7 Powerful Photography Tips Applied to Education

While browsing articles about photography, I came across the following video that provides “7 Powerful Photography Tips for Amazing Photos.” Of course, given that my brain is now fully wired to think about education, even when I’m watching and listening for photography tips, I started to think about the relevance of these seven tips for those of us in education. As such, I turned it into “7 Powerful Photography Tips Applied to Education.” I included the video below, or you can just scroll down for the seven tips and my application of those ideas to creating amazing learning experiences.

“Fill the frame with what you like.”

Amplify what captures your interest. Let it fill the frame and grab the attention of the viewer. This same lessons is useful when it comes to great teaching and learning. Fill the time with the big and important things. Quite often we can get sidetracked by the tyranny of the urgent, distracted by countless small things. Instead, zoom in on the big and important things that you want to learn. Immerse yourself in those things.

“Figure out how to exaggerate the characteristics of what you like.”

Once you zoom in on it, make a big deal about it. Find ways to intensify its interest and significance for you. Talk about it. Think about it. Explore it. Experiment with it. Cultivate a deep sense of wonderful about it. Choose to be deeply curious about it.

“Don’t center your subject.”

In photography, this is often referred to as the rule of thirds. At the same time that you are zooming in on the big ideas and goals, there is something powerful about framing it a little off-center. Look at it from different angles and consider its part of a larger whole.

“Create depth.”

You have that subject of inquiry. You’re zoomed in on it. You are deeply curious about it. You are looking at it from interesting angles. Now consider how the subject of inquiry fits into a larger whole or context. Explore the subtext. Look for connections with other related and seemingly unrelated subjects. Strive to understand the world in which your subject lives. In systems theory, we recognize that one thing is interconnected to countless others. Identifying those connections creates rich depth and tends to conjure even more curiosity.

“If you have multiple subjects in your photo, then the story is about the connection between those subjects.”

While a previous suggestion was to zoom in on one subject, it can also be powerful to choose two subjects and devote your inquiry to exploring how they compare and contrast. I once remember meeting a man who was fascinated by the relationship between the modern washing machine and World War II. There is not obvious relationship between the two, but he surfaced a connection that occupied his interest for almost a year. Along the way, he discovered all sorts of fascinating lessons and connections.

“Perspective is everything.”

I suppose this is a bit like not centering on the subject, but I see a difference. In the video tip, this was described as showing people something that they’ve never seen before. “Get up, get down, get on the ground…” This is about asking questions that draw you into looking at the subject from different perspectives. Look at it from different vantage points. It will deepen your understanding and appreciation. I had a teacher who once assigned me a single sentence from the book and assigned me the task of asking a hundred questions about it. It was painful at times, but by the end of the assignment, I had dozens of questions that drew me into thinking about and looking at that one sentences in enlightening ways.

“Lighting is everything.”

In the video, the narrator said it this way, “Sunrise and sunset are most interesting skies usually…Shoot away from the sun.” Then the sun shines on the subject. The sun sheds light. Or, when I apply this idea to learning and inquiry, the sun is meaning. Look for the meaning. Let your subject be lit up by meaning and timeless truths because meaning is everything.

These seven tips were intended for the person looking for tips on how to capture great pictures, but I hope you will agree that they provide worthwhile advice for those interested in creating powerful learning experiences as well.

What does it mean to be educated?

I flew into St. Louis last week to participate in what ended up being a rich and rewarding conversation with education faculty members at various schools in the Concordia University System. Little did I know that the taxi drive would also be a thought-provoking part of the trip. On my way home, I took a taxi to the airport (yes, it was one of those old school taxis, not an Uber). This was not your ordinary taxi. It was half car, half library. There were paperback history books with dog-eared pages sitting on the dashboard, a couple in the front passenger seat, and a few more resting between the two front seats. Before I even had my door closed, this driver was ready for conversation.

“What are you doing here?”

“What type of work do you do?”

“You are a professor of what?”

“So, what do you think about the state of higher education today?”

