Growth Mindsets in the Great Outdoors

School camps are a wonderful opportunity to observe how our students handle the challenge of a different learning setting. Away from the norms and familiar settings of the classroom, we see students in a different light. For the students, camps are an exciting and for some frightening challenge. For teachers, they are an outstanding assessment tool that should inform our practices long after camp is over. 

For the students camp will bring many diverse challenges. For some the biggest challenge will be managing their feelings of homesickness. For some camp will be their first experience away from the comforts of home and company of parents and siblings. The time away from home and possibly even the distances involved travel wise creates a sense of separation that can be difficult. Teachers know that this is always worse during the quiet times between activities and as the sun sets will be on the lookout for those struggling with anxiety. 

For many students, the challenge of camp will be associated with a particular activity. Maybe it is something well known to induce fear like abseiling or a night in a tent surrounded by a thousand and one frightening creatures all determined to turn you into dinner. Some students know their challenge points well in advance of camp, others discover theirs when first confronted by it. Many a student has discovered their fear of heights only at that moment as they lean back over the edge of a cliff with nothing but a slender rope holding them in place. Only at that moment does their previously resilient demeanour turn to jelly and they find themselves overwhelmed. 

Camp will also reveal to us the students who thrive in this alternate learning environment. It might be the student who struggles at school who discovers at camp the conditions they need to achieve to their fullest potential. Freed from the demands to sits still, pay attention and solve problems with their mind detached from their body they find the physicality of camp suits their learning style. There will also be those who show a quiet confidence in the new setting. They accept the challenges that are placed in front of them, calmly rise to the occasion and succeed thanks to their grit and determination. 

For teachers camp is a rich assessment opportunity. If we wish to fully understand our students we need to see how they deal with the unfamiliar. This is particularly important if we are to understand the mindset of our students. What camp reveals is those in our student body who might display the hallmarks of a growth mindset in the familiar and comfortable setting of the classroom but are unable to transfer this to a new setting. Alternatively, it reveals those who show a fixed mindset in the classroom but are able to attack the challenges of camp with the grit and determination we wish they exhibited in a mathematics lesson. It is a common misunderstanding of the theory of growth mindsets that allows us to imagine that we do not all struggle with aspects of a fixed mindset. 

New perspectives of our learners' emerge as fresh demands on their determination, habits of mind, empathy, social understanding and capacities for collaboration are invoked by the experience of camp. 

What becomes very clear is that the context of learning plays an important part in the outcomes achieved. If we wish to have every child in our class experience success on a regular basis, how will we bring the challenges and triumphs of the camp experience into their everyday experience of learning? How will we challenge those who find the specific learning environment of the classroom a perfect match to their needs? How do we help those whose first or only experience of success with learning happens while at camp? It was once OK to believe that the learner must adapt to the setting and the context of academic learning. Turning to the business world we see an understanding of the value that comes from adjusting the context to the needs of the individual. Gone or going are the tightly controlled and highly structured work environments that were the norm. The challenge for schools is to find ways to adjust the context of learning to suit the needs of every individual while ensuring every individual is prepared for whatever might lay ahead. 

By Nigel Coutts