What Schools Can Learn from Summer Camps

| May 18, 2012 | 17 Comments
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As warm weather approaches and parents sign up their kids for summer enrichment programs, many may wonder how long the effects of these programs last. Do their benefits persist into the school year, or do they disappear come September?

A study led by Stanford University psychologist Paul O’Keefe, released online this month by the journal Motivation and Emotion, offers some heartening news: Students’ improvements in attitude and motivation stick around well after summer turns to fall.

Over the course of nine months, O’Keefe and his coauthors assessed a group of eighth-, ninth-, and tenth-graders three times: once before the end of the school year, once during their summer enrichment program, and a final time six months after the end of the program.

Reward intellectual risk-taking, and avoid punishing students for failed experiments.

The researchers were looking at the teenagers’ “goal orientations”—were they interested in learning for learning’s sake, or in showing off their smarts? The first type of attitude, called a “mastery orientation,” has been linked to high levels of motivation and engagement, while the second, known as a “performance orientation,” has been tied to greater anxiety and less resilience in the face of failure.

During the summer enrichment program, the students became more apt to favor a mastery approach, endorsing statements such as “It’s important to me that I learn a lot of new concepts in science,” and discounting statements like, “One of my goals is to show others that I’m good at science,” which indicate a performance orientation.

The surprise was that the teenagers’ embrace of mastery remained strong even after they returned to school—which, with its tests and rankings, often places more emphasis on performance than on learning for its own sake.

As cheering as this finding may be, it in turn raises another question: How can we carry the mastery orientation cultivated in summer enrichment programs into the rest of the year? For the answer, look more closely at what the program in this study does right. Called the Talent Identification Program, it is held on the campus of Duke University and lasts for three weeks, during which participants attend academically rigorous classes for seven hours on weekdays and three hours on Saturdays. The courses, which include subjects like Aerospace Engineering, Introduction to Medical Science, Marine Biology, and Pharmacology, are deliberately designed to emphasize mastery and de-emphasize performance.

Some key characteristics:

  • The program promotes collaboration, playing down competition among students and fostering “a collegial attitude towards fellow learners.”
  • Its instructors offer what O’Keefe calls “autonomy support,” encouraging students “to draw their own conclusions and justify them, explore aspects of class subjects that interest them most, and make decisions regarding what they prefer to learn and how they would like to learn those materials.”
  • The program rewards intellectual risk-taking, and avoids punishing students for failed experiments.
  • Feedback given to students recognizes effort and growth and focuses on the learning process, rather than on its outcome.

As O’Keefe’s study demonstrates, summer enrichment programs offer lasting benefits for those lucky enough to participate in them. What would be even better? Every student encouraged to learn for mastery, all school year long.


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  • Espoir

    Great article!
    Pst! Did you know the four characteristics presented here are very similar to the Montessori approach to learning? :
    promotes collaboration, playing down competition among students and fostering “a collegial attitude towards fellow learners.”encouraging students “to draw their own conclusions and justify them, explore aspects of class subjects that interest them most, and make decisions regarding what they prefer to learn and how they would like to learn those materials.”rewards intellectual risk-taking, and avoids punishing students for failed experiments.recognizes effort and growth and focuses on the learning process, rather than on its outcome.

  • Anonymous

    Could it be that without the pressure of learning for a grade that students learn better at times?

    • http://www.mindfulstew.wordpress.com/ Paul B.

       Absolutely.  Grades are problematic for many reasons.  During my years of teaching, the best student work, most engaged students, and otherwise joyous and productive learning has occurred in spite of grades, not because of them! 

      • Brian

        so true……..grades and test-prep. orientation tend to take teachers away from being a facilitator of learning, and instead place us more in a confrontational, stressed-out situations with students………..but when students are prepared, test-taking is not problematic…….kids can look forward to the test

  • http://www.mindfulstew.wordpress.com/ Paul B.

    Once students get back to schools, it’s all about passive learning, standardized tests, and other noneffective pedagogy.  Unfortunately, it’s very challenging to recreate a summer enrichment environment in a classroom with 30+ kids with a range of backgrounds and abilities.  Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or at least try to allow teachers and students the time and space in a regular school day to be more adventurous and less grade and test driven.

  • Anonymous

    It’s great to know that enrichment camps do enrich.  And collaboration, autonomy, risk-taking, etc are great underlying principles.  But this article fails to address the obvious:what schools can learn from summer camps is that it’s easy to succeed with students who are inclined to academic work, have parents who are very involved in promoting learning and have the resources to send kids to summer camps.  Guess what?  Schools already know this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=37711231 Trishy Wishy

    Camps are a lot more than this, but yes – A safe place to take risks, positive reinforcement, it’s all about the implementation, the doing, the outcome, and then low and behold, actually processing what just happened. Allowing children and adults to talk on an equal but respectful playing field. 

  • Thomas Webster123

    Little to disagree with here. Little to “learn”, either. As a lifelong public educator, I assure you that many (perhaps most) of my colleagues and I would love to teach as summer camps do. If this is the type of education you wish to see for children, however, speak to your legislators, not your educators. In a climate obsessed with high stakes test results (on assessments that value regurgitation of often disconnected facts), teachers are perpetually pressed to do what’s required rather than what’s desired.

  • Suzinstitches

    As long as we must focus on ALL students passing ALL standardized tests this type of hands on learning experiences will be on the back burner.  The standards for Proficiency in academic areas are so unrealistic that teachers will have to focus on “teaching to the test”. 

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  • Elizabeth Rubenstein

    no grades, no tests, no homework.
    the way education should (and could) be..
    if we could get politicians and private corporations out!

  • Mike Harris

    It is important for people to understand that pretty much all science teachers already know this. If we want education to improve we should stop simply giving teachers suggestions and rules to follow and instead start listening to what they have to say and letting them lead the changes. No teacher wants to fly through mounds of curriculum and prevent their students from having the time to learn in a more meaningful way, like summer camps have the time to do. Unfortunately, the overly ambitious amount of content that is required by state curriculum to be covered in one year and our country’s emphasis on teacher accountability based on standardized tests over this curriculum prevent teachers from having the time to teach in this way. Claiming to make changes to “improve” education , politicians have made sure that we have packed 2 or 3 years of science curriculum in one year because they don’t know what they are doing and most refuse to listen to teachers at all. The result is teachers have absolutely no chance of teaching how this article suggests, even though most would love be able to teach this way.

    If some of the less necessary details of an overly detailed middle school curriculum were eliminated, then this kind of learning would become more and more possible. This article makes good points about how we could improve education. At the same time it also minimizes the fact that summer camps are going to involve students who are most motivated to learn. And it also leaves out the point that at camps they CAN slow down and learn in a more meaningful way because the camp is a supplement to the learning they already accomplished during the school year.

    If people start listening to teachers, improvements such as those suggested in this article can start to be made. If people continue to assume teachers are lazy union thugs and that all knowing politicians are better fit to make changes, then problems with public education will only get worse.

  • Bread

    Summer camps do not have to work with grades, lesson plans (as deep and required by some schools), legislators, policies, etc, and do not have to follow rigid standards or expected to comply with a thousand objectives. Kids are not expected to get a certain grade but to have fun, relax, experiment new experiences and enjoy. I do really wish I could teach and guide my students the same way that it is allowed in a summer camp.

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