is an essential aspect of life in a small performing arts faculty and art teachers usually end up doing sets, costume and make-up. With our production based on the Jungle Book, my colleague focussed on 3D costume (superb elephants and snakes) and I delivered the set designs for floor to 8 feet flats as a series of scruffy felt-tip sketches! I wanted to avoid Disney cliches and my felt-tip designs were intended as aide-memoire rather than polished final ideas, however, enlarged and printed using the academy vinyl printer they turned out much better than expected! What a time saving alternative to spending weekends and buckets of acrylic paint as per usual.
  3. Obviously I can’t share any staff portraits on here (as much as I would like to as some came out absolutely awesome!). This was a case of ‘money-where-your-mouth is’ – our corporate academy photos are highly distorted (end of nose point and shoots), usually with breeze-block backgrounds and poorly lit. I had said that I hated them and that if admin wanted new ones I would use studio lights, backdrops and a DSLR. Oops. Over a hundred staff in a 2 hour block was less than fun and after two of my bulb kits popped during the shoot (no spares), portraits became considerably more dramatic and moody let’s say. Remember this was no fee job so purely in my eyes for a bit of fun. Some crackers I can tell you and I learned a lot in the process.
  4. Over the past few years we have taught GCSE fine art in a single year; amongst the many cons to this approach is a lack of mastery and craftsmanship. The two year course (year 9 and 10) has improved this a lot by giving us the chance to revisit projects and improve them using some incremental gains in application and skill. I have blogged this year about craftsmanship  and the chance to cognitively engage with process has been a highlight.
  5. Running three sets of GCSE and an A level course has given more opportunities for exhibition, an aspect of art teaching I resolutely adhere to. My thoughts on student exhibition as a way of critical analysis can be read here from 2013. Within the classroom this is a weekly activity for my students and the chance to use dedicated space is vital. The area for exhibition is becoming squeezed though, metaphorically and physically. Due to student health and safety and access to fire doors, my main area is now a through-corridor. Industrial exhibition stands (£££) aren’t designed for teenagers or enthusiastic cleaners and have fallen to the wayside. I am currently dual-using platforms from school productions by hanging paintings from them but these too are pushed aside. In the post 16 space, A level work had to be removed as soon as parents left the building even though ingeniously put together with invisible fishing nylon by my colleague. Exhibitions of student outcomes has still happened though and I hope I will be able to continue this practice in years to come.




About craftsmanship

In a recent blogpost I discussed aspects of using technology that do not require elements of craftsmanship. I think this idea is worth further thinking.

In the first instance I want to define my terms; craftsmanship (along with workmanship) is, I think, gender neutral despite having the ‘man’ in it. It refers to the artisan skills of mankind as a whole and besides craftspersonship is too mealy-mouthed. Artisanship also doesn’t encompass the element of labour contained within the craft. Craftsmanship is an attribute relating to the knowledge, skill and performance of a task. The type of work may include the creation of handicrafts, dramatic/dance/musical performance, art, cooking, writing, using tools and machinery and other products in which quality is imparted into a product.

Historically we have gone through different phases of appreciation for craftsmanship in Western culture. Early Classical periods sang ballads in appreciation of ceramic and sculptural ability that in late Greece and Rome was thought only to be the undertakings of slaves. The peace and prosperity of the late middle ages in Europe led to formation of guilds (akin to union apprenticeships) and an era of handicrafts prior to the Industrial revolution. Machine-driven processes began to displace the need for quality workmanship but many of the common people appreciated skills themselves and resisted industrial practices where possible.

For example, when workers accustomed to practicing high standards of workmanship were first recruited to work on production lines in factories, it would be common for them to walk out, as the new roles were relatively monotonous, giving them little scope to use their skills. After Henry Ford introduced the first Assembly line in 1913, he could need to recruit about ten men to find one willing to stay in the job. Over time, and with Ford offering high rates of pay, the aversion of labor to the new ways of working was reduced.¹

The influential Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, arose as workmanship began to be displaced by developments like greater emphasis on process, machine work, and the separation of design and planning skills from the actual execution of work. William Morris,  John Ruskin and others laid emphasis on design and social reform often arguing for a return to the cultural handicraft of medieval guilds. Interestingly, in Asia, such as Japan, craftsmanship has retained its value in society not least in reproduction of artefacts like metalware and ceramics. It wasn’t always so; greatly threatened by industrial practices, the Mingei movement which promoted folk art from the 1920s onwards, was influenced by the writings of Morris and Ruskin. Like the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe, Mingei sought to preserve traditional crafts in the face of modernising industry.

Using technology to replace mundane and repetitive tasks, not unlike using machinery in the past, intensifies the design aspects with added bonuses of speed or reproduction, uniformity of presentation. Within my teaching experience it is simply exemplified by comparison of first year (16 year old) photography students and the skills developed by first year fine artists. Skills are hard to measure and compare. Hours of mundane painting (of still life perhaps) will eventually lead to art technique improvements.  Will repeating a similar task on a camera and Photoshop similarly lead to photographic craftsmanship? In an eight month period, the photographers may be able to mimic aspects of photography seen by expert practitioners (true craftsmanship in the art of photography) such as lighting techniques, aesthetic compositions and basic camera functions. This is a digital darkroom course so many will delve into Photoshop workflows and possible fixes in Lightroom. Have they learnt the ‘craft’ with a press of a button and a click of a mouse? Steve McCurry argued recently for the ‘truth’ of photojournalism and use of analogue film and was subsequently exposed for manipulating the integrity of recent images in Photoshop as an aspect of “visual storytelling”². There is no ‘truth’ in photography, we choose what to select, crop and leave out as soon as we raise a camera. However, the skill of the craftsman, Steve McCurry, is the cognitive and imaginative connection between the efforts and end products. Incidentally, on an exam-board professional development day, a moderator for the photography course suggested that maybe using analogue was a better foundation in the skills needed to be an outstanding photographer. Lomography anyone?

I think that rather than become neo-Luddites, turning back the clock on technological developments, we should teach the use of technology not as ‘quick fixes’ but as an aspect of a cognitive, imaginative and creative process. It’s not just about the intent of the artist but the connection between skill, effort and end product. I am calling for a definition of digital-craftsmanship; using the technological tool to impart quality through a thorough mastering and knowledge of processes and accounting for reasons for their use³.



¹Matthew B. Crawford (Summer 2006). “Shop Class as Soulcraft”. The New Atlantis (journal)

²The Case of Steve McCurry: What is ‘Truth’ in Photography? 12th May 2016

³Apple is trying to turn the iPhone into a DSLR using artificial intelligence 8th September 2016