Summer Camp: Learning without Grades

With Keri Porter, Director of LAS Summer, Leysin American School.

The two of us have a lot of experience with summer camp. Combined, we count over 35 summers as a student, as a counselor or teacher, or as a program administrator. 

Learning to cook

We’ve also spent many academic years learning about schooling – more than we are going to try to count! Of course we were students, and then grad students. We’ve also been teachers and administrators.

You would think that summer camp and the academic school year would inform each other. That each program would take the best of the other program, based on the evidence, and through doing so, improve the quality of both programs. In our experience, that hasn’t been the case. The style of summer camp learning doesn’t play a big role in the academic year. We think it might have something to do with perception. Summer camp emphasizes fun, while the academic year school is serious. There’s lots of freedom and creativity in summer camp. There’s a canon of knowledge to be learned during the academic year. 

This is an unfortunate dichotomy. Read the paragraph above again. Which environment sounds more appealing to you as a learner?

Consider grades. The academic year generally has them, summer camp generally does not. Or in the summer camps we’ve been in, if there were grades, they were there because someone thought summer camp, to be taken seriously, had to be more like the academic year. (A pity.) Even so, grades were downplayed. 

The freedom from the “seriousness” and “core” of traditional schooling allows summer camps and teachers to be more creative and to learn more naturally. The focus isn’t on a test or a grade for a transcript; the focus is more on what students are passionate about, the new experiences they can have together, and the relationships they build. The focus is more on having fun, on learning something new, and on working together and being creative. Yes, there is content, but the content is more a means to an end, where the end includes a heavy focus on the soft skills mentioned above. In summer camp there is less emphasis on quantifying growth, so there is less adult worry about whether or not the growth can be quantified, which frees one up. It opens up new possibilities for learning. In the absence of working toward a grade and deciding on a grade and valuing a grade, young people can just get down to learning – just as their counselors can get down to teaching – free of the baggage.

When a student walks into a summer camp there is a different relationship with failing. You can still fail, but the stakes are low. Failing matters less. An afternoon activity might not be something you are good at or will ever pursue. You might shoot a crooked arrow, or get lost reading a compass, or create an arts and crafts product that no one recognizes. So what? You are there to have fun and explore, the stakes are low, you learned something, and measuring what was learned isn’t very important. We certainly don’t measure summer camp learning that comes from meeting new people, staying up too late in the cabin talking, presenting skits, or having a summer romance. It would be absurd to want to measure and report on these things. Yet they are important moments of learning. As are other aspects of camp, whether it’s religion, sports, world language, or some other type of instruction. So too are the many aspects of the academic year good learning, even when not measured. 

Perhaps especially when not measured. Why do we place such a focus on grades? And why don’t we bring a little more summer camp mentality into the academic year?

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