Growing a Peer Mentor Program

My many years teaching educational psychology taught me the importance of a safe learning environments where students support one another as opposed to competing with one another.  When I retired and became a “photography learner” I quickly realized that working with other amateur photographers would improve my photography.   Learning together in a peer mentor program would improve all of our skills if the environment were safe, respectful, and supportive.

After sharing my own photo challenges in the 2015-16 FirstAnAmateur.com blog I decided to create a Peer Mentor Program for photography.  It started slowly with about 6 amateur photographers.  We met once a month for a photo shoot and a group meeting.  Our monthly meeting focused on getting to know one another, discussing basic camera issues, and what I called Informal Critiques.  These critiques emphasized learning from one another in a way that will help everyone improve their photography.

At our second meeting I introduced how to give feedback at our Informal Critiques.  I had taught interpersonal communication to teachers for many years with a emphasis on the difference between Evaluative Feedback and Informational Feedback.   Most of the peer mentors had received comments on their photographs on social media where evaluative feedback was not very helpful.  Evaluative Feedback is a simple statement of support or non-support (e.g., awesome photo, beautiful, etc) without any explanation of what was “awesome” about the photo.

I emphasized the importance of Informational Feedback to help each of us improve our photography.  Informational feedback is a thoughtful explanation of why the photo is good or how it might be improved.  It requires some understanding of photography or art but does not require photo jargon.  This type of feedback is valuable to the photographer who took the image, and also to everyone else in the group.  This emphasis on respectful Informational Feedback is still a foundation of the Peer Mentor Program.

I started the third peer mentor meeting in summer of 2016 with two questions about their improvement in photography and a discussion:

How far has your photography improved compared to other photographers?

and

How far has your photography improved today compared to when you joined the PMP?

This led to an interesting discussion that allowed me to suggest that the key to all of our success was NOT how we compared to others, but rather how each of us had improved over time.  I suggested that some of us were likely to be motivated by inter-personal competition; comparing themselves and their photos to others.  Others in the group were likely to be motivated by intra-personal competition; comparing their own photo improvement to their prior photos.  It is interesting to read the recent peer mentor survey (2020) to see how some peer mentors enjoy competition (inter-personal competition) while others are not particularly motivated by inter-personal competition.  More on that in a later blog post.

During the first few months the Peer Mentor Program grew from 6 to about a dozen members who had gotten to know one another personally and also photographically.  The photographic experience, skill level, and post-processing was quite broad across the group, but the personal connection was developing with support.  We were learning about the photography of one another (Canon or Nikon, Landscape or Wildlife, etc.) and learning from one another.  We had successfully built a respectful safe learning environment where we supported one another by answering questions and guiding learning.  We were photographically different on many skills, interests, and motivations but we were developing a sense of community that was about support not interpersonal competition.

The sense of community among the PMP members was growing in a very different way than what might be the result from “monthly competition”.  The peer mentors attend the meeting to help one another, not to “beat” one another.  Often peer mentors asked the group for help, whether that related to the menu on their camera or an image adjustment in Lightroom.  We had created an environment where we recognized that Success was not always easy  and Success was often the result of extensive hard work.

Please understand that I am NOT suggesting that there is not a place for “monthly competition” and “critical feedback”.  But for many amateur photographers it is difficult to feel comfortable beginning what may be seen as a complicated learning process with a competitive group.  The 2020 Blog will not take a step-by-step journey through the 3 years of the Peer Mentor Program, but I hope to share some of the critical characteristics of the program that kept amateur photographers with all levels of photographic skills involved and contributing to the program.