What can schools learn from summer camps?

Do you ever feel like you’re having a conversation with someone that is really important?  The night after Jacob’s math exam, I found him upset in his room.  He figured he barely passed the exam, and he worried that he might even have failed it.  He blurted out, “I study hard and I still don’t do well.”  And this breaks my heart.  He has always struggled with math and when he was tested, we learned to better understand how his brain is challenged by math.  So in a way, he is right – more studying won’t necessarily help as he just doesn’t get the abstract concepts.  He knows this, and I think he feels that we support him, but it is still frustrating. Can you blame him?

So after a while of trying to console him, I asked him this question, “Why are you letting this one mark get you down?  You are much more than a math mark!” 

I explained that at some point someone decided that math is what children should do everyday and they should be graded on it.  But we talked about what matters most and how that doesn’t necessarily end up on a report card.  For example, I care more about how he deals with his failure than I do about his grade, but resilience is not measured on a report.  We eventually came up with a whole list of things that mattered more than some school subjects.

Our conversation turned to the seemingly random nature of assessment.  What does a 54% mean and what would it take to get to 64%?  Why is 54% a pass, when we all know that you shouldn’t start a new grade with only half of the previous grade’s understanding?  Does any number motivate a child to learn?  If numbers cannot capture what is really important, why do we use them with children?  (I’m not sure I see the value of subject marks for teenagers either, but the point that our high school system remains stunted by assessment for university admissions and not learning is the subject of a future blog.) 

Back to Jacob.   A real turning point was our realization that kids drown when they can’t swim, but our school system doesn’t even require swimming lessons.  With the realization that no one dies from failing math, I finally saw him smile.  I had reached his soul, and he heard me.

You may ask why I am reflecting on assessment on one of the hottest days of the summer?  Today I received two cards in the mail from Onondaga Camp, and I was reminded, yet again, that schools can learn from summer camps. 

Two lessons:

1.  Schools should reassess assessment.

Jacob’s counselor wrote that he got a “silver in wake-boarding”.  Not a 53, 62 or a 79%, but a silver.  When I asked about it, he understood how he got that silver and, more importantly, what he needs to do to get a gold.  He told me that he is determined to get that next level next year.  Now my point is not that wake-boarding should be offered in schools, (although I think that would help many of our efforts to engage boys); nor am I suggesting that a “bronze in math” is more effective than a number in motivating kids to learn (although pre-identifying expectations might help).  But I do think there are questions worth asking as we strive to prepare kids for success.

2. Schools should reassess how we communicate assessment.

The cards from Onondaga Camp were hand-written. They described some of the kids’ activities and accomplishments, and they described their strengths. Aren’t we all hungry to hear more details about our kids? Especially when they describe what matters most to us?

I still don’t know what grade Jacob got in math, and truth be told, I might not ever find out.  But I am going to keep the card from camp…even though I already have it memorized.


2 thoughts on “What can schools learn from summer camps?

  1. You’ve hit on a giant issue in education with this post Anne-Marie.

    For many of our students, it is not clear what the intended outcome of a lesson is supposed to be.

    (Let me digress for a second and say that I believe even more in a student-centred lesson, where the outcome is mutually understood, than one in which the teacher is the ‘sage on stage’, but as I say, I digress as most schools follow a more traditional model)

    I will always remember the outset of my teaching career at Sterling Hall in Toronto when Dr. Barb Smith came to watch a lesson. She asked me three important questions:

    1) What was the lesson?
    2) What did each student learn?
    3) How do you know?

    Questions 1&2, to the inexperienced or unenlightened teacher, seem like they would have the same answer. However, most often our students pick up very different things from our lessons – and that brings us to question #3.

    Any time I find my students in need of a ‘traditional’ lesson where I deliver content or teach skills I am sure, at the outset, to explicitly state the desired outcome. Then, when I’m done, I come back to Dr. Smith’s three questions… and the students and I quickly assess whether they’ve achieved the outcome.

    To bring it back to Jacob… imagine if his teacher had used these three questions to reflect upon his/her lessons. S/he would already know what Jacob can do, Jacob would be confident in his learning, and a 54% would be unlikely to develop. And if it did – a test or exam should always be only a living document, a ‘dipstick on learning’ at that point in time, and something that can always be come back to and ‘fixed’ after more learning has taken place.

    Just as with the wake board instructor (who is likely much cooler than all us teachers) our primary goal as educators is not the measurement of learning to some subjective number, but the learning itself. Let’s never forget that.

  2. Beautifully put, I agree with everything you said. I too have a son who struggled with Math and came home from Onondaga smarter and wiser every time! My younger son is due home from Onondaga tomorrow, he went knowing exactly what he needed for a platinum in archery this year, and was determined to get it – I can’t wait to hear of all his accomplishments tomorrow.

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