Using learning outside the classroom to develop character

Blog post written by: Daniel Cibich, Head of Educational Partnerships at The Outward Bound Trust.

Following the launch of the DfE Character Education Framework Guidance in early November, I attended a Westminster Education Forum policy conference to hear from a line-up of speakers including educators and industry partners, and a session featuring case studies from “character education outside the classroom”.

Ahead of the event, I was reminded of a blog by Anita Kerwin Nye for Every Child Should about the position schools are in as a point of universal delivery. Do we just expect that schools will ‘teach’ character? Are we leaving it all to them – surely, we can’t just expect schools to carry this load alone?

Sitting alongside peers from the ‘learning outside the classroom’ sector including outdoors, sport, music, culture and social action amongst others, it was motivating to feel the passion in the room to support schools in providing opportunities and experiences that help develop character.
A lot is expected of our schools and the role they play in the rounded education of youth.

As I listened to the enthusiastic mix of speakers, I was struck by both the simplicity and complexity of character development in our modern society.

Sir Anthony Seldon spoke about making values in school organic, pupil-led by class, year level and whole school; and that “schools are preparing people for life, whatever they do, and building a better society.” No pressure then! But it’s right though isn’t it? Schools and communities working together to create future leaders filled with direction, moral purpose, empathy, grit and determination. What about exam results? Sir Anthony’s response simple: “the more character is lived, the more other KPI’s will increase.”

Gary Lewis, Chair of Association of Character Education went on to say that “the evidence is overwhelming, exam results have little impact on success determination.”

Could the structure and values of our society be underpinned by character? Seems logical, assuming we’re talking about good character – how do we define that? The framework guidance does not propose to define character, rather outline four keys aspects that schools can use to shape their provision.

Keynote speaker and Chair, Character Advisory Group to the Department of Education Ian Bauckham made the point that a “focus on building character is not an alternative to academic excellence”, but must be “and-both”.

Okay, where do we start? Gary Lewis suggested that “schools require a strong culture and ethos that is well defined and understood by staff, students, families and the local community.” I don’t think many head teachers would argue with this. “Character must not be left to chance; it should be threaded through all elements of the school.” Simple, but complex.

I’ve long been a believer in the using the outdoors to help support the development of character in young people. With The Outward Bound Trust I’ve championed the type 2 fun approach for many years, however it was the reintroduction of the term ‘character’ into the education agenda in recent years that prompted me to reflect a bit more deeply about the opportunities and experiences that really develop character.

As I listened to Ian Bauckham Chair, Character Advisory Group to the Department of Education walk the audience through the framework guidance I couldn’t help but try and answer (to myself!) the questions posed by the Six Character Benchmarks.

How are we (and our sector) supporting schools to work towards the benchmarks? And, if we were a school, how could we use these to respond and guide our practice?

The Six Character Benchmarks

What kind of school are we?
It’s pretty clear that on an Outward Bound course, like many learning outside the classroom experiences, we’re going to take a Learning By Doing approach. But we’re equally clear about our mission to help young people defy limitations and teach them to believe in themselves.
There are the small things that we and other quality providers in our space do when working with schools. The impact is greater when our aims are aligned, we’ll do our best to envelope a school ethos or mission into our delivery.
The Outward Bound tribe is a strong one. People speak positively and fondly of their experience’s years later.

What are our expectations of behaviour towards each other?
We’ve attempted to define our own organisational culture through our “Ways of Working Together”. Reading through this charter it’s easy to find links to character; responsibility, communication, leadership, determination, team, praise; and by living these values earning the right to challenge colleagues that do not (it reminds me of another point Gary Lewis made, how school leaders must “challenge teachers to show good character and to challenge parents if they undo what a school is trying to do.”)

How well do our curriculum and teaching develop resilience and confidence?
I’ll argue that this is our bread and butter! But our approach is just one of many that can be used to help develop character. I’ll use a progression analogy. Getting kids outside the classroom starts at Early Years, often play based. We connect with others, sometimes in and with nature. As we move through schooling this might progress in many ways. A trip to a museum, a local farm or community initiative. Hopefully it progresses to a residential experience creating opportunities to build independence and a broader horizon, fostering new relationships and building capacity to cope with change.

How good is our co-curriculum?
Our sector is measured by schools as to how well we can provide co-curricular or curricular enrichment. But I’ll ask the question more directly of us – how good is our co-curricular? The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom “believe every place is a learning space” so I considered what this means for us. We’ve taken a ‘work zone’ approach to the learning space that is our stores and equipment areas. Pupils are encouraged to adopt behaviours when entering the work zone so that being planned and organised, showing commercial awareness, communicating effectively and working as a team results in having the kit you need to maximise fun and adventure in the wilderness.
We know the value of the community and residential setting and we continue to look at how the findings from the Learning Away and Brilliant Residentials campaign can inform our practice to further increase impact in the social spaces and the time away from adventures.

How well do we promote the value of volunteering and service to others?
Many partners in the sector (youth social action, DofE Awards etc) are set up with a deliberate purpose to create the opportunity for service of others and many schools run their own outreach and community focused projects to introduce the value of these opportunities.
75+ years ago Kurt Hahn (who co-founded Outward Bound) wrote about service being one of four antidotes to the six declines of modern youth. Given our history, I wonder if this is an area Outward Bound could consider for more depth? Service has not been lost from our delivery – but could we more explicit about “promoting the value of service to others?” Linking to civic virtues perhaps?

How do we ensure all pupils benefit equally from what we offer?
We strive to progress all young people we work with, regardless of their starting point. It’s embedded in how we work with groups and common amongst outdoor learning practitioners; the level playing field, immersion, group success. But, consider the elephant in the room – how much does it cost? Have a read of this blog from Anita Kerwin Nye again, Has the extra in extra-curricular become exclusive?

The Outward Bound Trust are fortunate to have a network of like-minded donors that believe in the work we do and want as many young people as possible to have an outdoor adventure learning experience – so we have a bursary programme to off-set the cost of our courses.

Outdoor learning doesn’t have to come with a big cost. It might take a bit of courage and creativity to get started, but the sector is full of free resources and guidance to help. Everyone can get kids outside; we’ve just got to want to do it. The more we can, the more it will create habits that will benefit their wellbeing. With healthy happy young people society will flourish, and the rest of the KPI’s will take care of themselves.

About the author
Daniel Cibich is the Head of Educational Partnerships at The Outward Bound Trust where for the last nine years he has worked with schools to help teach young people the most important lesson they could ever learn: to believe in themselves.

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