After asking seven or eight such questions, he offered his first conviction. “Look, I don’t have a college degree. I dropped out of college, but I read a lot, and I consider myself fairly well educated. It seems to me that college is really just more about work preparation and technical knowledge today. Do you agree?”


I started by affirming his conviction about being educated; noting that I certainly don’t think the definition of an educated person is defined by whether he has a college diploma. Then I responded to the second question. Has college become more about work preparation and technical knowledge? I acknowledged that there are indeed far more majors focused on specific career pathways, especially in healthcare, that there are plenty of business and education majors as well. Yes, these tend to be professional programs, but there is still a liberal arts core for these students where they study history, literature, philosophy, one or more sciences, and math. The conversation stopped for about thirty seconds, just silence.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question? Who was the president during World War I?”

Now there is swift shift in the conversation, and I certainly didn’t see the line of thinking, but there was a crystal clear connection for him. Perhaps you knew the answer right away when you read the question. Maybe you struggled to find the name. Maybe you didn’t have a clue. For him, this was a powerful and enlightening question. He went on to explain that one’s ability to answer this question is a litmus test for whether a person is truly education, or truly well read as he clarified. There is no possible way that you could be well read and not know the answer to such a basic question about United States history. His test included nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation; the Boston Tea Party; the Louisiana Purchase; the Manhattan Project; the Revolutionary War, Vietnam War, or Civil War; September 11, Apollo 11, the Bill of Rights; the Reformation or Renaissance; the Industrial Revolution; the history of major religions and religious figures; the Pax Romana; or the Gutenberg Printing Press. His test didn’t involve any literature, art, music, philosophy, science or math. The measure of an educated person comes down to knowing who was president during World War I.

I pushed and tested this conviction in subtle ways, but he was unswerving. For one reason or another, this question is what mattered most. As the conversation continued, I was apparent that well read for him meant reading lots of American history. That was the cannon of literature most important for a person. I didn’t disagree with his value of American history, but as I left the taxi and wandered to my gate at the airport, this exchange reminded me of an important reality about modern education. Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a personal philosophy and set of convictions about what it means to be educated, what really matters for a person. This is the root of many of our debates about education. It is why no one system, format, model or framework will completely win the day. It is why the American people are largely drawn to the era of school choice in which we find ourselves. It is why there are so many different types of higher education institutions, and likely why we will have even more in the future.

10 Musings about President Obama’s Future of Free Higher Education

Are you ready for free higher education in the United States? Today President Obama gave a preview of his upcoming State of the Union address, proposing a plan for a free two years of college for students who are willing to work for it.

This is bold, but it is not entirely new or unprecedented. There are pockets of programs around the United States that offer a route toward free college for 2 or more years. There are state-funded and/or mandated free dual credit (high school and college credit at the same time) programs, some of which allow students to enter college as a sophomore or junior. If we look beyond the United States, we see different examples of free or nearly free higher education solutions in places like Germany, Finland, Sweden, France, and Norway. These are not perfect systems, but they are bold statements about a national commitment to increased access to education. There are also colleges, including private ones, in the United States that have various approaches to providing a free college education.

My mind is racing with the challenges and opportunities. When I watched President Obama’s short video today, I had a strange mix of reactions. In July 2014, I wrote this article after several months of research on the history of universal free education, free higher education in various parts of the world, and experiments with free higher education in pockets within the United States. Amid this research, I became confident that free is in the future of American higher education.

I am excited and hopeful that we can use this to spark a rich national conversation. Toward that end I offer 10  initial thoughts and questions.

1. Private Schools – This might conjure concern for 4-year private institutions, wondering what sort of plan will be proposed and what the implications are for the future of these private organizations. Some elite schools or those with a strong donor base already have a financial model that is less dependent upon tuition. Other private institutions depend almost entirely upon tuition. What would this do to them? It might drive them to close their doors or to explore different approaches ranging from alternate funding models to more graduate or professional programs that will not be included in this early plan. As a University administrator who expected this, I already have pages of notes about exciting ways to respond and thrive even amid a universal free higher education program.

