From the campfire to the holodeck: Creating engaging and powerful 21st Century learning environments

As usual, I’m using my holidays to plough through my pile of books which I collected throughout 2015 and didn’t get time to read. This one – From the campfire to the holodeck – has been shouting at me to read it for a while and, having just finished it, I can officially say my mind is expanded.

In this book, David Thornburg takes us through some different ideas about spaces (both real and metaphorical) for learning – campfires, waterholes, caves and life.

Campfires are where learners gather around a more experienced person and learn from their stories. Sound familiar? It should – this has been the dominant educational paradigm forever. Or at least a really, really long time. In most classrooms you walk into around the world, this is how most students will be learning, for most of the time. And there are far too many ‘mosts’ in those sentences.

Waterholes are where peers gather and learn from each other through conversations, working together and general social interaction. The latest buzzword for this is ‘collaboration’ but how many times are we truly allowing our students to learn with and from each other? And how often is this valuable time cut short so we can move on to the next thing?

Caves are spaces for quiet reflection and contemplation – time to be alone and think. I think this is an area that needs to be worked on – how much time and space do we give to students to do this?

And life is the practical space where all of the skills and knowledge acquired in the other settings come together to be put to work. Taking the abstract and making it real, giving it purpose. Transfer the knowledge gained across disciplines and see how it all fits together.

Before you start imagining students running off to build caves under tables and setting fire to your carpet, these aren’t necessarily actual spaces, more ways of thinking about learning and the different ways it happens. However some people involved in classroom design have certainly gone down a more literal path and I can see how this could be quite successful.

Further chapters in the text talk about how these spaces can be seen and utilised in the virtual world and how technology can support such a framework.

Most mind-blowing of all is the section of Thornburg’s book about holodecks. These very game-like spaces allow learners to be immersed in real, captivating scenarios where learning is critical to the success of the mission (not just required to get a good score on NAPLAN). At first, I will confess to being a little sceptical but, by the end of the chapter, I was completely won over. I’ve now started reading a little more on the work of Woorana Park Primary in Melbourne – looks to be an amazing school doing truly groundbreaking things.

My mind is well and truly buzzing right now, full of possibilities and ideas. As well as a few potential walls (and people to convince). So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my cave for a while to contemplate. Catch up with you around the waterhole about it later…

105521304_e0f096f2a3_zimage ‘By the campfire‘ by Cape Cod Cyclist at

4 thoughts on “From the campfire to the holodeck: Creating engaging and powerful 21st Century learning environments

  1. Thank you for this posting, and for the reference. When I can, I’d like to get to Thornburg. The metaphorical language you mention in your posting is central to the language of the educational furniture marketers who, like arcitectural designers, seem to be leading change in education, rather than teachers themselves. Another term is the ‘lookout’, to refer to the value of high chairs and tables, that should be located at a window – a place to be when attempting to solve problems, as if the child was sitting atop a mountain ledge!

    • Thanks for visiting and for your comments. The term and concept of a ‘lookout’ is an interesting one – I know I have put an effort into ensuring the view from my home office window is somewhat picturesque to help me in my pondering moments so I can certainly see the merit!

  2. A very interesting read.

    I have often contemplated how the use of space in the classroom affects the learning students do. I found one of the quickest ways to avoid leading the ‘campfire’ is to get rid of the teacher desk – I was surprised how quickly students adapted to this but how resistant other teachers were.

    Having taught at a school for the past two years that struggles with its learning spaces (I rarely taught the same class in the same room over a two week cycle) I think teachers do get confined physically and creatively by the rooms they find themselves in. Taking time to think about the relationships between purpose (learning outcomes) and form (what spaces look like) is something we should spend more time doing.

  3. Pingback: Read Write Respond #006 – Read Write Collect

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