Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Campfires, Caves and Watering Holes Meet #LS125

An element of brain based learning that requires more conversation is that of architecture and classroom design. I was first drawn into this and became captivated by Randy Fielding when I met him at #edcampHamline a long time ago. It has been a road and a journey to create a classroom that was worth of even honoring his name in a post. He is known worldwide for educational architecture and design and reading his work, studying his videos and learning from him has been transformative in my life. You can also access learning through his website found here.

I want to preface this with if you create a brain based classroom environment with caves, campfires and watering holes, but have not changed your pedagogy then there is no point. The two for me go hand in hand.
Our learning community we call #LS125

The inclusion of architectural elements as part of brain based learning is vital if one desire to transform learning from the inside out using brain based methods. Brain based leaning studies the effect that the environment has on the student as well. Understanding the how the mind works should be in the forefront of our planning in the classroom (Caine, 2000). When you are learning with the brain in mind, you are creating a physical environment that is suitable to the needs of the learner (Milkie and Warner, 2011). Nair & Fielding (2013) talk about caves, watering holes and campfires. 

In order to do this, one needs to first adhere to the position that there is a difference between places and spaces. Designing a school to have high brain compatible connections means that we must rethink the cardboard box. The defined spaces within a classroom of caves, watering holes and campfires are to be found in all classrooms in order for there to be a thriving, not surviving mentality about school and learning. 

CAVES: A place where we go to  isolate ourselves  from others in reflection, meditation, deeper insight into our own selves.

WATERING HOLES: A place where we learn from one another in small group settings. Little snippets of knowledge … each student at the watering hole is both learner and teacher at the same time'

CAMPFIRES: A place of collective shared wisdom with students. A place of community building. Large group experiences. 

If you only look at the standards and curriculum but ignore building design and create schools based on cookie cutter models, you have done a disservice to your learning community.

Chan & Petrie (1998) also believed that the brain learns better in well designed school environments. They believed that an artistic environment is vital for learning. This is based on the premise that optimal learning happens when brains are challenged. One way to do this in a non threatening way is to learn and practice using the visual and performing arts. This way of learning helps learners build expression and memory. This allows the brain to rewire itself to make the connections necessary to secure deeper learning and understanding. Combined with modern day architectural design and visually pleasing aspects, it will challenge the brain and help develop brain growth. They also believed that creating spaces for activity will help in the growth of mental functions. When a learner is given the opportunities to spin, crawl, roll, rock turn, jump or swing for example, it is engaging and strengthens the brain because it brings more oxygen to the brain resulting in better functioning brain transmitters.

Creating a classroom that is void of seating charts and that lets learners take more ownership over their learning by defining where they sit is a joy to watch because they, the student learners, are actually learning a great skill. I am less concerned about where they are learning, I am more concerned about if they are learning and how they are taking ownership over that by making wise seating choices. Sometimes I will ask a student to move and select a different spot to learn, but those times are growing few and far between. I also discovered that there are not many discipline problems because the classroom is so full of active learning!

Having furniture in a classroom that cannot be moved or jamming classrooms with so many desks that students are squished in, will have negative effects on learning. Also, Chan & Petrie recognized the power behind color and light. Colors and lighting influence learning. Warm colors and natural lighting will increase muscle tension and they will lower the body pulse to a natural state as well as the blood pressure. Distracting colors will lead to more confusion while processing information and the lack of quality lighting and the lack of natural lighting will cause eye strain. Chan & Petrie suggest that creating an environment that is safe from physical discomfort and has fewer distracting sounds will send positive messages, not distracting messages to the brain. It is those distracting messages that limit normal brain operations. Finally, it was recognized by Chan & Petrie that if you want to see optimal growth in the learners, it starts with challenging the mind and creating healthy environments. Zellner (2012) notes that one key ingredient to this success is having consistent leadership who have the brain based learning philosophy in mind and are dedicated to creating a culture of learning as it pertains to the environment.

The idea of Campfires, Caves and Watering Holes is also in the little things. For example, awhile ago, I came across this quote on Twitter and then on Facebook. It reminded me to purchase containers to hold pencils for all students so that they would never have to be without. So, the containers hold pencils, scissors, dry erase markers, erasers, a calculator and a ruler.

Another little thing is some classroom mojo. We have several inspirational signs scattered around that I have made as well as art that the students have made, but this one I bought on Amazon and I LOVED it because it sounds like something that I would say anyhow..all day long. In fact, the students thought I wrote it myself.

To truly move toward a brain based learning school, it will require not just district buy in, but the other key stakeholders including the students, families and members of the community.  It is worth it. 

It was a magnificent honor to have +Jen Hegna Jen Hegna on Twitter take a sneak peek into our learning community and a pleasure to have two students give a tour. It is after all, their classroom. I had a Third Grade classroom in 1980 myself so they along with their families are the key players. The video tour via a GHO on Air is below.

Additional Links:
  1. Australia's Campfires, Caves and Watering Holes
  2. Core Ed
  3. Prezi: Campfires, Caves and Watering Holes

Randy Fielding talking about caves, watering holes and campfires.


  • Burch, A. L. (2012). The Impact of Brain Compatible Learning (BCL) Philosophy in 3 Elementary Schools: What Mattered Most? 
  • Caine, R. N. (2000). Building the bridge from research to classroom.Educational Leadership.
  • Chan, T. C., & Petrie, G. (1998). The brain learns better in well-designed school environments. Classroom Leadership, 2(3), 1-4. 
  • Milkie, Melissa A, and Catharine H Warner. "Classroom learning environments and the mental health of first grade children." Journal of health and social behavior 52.1 (2011): 4-22. 
  • Nair, P., & Fielding, R. (2005). The language of school design: Design patterns for 21st century schools.