Camp Culture – Creating an Ideal Learning Environment – PART II

In our previous post, we shared research and case studies that strongly suggests the merits of promoting “camp culture” as a way of creating an ideal learning environment that helps all students succeed and thrive.


To understand what we mean by “camp culture” you need to understand camping, so let’s talk camping. For those of you who have never experienced the joys of the great outdoors or whose idea of “roughing it” is a night at a Red Roof Inn let me provide you with the following illustrative description of what a typical campout feels like;


When a group of campers first arrive at a campsite, there is generally a flurry of activity following the initial greetings and connections that might, at first glance, look like manic, unorganized chaos. Some people pitch the tents while others gather the firewood or begin unloading the supplies needed for dinner. There's a healthy buzz of conversation supports the shared sense of purpose where everyone is depending on everyone else to get the job done. Eventually, when the activity subsides, camp is successfully set up and organized in a way that supports the activities that follow.


With the campsite set, other activities commence. There might be a trip leader who provides an orientation by going over the different activity options available, but soon the campers split off and it’s up to each group to organize itself and make sure nobody gets left behind during a hike or falls into the lake while fishing.


Even though they all arrived together, a variety of groupings organically form so that interests and needs can be better addressed. You might see a pairing used to support different learning levels, where one person might demonstrate how to paddle a canoe for the benefit of someone who has no clue which end of the oar to use. A small group might head off on a photo safari while one individual split off to take more time to scrutinize a rare bird that crossed her path. These side trips and excisions are welcome and accepted as the groups shared purpose for campout keeps it together.

Roles shift often. One person may be enlisted to serve as the primary cook for the night’s meal based on their skills while someone else, who might have a tendency to carbonize hot dogs, may be enlisted to set out the condiments. But later the hierarchy may reverse when the hot-dog burner plays the guitar and leads a singalong while the cook hums along because while he may be able to work miracles with a camp stove, he can’t hold a note to save his life. Everyone in the group has something they can contribute towards the enjoyment of the group.


Throughout the entire trip, one constant sits at the center; the campfire. All of the group’s activities orbit around this focal point. The light and warmth support and sustain the groups activity, even when the wilderness surrounding it grows dark, cold, and foreboding. Despite its importance, it can be easily extinguished or burn out of control without constant tending and fueling.


How’s your head? Is it still smarting from where this giant metaphor landed?


Essentially, the illustrative example we’ve provided is not a traditional classroom, but more of what others have named a learning community. This kind of structure is not new and is akin to a graduate-level research lab where the collective efforts of all learners work towards advancing the knowledge and understanding of the entire room.


In a classroom the teacher is at the center, dictates the instructional approach and is the soul assessor who shares through grading who is meeting the standard and who is not. That’ll get you to where you need to go but;


1) It does nothing to encourage the development of skills like self-management, agency, or collaboration since all they have to do to win the game of school is what the teacher asks.


2) The teacher is in charge of every aspect of this approach (wondering why you feel exhausted or why you never have time to give all your students the attention they need?)


3) Learning science has shown us a better way forward, and we’ve got data to prove it!


Campfire Culture supports a learning community approach where a group of learners works to advance the knowledge of the whole (see Scardamalia & Bereiter 2006). Learning is not about “making the grade” as much as it’s a growth process where everyone is in it together. It decentralizes the responsibility within a classroom, so the teacher is no longer the judge and arbiter of all things holy and divine. Instead, the whole group is responsible for identifying learning goals, planning how to address them, and monitoring progress.


We know that classrooms where students feel that they belong are higher functioning, have fewer behavior problems, and have a more positive and productive feel than those where culture building is not a priority. Common sense as well as research supports dedicating classroom time to culture building. This same knowledge also suggests that when classroom culture is weak or ineffective, teachers steer clear of activities that they know to be more effective and beneficial because they are harder to managed (see Eick 2002) Investing time in building culture up front pays dividends later on.


Building Campfire Culture takes an investment of time and energy on the part of the teacher, something that may result in reluctance at first, but before you throw in the towel and stop reading consider this; many aspects of your current management style might already reflect this kind of learning community, one we will go into depth regarding in our third and final post.


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