I have been considering and implementing the notion of ‘Campfires in Cyberspace’, a term coined by David D. Thornburg The Campfires in Cyberspace theory considers the ways humans have interacted and learned since the dawn of time and applies them to classrooms to suggests ways teachers can create learning spaces that cater to a range of needs – mainly the campfire, the watering hole and the cave. The original paper discusses how we can use these learning spaces on a digital level, but often classrooms don’t even cater to these spaces at the physical level.
Kath Murdoch, in The Power of Inquiry (2015), says that “We send clear messages to students, parents and the wider community about what we value through how we choose to use our learning spaces… The agreements we make about the use of physical environments also impact on student learning.” She goes on to provide the example that if we force students to sit at their own table and that they must do so for all tasks, we remove many opportunities for flexible groupings, collaboration and choice… the message being that we need to be thoughtful and purposeful about the way we arrange our classrooms and allow students a large degree of input into these decisions.
The campfire is about storytelling – a place for a community of learners to sit together and listen to each other and learn from experts and storytellers. This may or may not be the teacher. The campfire encourages whole group discussion.
I believe this idea of a campfire as a place for storytelling puts a lot of onus on the teacher to provide engaging and thought-provoking stories, questions and teaching. It means teachers are not there to dispense information like a vending machine but to create a narrative for learning both old and new ideas.
In a classroom, a campfire will often be the place everyone usually meets, in front of a board or screen. However, it is important to challenge this; a campfire should be regarded as a meeting of the whole group in which to listen and share, so in my classroom this often looks like a fishbowl around a table or a circle on the floor. Classes might also have online spaces that act as a campfire where the whole class views ideas and responds in a shared space, like a Padlet wall or on Edmodo.
The watering hole is a place for learning from peers. It is less formal than a campfire and in it people gather in smaller groups to share ideas at their point of need.
In the classroom this might physically look like a group of tables where students work together, a nook filled with cushions or simply the spare bit of carpet no other group has taken yet. A watering hole might also occur in digital contexts such as shared Google Docs where teams of students work in the same space.
The cave is simply an area to be alone and to reflect or work independently, without interruption or distraction from others. It provides isolation, something that can often be difficult to obtain in a classroom. I have seen one teacher who draped a brown piece of fabric over a couple of chairs, added a couple of plants out the front and made a beautiful dark little cave for students to retreat into. Sometimes caves are this elaborate, sometimes they are simply a comfy chair or a corner where a student sits alone. What is important is that students have, and know they have, the option to be alone to think, work or reflect.
When I started discussing Campfires in Cyberspace with my students they had ideas about other ways we physically organise ourselves in the classroom. They thought we needed some more names for these spaces. It is so important to allow students to take ownership over the way we run and organise the classroom, so I encouraged them to develop their own ideas and the results were the following additions to the spaces.
Students talked about how sometimes we need a group with the teacher when we get stuck on a task or concept. From here they decided that you can get stuck in a swamp and you need someone to help you out of it. The swamp is now the official name for a teacher group of students who want some more guidance and don’t feel ready to work independently on a task. They “get in the swamp” and we “squelch around with some learning” until they are ready to get out and get going on their own.
Since this started it has evolved to include small groups of students supporting each other when they need help. It’s not uncommon to hear phrases like “I just swamped with Dave and now I get the maths” or “Can anyone make a swamp with me about using rhetorical questions?”.
We talked about needing a name for when everyone is working independently, spread out wherever they need to be, not bothering anyone else and working on their own thing. This was dubbed “The Plains”. Students thought that this is like a Savannah where you might see a zebra here, a lion there, a giraffe over yonder, but all the animals are just doing their thing, relaxing in the sun or munching on some grass and sticking to themselves. This is such a calm and lovely metaphor. It takes away the teacher-controlled notion of ‘silent work’ and replaces it with independent purpose.
It is important to both provide these spaces and have your students know where they are, what they are for and how they can use them most effectively. In my classroom we have discussed learning spaces at length and negotiated different ways we can use the spaces and respect peers in these spaces. Student ownership of the concept is key.
Further Reading and References
- Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century David D. Thornburg, Ph.D.
- Matching learning spaces to physical and online spaces, Bianca Hewes
- Murdoch, K. (2015). ‘The Power of Inquiry’, Seastar Education, Northcote, Victoria.