Pedagogically Speaking - Part 2: Big Questions for Contemporary Educators

January 2015

My kids wish they went to school in ancient China, during the Zhou Dynasty, which lasted roughly from 1050 BC to 250 BC. They would have been taught the Six Arts: rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics. Except for the math part, it sounds to them like a typical camp day: flag raising (or morning watch or campfire) followed by singing songs, archery, horseback riding (or mountain biking), and finally arts and crafts. As my nine-year-old remarked, "That would be a pretty sweet school day."

Unlike camp, most educational opportunities from circa 2000 BC to about 600 AD were reserved for males in elite classes. In some places in the world, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, this is still the case. However, one worldwide trend over the past 4,000 years has been providing a basic curriculum to all classes of boys and girls. As a species, we have not achieved that goal — with schools or camps — but many world cultures are moving swiftly in that direction. Another general trend in formal education is toward secular schooling, although there are many exceptions. (Interested readers will enjoy Madonna Murphy's book, The History and Philosophy of Education: Voices of Educational Pioneers, published in 2005 by Pearson.)

If ancient schools resembled contemporary summer camps, one then wonders whether today's camps wrestle with the same big questions as contemporary schools. To help you answer that intriguing question for yourself, I've summarized some of the most pressing issues on educators' minds, borrowed in part from the work of Robert Davis, Professor of Religious and Cultural Education and the University of Glasgow (2014). Having become fluent in Ed-Speak in Part 1 of this series, you can now put yourself in contemporary educators' shoes. And in so doing, you can tuck your chair in that much closer at the youth development table. Here are the big questions on the docket:

One: Who Has Access?

Education costs money, which can either come from state, corporate, phi lanthropic, religious, or private sources. Like camps, all schools (primary, secondary, college, university, professional, and graduate) wrest le with how to fund students' experiences. Without grants or an endowment, some schools are limited to admitting those who can pay out of pocket or borrow the money from outside sources. That automatically transforms an equal opportunity into a class-based or niche-membership offering. In theory, many schools and camps would like to open their doors to all socioeconomic levels. In practice, this is possible only to some limited degree. For example, there are just a handful of universities and private secondary schools in the world that offer need-blind admissions.

Two: What Is Taught?

School curricula are more hotly debated than most camps' program offerings. Schools feel pressure to prepare students for the next chapter of their academic careers, for careers beyond school, and for life in general. Exactly what constitutes cultural literacy or a "good, solid education" is different from one culture to the next, within cultures, and within individual school districts. Remember the last time parents went to war over whether students should be reading The Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn? Remember debates in your district about sex education or prayer at school? Although few camp parents feel as strongly about swim lessons or soccer, they do have strong feelings about daily vespers and the riflery program at camp. Like camps, there are schools with a special focus in either arts, sports, or a particular academic discipline. Nevertheless, labels such as "liberal" or "traditional" will always be debated descriptors of schools and camps.

Three: How Do Children Learn?

Brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnet ic resonance imagery (fMRI), yield colorful pictures of the brain that show us which parts are most active during certain tasks. It seems that just about any task lights up some part of the brain. And yet there is widespread agreement about only one teaching practice: Lectures are the least effective way to deliver content. (By the way, lectures began as the cornerstone of modern formal education because only the most learned men [yes, it was almost exclusively men] owned books. To share the wisdom within, they gathered students in amphitheaters and lectured. That is also what most schools looked like long before there were books.) Today, we know that the more actively students participate in lessons, the deeper their understanding of the content. At schools and camps, faculty and staff now use augmented reality, role plays, one-minute papers, debates, concept mapping, and games to promote learning far beyond what lectures can deliver.

Four: What Makes an Ideal Teacher?

From ancient times to the end of the 20th century, the best teachers were, at the very least, content experts. Today, we have the Internet, which gives us access to Wikipedia, Google, and other resources. Expert content is available to anyone with a connection. Of course, this creates a new learning challenge: how to winnow the trash from the truth. Even with a well-honed ability to identify high-quality content, easy access alone will never carry the day. The best teachers in history have also been charismatic, with an ability to engage, motivate, and inspire learners. Today, we also realize that warmth and leadership are the ideal complements to expertise and charisma. For any young person — be they a student or a camper — to take risks and explore, he or she must feel grounded in a secure relationship with a teacher as well as receive guidance, criticism, and encouragement along the way. Teachers and youth leaders alike must also be sensitive to the developmental maturity and learning styles of youngsters. The young brain is a challenging set of fastmoving targets.

Five: What Makes an Ideal Learner?

Following the research of psychologists Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg, most contemporary educators recognize and cultivate students' multiple intelligences (e.g., logical, interpersonal, musical, naturalistic, visuospatial), not just the "Three Rs." But just as the ideal teacher is up for deliberation, so is the notion of an ideal learner. We know that we want responsible global citizens who excel cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. But we are less sure of the role of play, performance, and participation in contemporary education. Even in camp circles there is considerable disagreement about having youth be partners (Thurber, 2009).

With more to learn than ever before, educators and parents are advocating for learners to spend more time in school, as if that setting is the gold standard for learning. This is curious, if not downright upsetting, to camp professionals. On the plus side, both schools and camps have more respect for and understanding of learning style differences than ever. However, teachers' ability to customize content delivery continues to lag. Fortunately, contemporary educators are catching up to their colleagues in the camp world by recognizing that the "Fourth R" — relationships — is as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic. The best learning happens in the context of an appropriate, professional teacher-student (or leader-camper) relationship.

Six: What Role Should Technology Play?

