Why School should be more like Summer Camp

I just returned from a week at summer camp where we co-directed a co-ed teen camp. For the last number of years, camp has been an important part of my 3 kids’ summer lives while memories of camp have dominated their winter lives. Admittedly, co-directing a full week of activities for about 125 teenagers involved a steep learning curve, a great deal of creativity, energy and patience with the other co-directors.

Obviously, as a high school teacher, I have had a fair amount of experience working with adolescent learners. However, it was surprising to recognize in the camp environment so many similarities to a school environment. It was even more surprising to observe the great differences in the teens’ attitudes, motivations, and learning outcomes.

Let’s begin with the basic similarities in learning environments. At camp, there are rules about who is in charge (the counselors, directors, etc.), a schedule which moves campers from place to place every hour or so, breaks for meals, safety and behaviour rules with disciplinary consequences and forced team and group events often with expectations for the creation of a “product” in the form of a craft, song or skit. Often, there are competitions which rely on some sort of evaluation or assessment process by judges. Sound familiar?

What is different about this environment is that the campers must also live together for a week sharing living space. This can aid in the development of a community. It is an opportunity for the campers to develop care and appreciation for their community through beneficial maintenance and stewardship of camp territory. Some take longer than others to acquire this appreciation!

Other differences are in the outcomes and attitudes of the camper/learners. By its very nature, camp is able to better offer multiple learning style opportunities to suit the learning style needs of the campers. Kinesthetic learners in particular are offered many opportunities at camp. Certainly much less reading material is offered at camp. Campers must rely much more on visual and audio messages to function well in this setting.

I am familiar with many of the teen campers, counselors and staff that were present at camp this year. Many of them had not flourished well in an academic environment. Yet, at camp, their latent skills and gifts were coaxed out and I observed leadership and citizenship abilities and competencies which were truly outstanding, Not only that, but they were sincere and enthusiastic in their various achievements.

As an educator, I was humbled by what I witnessed. Why can’t school environment be more like summer camp?

Critical Thinking, Blogging, and Educational Reform

The topic of critical thinking had come up a number of times at dept. meetings and critical friends’ group meetings at LCC in the last couple of months before we broke for summer. Apparently our school will soon be evaluated by an independent organization and one of the criteria will be how much critical thinking is being demonstrated by our students. Some discussion was given to what exactly the concept “critical thinking” implied and how current pedagogy went about it explaining how it could be fostered and developed. It was a catch phrase that seemed to mean something somewhat different to each teacher. So I was very interested to see this latest set of resources from wwwtools for teachers on the topic of ICTs for Critical Thinking. The resources represent everything from research on the topic to a variety of tools, such as simulations and virtual learning environments. The paper that has provided the most inspiration to me on that topic is certainly “Computers as Mindtools for Engaging Learners in Critical Thinking” by David Jonassen. I believe it is widely regarded as the seminal work on the value of technology as a tool for learning using a constructivist approach.

In my continuing quest to find good resources and practices for the classroom for blogs, I have come across several excellent blogs recently. Colleagues and friends have kindly emailed me some of these, so I thank them for their consideration. Blogsavvy has posted two articles: How not to use blogs in education and How you should use blogs in education. Blogsavvy dude James Farmer provides some excellent tips and advice for best practice use of blogs in education. It was gratifying to see so many of my own thoughts on blogging validated in his articles. In his paper proposal for an upcoming conference, he articulates well the difference between a forum area or learning management system and a blog, using diagrams and research that has taken place in several different places about the pedagogy of blogs. While he speaks mostly of the use of blogs in higher education, I can see how much can be applicable for high school (or lower) use. He stresses that blogs are individualized areas that present opportunities for reflection and empowerment through individualized environments. Aggregation is highlighted as one of the most important advantages of blogging, but I am not sure that aggregation would be appropriate for high school students due to its open nature and the issue of safety for students.

Stephen Downes continues to astound me with his prolific writing and his latest paper “How to be Heard” is no exception. I am not sure that I have the stamina to follow all of his advice and strategies, but here he presents some excellent practical advice on developing and maintaining a presence in the blogosphere.

And, of course, I was delighted to find Teaching and Developing Online, a blog with a focus on high school online learning by a Canadian high school teacher, Darren Cannell. His blogs are informative and useful for those of us who are interested in the education of high school students.

On a colleague’s suggestion, I visited the site to the 21st Century Learning Initiative. The site offers some papers which addresses the need for systemic educational reform with a move to a more constructivist approach to learning. As a teacher who has regarded herself as a little cog in the vast educational machine, I have only been able to effect change at the very local level of my own classroom. With three of my own kids in the school system (and access to an unlimited number of their friends!), I see the disparity between educational theory (i.e. constructivism, connectivism) and educational practice all too clearly. A solution to the problem of much-needed educational reform is not so clear….