The habit of thinking differently through sharper observation


An exploration of visual literacies and multiple intelligences

For the last seven months, I have been undertaking a daily experiment to take a photograph a day and publish it to my Instagram and Flickr accounts: ‘photo-walking’. This has necessitated a change of lifestyle and the development of new habits resulting in changes to the way I see and think. In this post, I reflect on these real and noticeable changes in my ways of seeing and thinking, and the implications of this for how we understand the learning environment. The post is concerned with visual literacies, therefore, and linguistic, spatial and kinaesthetic intelligences if we incorporate Howard Gardner’s (1993) theory of multiple intelligences (while noting that intelligences is a problematic concept if understood as something definite and measurable).

Being a visual practitioner

First, a little background.

I started out as a photojournalist working for an international press agency for several years before going freelance. Later I studied Fine Art for my undergraduate degree. During this time I became a committed printmaker, intrigued by the interplay of technical process and creativity. It is this idea of interplay between imaginative thinking and the given constraints of work, life and the material and digital world that has continued to intrigue me as an educator; a frisson that is present in my approach to the study of learning spaces and informing the hypothesis for my new book Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education #RSfLHE.

Creative and critical thinking as a graduate outcome

So, I have been trained to look deeply, to think differently and to embrace technology as a mediating influence. This idea of difference is not cussedness nor obstinate contrariness, but a form of critical thinking that begins with curiosity and a belief that there are always other ways of thinking and these are usually worth exploring – the sketchbook philosophy. It explains why there is a close relationship between creative and critical thinking. From that, I would argue, we begin to understand the value of artists and visual thinking to society. The term disruptive thinking captures this for me, although there is a danger that this is misunderstood as destructive thinking. Instead, we need graduates of any discipline to be able to challenge (i.e. iterate and develop) personal and societal assumptions. Graduates should demonstrate a readiness to commit to and immerse themselves in problems and ideas, whereas all too often we depend upon ideas and assumptions formed early on in life or given to us by our parents, schools, mentors and bosses. This alone is a good reason to consider Mezirow’s concept of Transformative Learning (2000) which begins by asking us to challenge received wisdom or overly simple knowledge constructs.

Visual acuity as wellbeing

However, since I graduated and as I have grown older, the acuity of my critical visual thinking has blunted due to my dependence on using existing critical thinking patterns – I know how my mind works well and I have tended to make it work that way. This isn’t so much a laziness, more a habitual expedience when life and work are so busy. I have neglected the ways of thinking critically that come from deep, critical and sharp observing. While my critical thinking has developed through the act of writing, for example, my visual acuity has, until recently, been neglected.

In January I was ill. Illness gave me the opportunity to take stock of life-work habits. My love of walking and photography provided me with a ready answer to tackle my illness and kick into a new phase of life while learning to challenge ‘the unchallengeable’. This has produced great results!

The self-imposed requirement to fit in at least two hours of brisk walking and one photograph each day was initially daunting – but only briefly so because, having made the commitment, I rapidly discovered that walking to that extent is mind-freeing and not mindless. Walking powers down the busy thinking channels and adrenalin which, for many years, I have believed were my life fuel. Intellectually, I have believed constant, busy problem-solving has developed my mental fitness. I still believe that constant intellectual stimulation is essentially good, as long as constant doesn’t mean every waking hour!

What has surprised me is that the self-imposed requirement to take a photograph each day has powered up and has reinvigorated my visual thinking. Importantly, this visual and cognitive acuity is an outcome of regular and frequent practice. Opportunities to practice not only develop skills but a sense of fluency. This relates critical thinking to the D3Bs – doing, being, belonging and becoming. While we often hear about fostering belonging and becoming, these ideas of visual literacy focus on what we do and our habitual state or our fluent ways of being: being a photographer (i.e. self-identifying as someone with a serious commitment to making photographs as a way to interact with the world around me) demands I pay attention to the ways a photographer analyses the world.

Technological mediation

Technology-mediated visual thinking is what I have done as a photojournalist, painter and printmaker. The technology demands and permits you to engage with the world differently by imposing a constrained process on creativity. We can think of it as a framework or an aspect of doing that does not require thinking. It is the ‘given’.

I really don’t want to come across here as too airy and mystical; a trap I believe many artists fall into as they translate conceptual thinking into mere words. I think there is an important point to be made here that relates to any student’s critical literacy. Photography and other accessible creative processes (e.g. songwriting, poetry, writing plays, etc) set an expectation for ‘making’. For me, this is: I walk with my iPhone and a commitment to take one photograph. The technical barriers to creativity, in this case, are very low and this allows me to scrutinise the world around me.

To analyses this,

  1. I am extrinsically motivated by a self-imposed rule to take and publish a daily photograph;
  2. I am intrinsically motivated to find an image I want to capture and publish that reflects my personal aesthetic within the temporal and spatial constraint of a walk;
  3. Each day I am driven to walk and maintain my unbroken photo-walking achievement;
  4. I have to look increasingly harder to discover even better images on walking routes that are increasing exhausted (I don’t allow myself to attempt the same photo twice!).
  5. My aesthetic (the things that make Andrew’s photos Andrew’s) is steadily revealed so that themes emerge and inspire the discovery of new images.

My walks become about making mental connections to visual ideas, problems and themes by responding to my environment.

Note, this is not to solve problems (e.g. getting a photograph of something), but to be in a state of working towards a resolution: an act of meaning making.

Personal visual frameworks are important here. How and why do you look? What captures your attention? What matters to you, perhaps only you? This way of being and thinking is often mistaken as artistic self-indulgence, however, it is a temporary state towards an articulation which itself leads to co-operation or social expectation (the act of publishing and the potential of an audience giving the routine a tenuous sense of purpose).

This brings us back to the idea of learning walks and their value as a social learning space. Walks, like the thinking they support, are formative. To use the cliche, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.”

The visual space is open-ended

Back to how this routine of photo-walking relates to learning and education.

Space is experienced differently – we all bring different things to the space as we co-construct experience and then modify our knowledge accordingly. Space then is full of uncertainty and possibility and our experience of it is a constant process of interpretation and sense-making. It’s incredible we ever agree about anything! Being together on a walk allows us to influence and moderate each other’s thinking, as well as our own. The walk, as opposed to formal learning environments, tends to be socially fluid and non-confrontation. It is a convivial space with which we tend to be familiar, practised and relaxed.

The photo-walk creates a space of always and only working towards a resolution and, though the click of the shutter seems final and product-focused, it never is. There is always another photograph to be found and taken. It is an ideal learning space, therefore, because the lack of possible resolution demands further engagement. The visual act, and its product, are highly subjective. They require interpretation and reflection. When the walk is social and conversational in nature, it is a natural space discourse.

The act of photography complements and stimulates the act of routine walking. Photo-walking gives the wandering eye some purpose. The walker searches the space for the shapes, motifs and themes that have aesthetic meaning to the photo-walker, an act that challenges the walker’s spatial and kinaesthetic intelligences.


Mezirow,  J. & Associates (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation and Possibilities, BYOD, Learning Space and Place, Literacies and Intelligence, Media-enhanced learning, Walking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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