Guest Post: The Best School is Camp

When I began this blog a year ago – just prior to beginning my Master of Design program at OCAD University – I mentioned wanting to share musings on the transformation of education written by others*. Shortly after that initial post, I received an incredibly thoughtful email from Catherine Cassidy**, a long-time friend whom I deeply admire. While not a professional educator (though she did work in a teaching capacity during her Gap Year in Australia after high school), like many of us she is the product of a series of school systems, and has some strong feelings and insightful ideas about what transformation in the landscape of education might look like.

A year later I’m finally publishing her writing, with gratitude and awe. When I read Catherine’s words I’m reminded of how much each of us has to add to the discussion around schooling, and how refreshing it is to hear the voices of people who aren’t working in the system, but consider it thoughtfully. As we enter this Labour Day weekend, and as our kids and teachers and administrators gear up for another year of (mostly) traditional schooling, perhaps Catherine’s words will inspire you to think of the future of education from a different angle. Thank you, Catherine!


Catherine writes:

Over the last couple days I have considered the current state of education from the following angles:

1.       Outcomes of education – how do formally educated people behave in the work world/social world? What would make these people  more productive and creative?

2.       Where did I learn the most in my youth? Why and how?

3.       My observations of being a teacher and the interactions of teachers (albeit as an untrained 19 year old in Australia)

 So with regard to Outcomes, I think the world could be a much more sustainable, productive, safer place if people

a)      Shared more. By this I mean their experiences, lessons, ideas

b)      Embraced others’ experiences, lessons and ideas

c)       Cooperated in pursuit of common goals

d)      Always believe in a better way and seek to find it…

So how do we get to these outcomes? Obviously some people are good at all these things but for the most part the education system fails at this. When we are young and most of the way through ‘formal education’ we are taught by a teacher who stands at the front of the room, or looks over our shoulder and corrects us. I remember group projects in university (not fondly I might add) but hardly any in primary, junior high or high school. Everything is about standardized testing and league tables and how do you ‘group’ that?

Before anything else I believe we should learn how to work together, how to help each other and receive that help. These should be the cornerstones of education, as when we finish ‘formal education’ we all have to work together. I can’t think of any job that doesn’t involve some form of interaction with other human beings, and man do some people struggle with that!

We need to learn:

a)      Language that is constructive rather than negative

b)      Empathy so we can alter our assistance when one  is struggling to grasp whatever concept it is that could be improved

c)       To embrace advice

d)      How to give and receive compliments

e)      Patience

f)       That everyone has different strengths and together we can accomplish more

If everyone perfected these skills as kids and practiced them in their daily lives I bet we would all be a lot closer as to the outcomes I mention above.

Next I considered where did I ‘learn’ the most?


Camp is where I learned the skills that have helped my personal life and my career more than anything I ever learned during my ‘formal education’. Camp is where I learned to make my own decisions, interact with boys and girls of all ages, confidence, how to teach others new skills, how to learn new skills, perseverance, overcoming fear, to sacrifice, to create, to present and of course team work.

How was Camp set up for me to learn these skills?

1.       I was able to choose my own activities every day. Some days I had first choice, others last choice. Because every camper chose their own activities – there was always a mix of ages and abilities at every activity

2.       Challenges. The Hawk Lake Swim and Hawk Lake Canoe… long distance events that if you wanted to participate in you had to do the training. 200 lengths (to the point and back) for the canoe and 500 lengths for the Swim. You had to sacrifice your  ‘Free Periods’ or get up early in the morning before the bell to clock up the lengths.

3.       Evening Activities. Skit nights, lip synchs or full camp adventure games

4.       Dances. Kawabi was a ‘non-social’ camp. A very strange term that meant, no camper relationships (ie no kissing or calling someone your boy/girl friend). This was great because it took all the pressure off. We did still have dances at the end of every two weeks. They were awesome. There were Two Rules:

One: Anyone can ask anyone to dance

Two: You can’t say no

5.       Legacy. Every Counsellor was once a camper. Counsellors were (for the most part) great role models.  Most campers wanted to become counsellors. Result: campers pursued levels and new skills at activities. They learned from counsellors so one day they could teach others and they practiced by helping younger campers all the way through the years.

6.       Recognition. Achievements and accomplishments were recognized. Be it that Alice joined the ‘360 club’ at discing, we had a new first timer at waterskiing, a dock start, Bullseyes at archery, someone did an Eskimo roll, the list went on and on. They would be announced each evening in the dining hall to rapturous applause.

7.       Support. Counsellors supported their campers. Any kid that seemed to be struggling would be taken under the wing of the right counsellor, supported, encouraged and made to feel special until they too had their name announced for some new accomplishment and had their confidence built up

Camp was and still is my happy place. Have you ever heard anyone say that about school??

Lastly, my observations of teaching during my Gap Year:

1.       The majority of teachers had been teaching the same grade,  the same curriculum for 10-20 years. They were BORING people – not inspiring role models.

2.       Teachers asked me – the 19 year old – to rally for change (mainly against chauvinism, poor lunchroom choices, etc). Not with them…. but for them – because they ‘didnt want to rock the boat themselves’ – what does that teach our students???

3.       The pace of each class left some kids behind and some kids bored

SO…. with all of the above in mind what ideas do I have for a new education model?

How about a system that starts in the early years with teaching children how to work together and the language to help each other productively. This needs to become innate along with the basics like reading and writing.

 Then let kids choose what they want to learn each day – they have to take a certain number of each subject each week or month but they get to choose when. If Billy chooses math for Monday afternoon he goes to the math class with all the other students that chose math. There is a teacher in the class but that teacher doesn’t start writing on the blackboard and lecturing the students. The students have a choice:

          modules on a computer screen (or whatever the technology of the day is!)  which they do in groups so they can help each other learn

          more traditionally with the teacher who explains the lesson to a small group.

          Or depending on the age/curriculum/subject matter maybe there are different stations set up around the room for the students to experience and explore with one another

There should be opportunities in every class suited for each learning style.

Activities should be built into each day/week that aren’t age specific… instead of recess where bullying occurs and kids tend to stick with their cliques, there should be organized games where everyone works together. Or opportunities for the older kids to set up and lead activities for younger kids to participate in.

The teacher’s role in this new model would be to  create opportunities for students to lead, to follow,  to experiment, to experience new things, to fail and retry, to work as a team, and to challenge assumptions whilst  also recognizing accomplishments and ensuring the cornerstones (giving and receiving assistance) are embodied amongst students and ensuring  that no child is ever left behind.

A role like that would sure make me want to be a teacher!


**Catherine currently lives in the Austrian Alps, where she is pursuing a distance MBA from the University of Warwick. Originally from Toronto, she has spent the past few years living in the UK, working on the Olympics among other exciting projects. She is a brilliantly sharp, entrepreneurial, motivated, caring and passionate person who reflects deeply on our world and her role within it.


*If you’re reading this and feel inspired to share some of your own thoughts, ideas and reflections on the futures of our education systems, please do! Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, don’t let that stop you – I’m happy to help edit or support you in your writing.  Send me an email at amy[DOT]satterthwaite[AT]gmail[DOT]com



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