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In Defense of Wandering and Wondering

Christian Long, co-founder of The Wonder Project, thinks we would all do well to take a good, long walk in the woods.
By Meadow Hilley, TIE Editor
03-Oct-18
In Defense of Wandering and Wondering


Color War had just wrapped up at the predominantly Jewish boarding camp in Connecticut where Christian Long had spent close to eight weeks as a counselor back in his mid-twenties. Green Team had enjoyed a decisive victory at dodgeball. Red had dominated the soccer field. Yellow was clearly loudest, while Blue had earned bonus points for creativity. As the buses that would carry these kids back to Long Island and Queens began to roll in, Christian was gripped by the raw emotion he saw and felt all around him. “Everybody had been stretched as far as they could go and now they had to say goodbye and they’d all fallen in love with one another,” he recalls. After all the points won and lost by rival teams over the course of this often insane competition, in the end, everybody came out a winner. Thanks to the challenges these young people had faced together, the conflicts they’d resolved or averted, the skills they’d attained, and the ways in which they had pushed past their own sense of possible to show up for their teammates, they each came away from the experience with a sizable emotional capital and a deeper sense of self. And that’s when everything clicked for Christian, who had just begun his teaching career. School should be more like camp, he thought. Christian Long is an educator, designer, school planner, technology expert, educational futurist, and passionate advocate for innovative learning communities. He is also a longtime camp counselor. Describing himself as “madly curious about what else is possible” in the realm of education, Christian collaborated with his wife Karla to launch The Wonder Project, an education studio that aims to help schools “design and develop at the intersection of their mission and their moonshot.” Between his recent keynote address at the April 2018 Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) Annual Leadership Conference and his upcoming keynote at the ECIS Educators Conference later this fall, Christian took some time to share his views on human-centered design and the future of learning with TIE Editor Meadow Hilley. ________________________________________________________________________ Meadow: What is it about camp that you think can and should be imported into the educational landscape? Christian: If I took the forest out of the equation, took the lake off the table, and got rid of cabins, I think bottom line what we have in camps are magical places where relationships are nonnegotiable. Schools, because they are human-centered, can often take relationships for granted. We don’t evaluate them, for example, or properly assess their value to the world. And we don’t measure schools based on the relationships they generate or facilitate. Superficially, camp offers a variety of activities. There’s sailing and robotics. Theater and rock climbing. Maybe you learn how to clean the horseshoe of a horse, or how to tie a half-hitch knot. At the end of the day, though, that’s not why you go. It’s for something that transcends skill sets and tactical experiences. It’s because camp helps young people to cross a threshold, by asking them to be brave and to take risks. Camps—especially boarding camps where the young person has to leave home—say to parents “The child that comes back to you at the end of the summer won’t be the same child you entrusted to us in July.” What camps do well, what they don’t apologize for, is they’re in the business of transforming kids’ lives, at the scale of each kid’s story. What interests me most, in school design, is continually asking how we can create transformative experiences for young people. We see increasing interest and investment in experiential education, but it has become clear that just sending kids on really interesting field trips or having a makerspace or launching a service project doesn’t necessarily lead to the sort of transformative, threshold-crossing experience camps seem to do so well. And it can’t just be outside of school that the magic happens, either, because that sets up a weird tension. The way we train educators is based on an inherently Western motif of “Yes, but.” We reward them for correcting people’s mistakes. Camps, meanwhile, focus on kids’ strengths, creating the conditions in which they can thrive. Meadow: Do you think that educators would benefit from doing a stint as camp counselors? Christian: I think that every person, in the interest of our shared humanity, should do three things: go through military boot camp, work as a server at a restaurant, and spend a summer as a camp counselor. For educators, camp will expand their view of the child and give them a greater sense of why they matter as a mentor. Also, I think camp is where adults get to reclaim what it means to be human. My wife Karla and I are getting ready to launch next year the first of what we hope will be an annual summer retreat for independent school educators. Our goal is to give teachers four days off the grid, allowing them to have deep conversations about what it means to be an educator in this day and age and to discuss where they want to be over time as professionals. Four days of PD at a school or conference center could not even come close to providing the context for their transformation as a human being in the way a good, long walk in the woods will. This mini summer camp for educators will be a rare opportunity for sentient 28- or 42-year-old adults to cross a threshold. We will actually sit around a camp fire and hike miles together and talk about the deep truths that we hold dear. I suppose you could say it’s more of a Parker Palmer approach to education, as opposed to a Common Core approach. Camp can help us become better human beings. Then we can return to the comfort of our campuses as better educators, who in turn will make an important impact on our learning communities. We’ve been talking about grit and resilience as attributes of the individual learner. Instead, we should be thinking more about how to weave these resources into the fabric of our social contract. What do grit and resilience mean when they are applied to the collective? And what will it take for us to create resilient communities so that our young people can effectively navigate ambiguity? That’s a different design challenge than conceptualizing ways to teach kids to meditate. The WONDER Project christian@wonderproject.org




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