2. How will it be funded? – This will come out soon enough. There have been interesting arguments in the past that the cost of operating the federal financial aid programs for colleges already exceeds the cost of tuition charged at schools. If reducing federal financial aid to fund this effort is in the proposal, that will indeed shake up the models of for-profits and almost every University in the country.

3. Is this treating a symptom or addressing root causes? If this is mainly about workforce development then focusing on 2 free years of college is not, in my opinion, getting at the most important issues. While many employers look at degrees and diplomas as evidence of job preparedness, they do not truly provide such certainty. There are many important conversations and experiments with alternate ways of getting at workforce development issues than simply getting more people with academic credentials. This needs to be part of the conversation. What good is a low-impact but free education? What good is inflexible but free education?

4. As such, I continue to believe that some of the most promising social innovations around workforce development will come from beyond the walls of the University, even if we make it free…unless, for course, some of these Universities embrace the spirit of innovation present beyond its walls. Digital badges, nano-degrees, certificate programs tied directly to specific area of demand in one or more companies…these have great promise and there are brilliant, well-resourced, and influential groups actively engaged in conversations and efforts to re-imagine training and routes toward gainful employment.

5. Democracy thrives on human agency. We could make all education from kindergarten through the doctorate free, but without seriously considering the nature of what, how, and why we teach; we will not make progress in creating an American educational system that is about empowering and nurturing human agency. We can produce a good workforce without fostering a wise and informed citizenry.

6. There is a double standard that needs to talked about deeply and openly in our society. Some treat workforce development efforts and trade schools as being for “those” people, while others are given a truly broad and liberal education. The phrase “liberal arts” comes from the idea that such an education was liberating and for the liberated. It is the education of the free, elite, influential, the advantaged. Among that group we invite them to discover their passions and callings, to nurturing global perspectives, delve into the rich intellectual history of the world, to explore the big questions of life. For others, we give them the training needs to get a job. I don’t think the University has the corner on the market of these broader questions in the least, but I really want to explore what it means to give a world-class education that is free and/or accessible to as many people as possible, even as I am very open to defining world-class education in unexpected and unconventional ways.

7. Global competitiveness is so 1980s. Not that I know what rhetoric or narrative will be placed around this proposal, but I hope that it will extend beyond getting a generation better educated so that we can compete in a global economy. I’m not against competition metaphors. They can lead to some positive movements, innovations, and discoveries that benefitted many people. I think we can come up with a better metaphor. Maybe we need to pull out Neil Postman’s proposed metaphors in The End of Education. I think he was writing mostly about k-12 education, but his chapters about alternative metaphors for education serve as helpful discussion starters.

7. Will this help and serve the post-traditional student populations? The key part of the initial video is Obama’s reference to visiting Tennessee. This proposal is very likley to be about amplifying the Tennessee Promise, a program that offers a route to two free years of college for eligible high school students. That likely means that this does little for the majority of college degree seekers. That doesn’t make it bad, but I want to capitalize upon this news to explore the topic more broadly. In this article, I reference an essay that points to the fact that only 15% of those in college are traditional full-time residential students. The rest are what some call post-traditional. They are working, married, with children, adult learners, etc. How will this proposal address the majority of college students? Most of the current experiments in the United States around a free first two years are just targeting high school graduates.

8. There is a divide in college readiness and it is not just about the ability to pay a college bill. We have a problem in the United States with high school dropouts and graduates who do not have basic skills necessary to succeed at the collegiate level. Many of the risk factors extend well beyond the school walls. I am not convinced that this is a teaching effectiveness problem or even a school problem. It is a societal problem. While two free years of college can be an incentive for those who are willing to apply themselves, there are inequities and socio-economic factors that are far more complicated than this. I don’t write this to dismiss the potential benefits and value of President Obama’s proposal. I am intrigued and excited to hear and read more. It is just that I want to use this as a chance to talk about the broader issues. We must know what such a proposal will and will not accomplish. We must not embrace any such plan without clearly understanding the affordances and limitations.

