Camp vs. School

Last week I had the opportunity to work with my fellow teachers as we led students in a week long science camp. The camp was full of hands-on activities. Students imagined being on another planet and built shelters, space suits, and rockets. They designed and built a model of a green city. They got to create things, destroy things, and come up with creative solutions to problems of their own choosing.  Sound fun? Of course it was.  It was engaging for the students, but also a little stressful and frustrating at the same time.

One of the activities involved students taking something apart and using the parts to create a Rube Goldberg type contraption that would go through 5 steps culminating with a vinegar & baking soda reaction. This activity seemed to give kids the most trouble. Many had some great ideas right from the start, but when those ideas were tested and did not work as expected, all progress stopped. They didn’t know what to do. They’d keep trying the same thing over and over with the same results. “What else can you try?” we would ask them. “I can’t think of anything else.” Would be the reply.

At one point during the week, one of our science teachers sat them all down and talked about what it means to be a scientist.

  • “When a scientist tests something, does it always work perfectly the very first time?”
  • “Do you think scientists have more successes or more failures?”
  • “Do scientists ever have to give up on their ideas that don’t work and make changes or try something completely new?”
  • “In school when you get assignments, you’re expected to get it right the first time. But here at camp, it’s okay to fail. You’re not trying to get an ‘A’. It’s more important that you learn something.”

She actually said that. (Or at least that’s how I remember hearing it.)

If camp is a place where it’s more important to learn something than get a good grade, what did she just imply about school?

At camp you’re free to enjoy learning for the sake of learning. You do homework not because your teacher “makes” you, but because you’re determined to figure out a way to get the ball to trigger the pulley that will swing the arm that will knock the vinegar into baking soda. Your reward is not a letter grade, but rather the joy and satisfaction of seeing your contraption finally work after 20 previous failed attempts. When it’s time to go home, instead of bolting for the door, you beg for more time to try “just one more thing”.

In my previous post, I shared about some of my experiences in Boston at the Discovery Summer Institute, or as I like to refer to it, “teacher camp”. Was I there to get a certificate to hang on my wall, or something shiny to pad my resume? No. I was there to experience the fun of learning and creating with a group of passionate, like-minded educators. It was a week of hard work, little sleep, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

If we say that our schools are places where learning happens, why isn’t school more like camp?