Read this Book: From the Campfire to the Holodeck

From the Campfire to the Holodeck - David Thornburg's amazing work looks at four primordial learning metaphors: campfires, watering holes, caves and life. He discusses why each one is essential for student learning in our schools.

From the Campfire to the Holodeck (2014) is David Thornburg’s updated work on his theory of the primordial learning metaphors and how they fit in with today’s modern educational spaces.   I’m currently researching and writing for book #2, which will be about learning space design and libraries (more info soon).  In just about every book on learning space design I read, Thornburg’s ideas are mentioned.  I’m an academic at heart and I like to go back to the source material as much as I can.  This book is definitely a worthy read and will get you thinking about learning spaces in a new light.

Why You Should Read From the Campfire to the Holodeck

Thornburg is a futurist, author and consultant and he comes to educational theory from an interesting background.  He worked at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center as an engineer in the 1970s and got to see firsthand how technology and space worked together for learning and innovation.  He first proposed his ideas of learning space and educational theory through Campfires in Cyberspace in 1996.

The Primordial Learning Metaphors

Thornburg’s theories center around learning spaces that have been around since the dawn of humans (with the exception of the newest one).  They can be seen in schools and informal learning spaces, such as workplaces, conference spaces and public spaces.


The Campfire is for storytelling.  It is the lecture space, the space where a large group of students learns from one individual (teacher, presenter, fellow student) at the same time.  Thornburg emphasizes that, although this space is overused in our current educational system, there is a place for it and we shouldn’t eliminate it entirely.  The key is for lectures to give students “just enough information to set the stage for student discovery” (p 14).  He stresses asking questions and not providing all the answers.  Give students a chance to tackle engaging questions and discover things on their own.

Watering Hole

The Watering Hole is the space for social learning.  Thornburg ties this to the theory of social constructivism of Vygotsky.  These are spaces for spontaneous meetings, student conversation and brainstorming.  Ideally, such spaces would have comfortable chairs and whiteboards for sketching out ideas.  The need for a watering hole space is especially high after a lecture, when students will want to process and discussion the information they just learned.


Cave spaces are geared towards solitary, reflective, self-directed learning.  These spaces tie into the cognitive constructivism of Piaget.  This one is one of the types of spaces most lacking in schools.  The key is to provide a sense of privacy so that students can reflect and process on their own.  Spaces with three walls, with room dividers or mobile whiteboard can act as caves.  Time also has to be provided for students to actually use these spaces uninterupted.


Life is the space where we apply the things we learn hands-on.  This space is closely tied to Seymour Papert’s Constructionism and can be seen in schools today in makerspaces.  It is the space that recognizes that learning comes through tinkering.  One key element to this space, Thornburg writes, is providing opportunities for open exploration of ideas rather than giving every student the exact same task to perform.  He states “The key is that the space can adapt to a wide variety of uses and can be shaped by education purposes as well as the students’ creative goals” (p 35).

The Holodeck

The Holodeck is Thornburg’s newest space and it combines all four of the previous theories into one classroom space.  He describes several such spaces as immersive learning experiences where students participate in cross-disciplinary missions using a wide variety of technology.  While fascinating, I’m not sure how feasible this would be for most schools.  It would require a LOT of buy-in from teachers and admin, and I fear that it would just become a novelty space.  But it’s fascinating and I think spaces like this might be where the future of education is going.

Books referenced in this book:

Everytime I read a book, I add more books to my to-read list.  Here’s some mentioned in this book that I plan on checking out now:

Check out From the Campfire to the Holodeck

From the Campfire to the Holodeck is a fantastic book that will get you thinking about your learning spaces in a different light.  It’s also relatively short and easy to read in a weekend.

Have you read From the Campfire to the Holodeck yet?  Which is your favorite learning metaphor?

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