9. This needs to be a candid dialogue that surfaces agendas, fears and concerns. Let’s put them out in the open, not letting them secretively drive agendas that are personal or political. This has implications for people’s jobs and work in higher education. This has implications for different higher education institutions, some will be exhilarated at the potential funding support while others will fear having to close their doors. There will be winners and losers if this plan is implemented. There will be partisan politics. There will fears of the unknown. I am hopeful that we don’t hide these but surface them. This is a chance to be larger than our affiliations and to dream together about new possibilities that can bring about social good and benefit real people.

10. This is a good move. That doens’t mean I will support the plan. I don’t even know what it is yet. Whether his proposed plan happens or not, I commend President Obama for starting the conversation. We need this conversation. If we allow it to be just that, a discussion starter and not just a drive to implement a pre-defined plan, I fear that it will fall short. We need more and more open discourse than we got around the Affordable Care Act. We can do this, but it will take a concerted effort from a critical mass of citizens, educational leaders, politicians, and people in the media (both old and new).

Education in a World Where Every Action is a Data Point

Remember the classic scene from Dead Poet’s Society where the new teacher, John Keating, instructs the students to rip pages out of the poetry text? He offers the students a different view of poetry, one that invites people to feel instead of analyze. There is something to be said for appreciating the forest and not just chopping it down into discrete pieces that are more easily quantified. At the same time, we are in an increasingly data-driven world, and I don’t expect to see it disappear from the field of education anytime soon. So, what are we to do?

people as data vennIn the Walking Dead of Higher Education, a software vendor wrote an article about the need for more satisfactory ways of approaching assessment in higher education. He contends that higher education administrators are having trouble proving the value of a college degree because they don’t have effective ways to measure what students are learning. This is not a new notion. In fact, it is a mantra in our increasingly data-driven world. We see the drive for more data-driven decision-making in everything from political campaigns to marketing plans, church growth strategies to public health initiatives, crime prevention efforts to assessment of organizational effectiveness. This is the expected progression of living in an increasingly digital and connected world. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the first wave of the digital era was about increased access to information through the Internet. The second wave was the discovery that it is the connections, communities and social interactions that have some of the most transformational possibilities in the digital age. Now, in this third wave, we see the convergence of the first two waves (These are not entirely distinct. There are social and analytic elements already in the first wave). Now we have increased access to more information than we ever imagined, but every one of our actions (social and otherwise) is becoming part of that information, data points to mine and analyze for meaning, and used to achieve business, educational or other goals.

When I first understood that Google was mainly an advertising company, I had a great illustration of this new age. I took people to Google, conducted a random search and then we looked at the results. What do you see? Most of us now get the general idea. The first results to show up are paid ads. What is Google selling? They are selling you, based upon data about you, data suggesting that there is a possible match between who you are, what you want or might want, and what others are selling. The consumer becomes the product being sold via a business-to-business interaction between Google and another company. This is very old news, but this concept, evident in many other online business strategies since the 1990s, illustrates the idea that our behavior becomes valuable data.

Now schools and education vendors are increasingly involved in similar practices. Education companies are coming to Universities and P-12 schools, offering ways to collect, track, analyze, and extract meaningful insights from student data, not just student performance on tests and key assignments, but thousands of other potential data points. Some are coming to schools that already have a massive collection of dust-covered student data, and companies are showing them the stories that these data tell, and how these stories are important for the work of the school. Others are starting at the beginning, offering new ways to collect data that have never been collected before, let alone analyzed.

I’ve written about adaptive software before, even providing a simple visual to illustrate the feedback loops involved with such software. Adaptive software is an example of how these data are being used on the micro level to create learning experiences where student performance and progress is persistently tracked and the software adapts accordingly (or, apart from  adaptive software, where the teachers or students are prompted to respond). The testing culture in American K-12 education illustrates some of these data on the macro level. There is no question that big data sets will be used in ways that will amaze, trouble and baffle many of us over the upcoming decade. This is certain to happen in the education sector as much as anywhere else.