This is the newest of the top six questions in education for obvious reasons. Students' use of sticks and stones, followed by slates, followed by paper and pencil generated little controversy because those early learning technologies were simply transcription tools to aid memorization. (Remember, students didn't have books, let alone iPads. Many still have neither.) Integrating electronic technology in the classroom is more threatening to contemporary educators because such technology can deliver content, not just record it. And the methods of delivery are more accessible, exciting, and interactive every day. That said, even those teachers who use smart boards, tablets, and streaming video agree that nothing could ever replace the nuance and power of face-to-face human interactions in the classroom. At most camps, debates about electronic technology have resolved as quickly as they emerged, primarily because their use is antithetical to a defining feature of most camps: a beautiful, natural setting. Electronic technology does supercharge the behind-the-scenes administration of most camps, but rarely emerges in daily camp programs.

What's Really New?

The preceding questions are admittedly predictable. It's the answers that are polemical and elusive. Indeed, if you can provide some answers to these questions — both for schools and camps — then you should consider yourself ahead of the curve in the world of youth development. And if you want to catapult yourself to the leading edge of the educational event horizon, try answering these questions:

  • Should all schools and camps — public, private, and religious — adopt national standards for a common core curriculum?
  • What role should unstructured play have in any form of structured curricula?
  • How can schools and camps go beyond teaching respect for diversity by promoting celebration and inquiry about human differences?
  • Should all schools and camps be open to all learners, at no cost or at very low cost? Might the camp world design some equivalent to the online university known as Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization created in 2006 by educator Salman Khan to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection?
  • How can the schools and camps that choose not to embrace electronic technology still maintain young people's interest and promote their development?
  • Given the surfeit of distractions in contemporary society, what role can mindful practices play in enhancing focus, attention, and concentration?
  • What will brain research on neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change neural pathways based on new experiences) and other biological phenomena play in designing future schools and camps?
  • What can schools and camps do to cater to the specific needs of boys and girls while maintaining equitable opportunities for both genders? And how will schools and camps cope with the fact that the boy-girl gender binary is an exclusive social construct?

No one ever said that promoting youth development was easy, obvious, or boring.

Goodness and Knowledge

Contemporary educators of all types in all cultures typically agree on one thing: Young people benefit from the wisdom of their elders. How that wisdom is imparted and exactly what is considered wisdom varies a great deal from one place to another. But across the board, adults generally want young people to be able to make sense of the world, to not repeat the mistakes they made as youngsters, to appreciate their heritage, and to make improvements to the world. Yes, sometimes adults corral or even kidnap young people to brainwash them or to indoctrinate hate and violence. The power of pedagogy can, like every other kind of power, be abused. Providing peaceful and open schools and camps around the world, run by expertly trained faculty and staff, is the best way to stem the tide of child abuse masquerading as education.

Feeling Smart Versus Being Smart

A recent study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Wegner and Adrian Ward (2013) compared two groups of learners: one with Internet access and another without. The two groups were asked trivia questions to which most learners did not know the answers off the tops of their heads. The group with Internet access could find answers, of course, even if those answers were incomplete, biased, or wrong.

At the beginning and end of the study, the learners were given a self-report questionnaire to assess their "cognitive self-esteem," an index of how intelligent they thought they were. Even though the two groups did not differ in the number of questions they were able to answer correctly off the tops of their heads, the group with access to the information rated themselves as more innately smart. It's interesting to note how simple access — without understanding or retention — changes one's self-concept. The researchers went on to note how Internet access reduces our "mnemonic load," meaning that our memory is less taxed when we know that Google, Outlook, and Siri will remember stuff for us.

In a subsequent experiment by Wegner and Ward, learners without Internet access were given false feedback that their answers to trivia questions were correct. Still, the group with access to Google searches rated themselves as smarter. The authors concluded, "As advances in computation and data transfer blur the lines between mind and machine, we may transcend some of the limits on memory and thought imposed by the shortcomings of human cognition. But this shift does not mean that we are in danger of losing our own identity. We are simply merging the self with something greater, forming a transactive partnership not just with other humans but with an information source more powerful than any the world has ever seen."

To camp professionals, this last statement is either inspirational or apocalyptic. Recognizing that we cannot put the Internet genie back in the bottle, I believe we must learn everything we can about humans' nascent relationships with electronic and informational technologies. And recognizing that nothing will ever replace live storytelling, handwritten letters, immersion in nature, cultural participation, real-time conflict resolution, and face-toface friending, I also believe that we must do everything we can provide camp experiences to the world's youth.

No pedagogical technique matches having a live experience through primary sensory modalities. When I rub the craggy bark of a 200-foot-tall white pine, smell the sap on my hands, pick apart a tassel and pinecone, and listen to the wind blow through a million needles, I experience a tree. Heck, I can taste trees whenever I pour maple syrup on my pancakes. There is nothing virtual about any of that. Camp is the difference between real and realistic.

Read Pedagogically Speaking - Part 1: How Schools Talk about What Camps Do

References
Davis, R.A. (2014) Religion, education and the post-secular child. Critical Studies in Education, 55 (1). pp. 18-31.

Thurber, C. (2009, September/October). Youth as objects or partners? Advancing opportunities for camper leadership and decision making. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/ issues/0909/youth-as-ojects-or-partners

Wegner, D. & Ward, A. (2013, December). How Google is changing your brain. Scientific American, pp. 61.

Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the cofounder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, which hosts educational content for youth development professionals. He designed The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, ACA's homesickness prevention DVD. Contact him at chris@campspirit.com or visit CampSpirit.com.

Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts.

Originally published in the 2015 January/February Camping Magazine.