Building Relationships and Resilience Through Expeditionary Experiences
Last week, Relational Schools were on location for their new film, We are Crew which documents, amongst other things, the work of the XP School in Doncaster and its foundations in the Outward Bound movement of the 1940’s. The school provides unique education opportunities for its students both inside and beyond the environment of the classroom. We take it that certain forms of education experience, particularly outside the context of the classroom, play an important role in strengthening relationships with others and improving self-confidence. Understanding the connection between the two worlds, and transference of skills, is vital if we are to evaluate the impact on academic performance, and the development of personal, social and emotional resilience.
Relational Schools believes that this kind of learning experience has a powerful impact on the connectivity of a school community, as well the development of important personal attributes in its students. This is because the development of a relationship is influenced by what we know of the other person, and the accuracy and completeness of that information. If we are to take anything from the recent EU Referendum, it is how little we truly know each other. Misunderstandings result when too little is known, or when information is false. The nature, extent and quality of information about any relationship is shaped by external factors such as whether there is the opportunity to meet in different contexts.
If we are to take anything from the recent EU Referendum, it is how little we truly know each other. Misunderstandings result when too little is known, or when information is false.
When we spend time with others, we deliberately, or unconsciously, gather information that we use to build up our knowledge of them. We use this knowledge to invite their contributions, assess their needs and interests, judge their character or interpret their responses. The completeness and authenticity of this knowledge is influenced by varied sources of information, or contexts for gaining it. The expeditionary environment provided by the staff at XP, and other similar schools, external agencies or programmes , seeks to intensify the process of the development of character. In the example of the XP School, one of their outdoor learning experiences is placed, quite intentionally, at the beginning of the school year as a formative process of relationship development and becomes the foundations for the learning that will follow.
The title of the documentary, and accompanying book (left), We Are Crew, emerges from one of the fundamental principles of XP: a value-driven school culture which foregrounds relationships and mutual respect between all members of the community. They view each other as more equal than hierarchical – describing the team of teachers and students as ‘crew’. Yet the very word, coming from the Latin “crescere” meaning “to arise or grow”, speaks of a process one has to go through. XP immerse students in long-term learning expeditions, including unique outdoor education opportunities as they believe building character is equally important as academic success. Indeed, like the EL Education Movement, itself a hybridised partnership between Outward Bound and Harvard Business School, there is a shared belief that a student is judged not merely by quality of their work but additionally by the quality of their character.
Through experiential learning, XP strives to build up young people in confidence, responsibility, leadership, empathy, communication and friendship. Independent academic scrutiny of such approaches also emphasises the impact on an individual student’s independence, confidence, self-efficacy, self-understanding, assertiveness, their internal locus of control, as well as their decision making skills (Hattie, et al. 1997). In addition, there is evidence that the benefits of the outdoor learning environment is witnessed disproportionately in students from disadvantaged contexts, specifically those experiencing anxiety who report having a more, “significant relationship with the leaders, and leaders reported most satisfying relationships with high-anxiety participants” (Drebing, Willis and Genet, 1987).
Academic voices are in agreement that alternative education opportunities such as this are hugely beneficial for young people. Relational Schools is interested in the way a school like XP can successfully embed the experiential learning experience within the confines of a state secondary school context. Equally, we are enthusiastic to share the stories of other schools or organisations with strong organisational cultures or different approaches to curriculum design, with residential components which stimulate mutual support and teamwork. They are programmes which push students’ boundaries, improve self-confidence, promote values of service and develop relationships away from family. We want to share their stories as well.
“We are Crew” will premier in early January 2017 #WeAreCrew
 We define “character” here not merely as the development of individuals, which is “not necessarily the correct starting point for the character development. Character development [instead] refers in the main to achieving the necessary social and environmental conditions for people to flourish, while also recognising and developing the abilities and leadership capacities of people at all levels to shape those conditions” (Walsh, G. (2016) Lighting the Sparks, unpublished).