Yet, it is important for us to remember that the technologies of modern statistics and data analytics have values. The more we seek to use them, the more they drive us to look for that which they are best at measuring. This means that standardized tests are likely to be used before portfolio assessment practices, personalized adaptive learning software before messier student-centered self-directed learning practices. Until we gain the ability to collect and analyze broader types and ranges of learner activity, these technologies have a way of telling us what to value as much as measuring that which we value. For example, suppose I wanted to understand how much my children love me. Would I be satisfied with a dashboard that indicates the number of times they spoke those words in the last month, the number of acts of kindness toward me, or something else that is easily quantifiable? I’m reminded of something I referenced by G.K. Chesterton back in a 2012 article about letter grades:

G.K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, is talking about a completely different subject, but he discusses how many people seek to quantify things that are not inclined toward quantification. They are pictures, not diagrams. Consider your favorite piece of art, song, or sunset. Would you agree that a careful quantitative analysis and report on any of those would give an accurate picture of why it is your favorite? Would you be satisfied with a quantitative analysis in place of a picture or the real thing? Suppose you went to an art museum and discovered that every painting and sculpture was replaced with a chart or diagram that represents the same concepts or ideas that were previously illustrated in the work of art. I contend that letter grades too often do a similar thing.

This is an important caution as we move forward with learning analytics, big data, and strategies to identify quantitative measures for student learning. The measures are often (usually…almost always…maybe always) just approximations. The data will tell a story, but there are other important stories of learning to be told that are not read in the numbers, not in any set of easy measures that we develop. I am not arguing that we resist the move toward analytics in education, only that we better understand it, what it is, what it is not, how it can influence and shape our mission, vision, values and goals. The data are not just measures of our stand alone goals. Key Performance Indicators, for example, are hardly ever just measures of things we value. Over time, they influence what we value, sometimes in subtle and hardly noticeable ways, but other times (and over time) the influence can be substantial. Is it time to share one of my favorite Postman concepts again? With any technology (including big data, statistics, and learning analytics) it is not just about learning how to use the technology, but taking time to understand how it uses us.

The author of the article that I mentioned before (Walking Dead of Higher Education), for example, seems to propose that we provide quantitative answers to questions I’m not sure can be answered by quantitative measures alone, not unless we change the questions to make them more easily quantifiable. If we really want to get into what students are learning and how the higher education experience is impacting students, it will be a longitudinal mixed methods study on every learner. However, that is too messy, time-consuming, expensive and unrealistic…at least for some (but this might change). What usually happens is that we reduce the academic standards to something less (even as we do it in the name of something like academic rigor), but something less that is easier to measure, communicate and understand by parents, consumers, the public and politicians. The technology of modern statistics is not neutral. It values that which its current tools can measure and tends to minimize the rest. Without thoughtful deliberation, the charge to become more data-driven in education is a proposal to change the core values of schools to fit a new set of values embraced by a specific set of stakeholders. Only time will tell how this push for elevating the quantifiable will play out in higher education and P-12 schools.

As much as this article may seem to indicate otherwise, I am an advocate (or rather a Luddvocate) for learning analytics and big data in education. I am not, however, a champion for doing it with our eyes closed. It is time for us to count the cost as best as we are able, and to allow our institutional mission, vision, values and goals to maintain a strong voice in this growing world of data.

By the way, if I put my futurist hat on for a moment, I caution some of the loudest advocates for data-driven education and the dominance of quantitative measures in schools. Big data are here to stay, and it will push itself into many other areas, not just education. Politicians are using data to drive campaign decisions. Wait until data start to flip, when citizens start to use data to analyze the behaviors of politicians. Just as information was democratized with the first phase of the digital revolution, wait for some excitement when analytics becomes equally democratized (look for a full article on this topic in the near future).