Opportunity and experience is what really develops our character
Daniel Cibich, Head of Education Partnerships at Outward Bound, reflects on one particular life-changing experience that helped him to ‘build his character’ and why he feels character and resilience should very much be at the heart of education.
"When I was in Year 10 (aged 15) my school in a regional town of South Australia sent the whole class on a two-week residential. This was called The Murray Venture – City Challenge. One week was a residential in the city, the other week was a residential in the wild.
The Murray Venture – City Challenge was a tradition at the school. Some even called it a rite of passage – the younger students looked nervously forward to it and the older students revelled in the knowledge and confidence the experience of it brought.
At the time, I remember asking our Head of Year why are we doing this? His answer short and sweet: “character building”. At the time, I didn’t really understand what character was or why it needed building, but I guess it didn’t matter to me – I was going anyway!
Personal development and emotional experiences
The city part of the residential was described to us as ‘work experience’. But in reality, it was more about developing empathy, a sense of service, independence and gratitude. In our groups, we talked about our emotions - fear, nerves, courage, confusion and support.
During the wild part of the residential, we spent time walking and paddling along the mighty Murray River. It was about the physical challenge, time in nature, teamwork, problem solving and independence. We worked in small groups, sent out from base camp on a multi-day group solo expedition. Our reflection time came in the form of arguments whilst trying to put up the tent, navigate a route or agree who was leading the team! But we showed ourselves that we could have resilience, perseverance and realised the value of camaraderie. Sound familiar?
Creating character opportunities
So why am I telling you all this? Well as I reflect on my residential experiences as a 15-year old, I now understand what my Head of Year actually meant by ‘character building’. This two-week school trip alone didn’t make my character, but it helped develop it and that was the intention. It wasn’t an isolated activity - it added to all the other experiences that were shaping my character at the time: my parents, teachers, sport, community and travel.
Fast forward and I now work for The Outward Bound Trust. I still think about my Year 10 experience and how it shaped my character. I’ve even used the 'character building' line when talking to teachers, parents and pupils in my role working with schools.
And like my own residential experience, an Outward Bound course does not propose to teach character. Instead, it creates the immersive experience where character traits can be explored.
For young people, a character-building experience can (and should) be provided in many different and positive ways. Our approach to this is through immersion in wild places, adventurous activity and guided reflection. But whatever the method, the important part is that there is the opportunity for a young person to have an experience. And they should be supported and guided through it to help embed the rewards of the experience for their future benefit.
Character and the education agenda
The Education Secretary Damian Hinds, the Department for Education and Ofsted have put ‘character’ back on the education agenda. It probably never really went away but as an educational charity committed to helping young people defy their limitations, we’re very supportive of this discussion.
We’re actively involved too - and not just in the conversation but with the research. The Education Endowment Foundation has commissioned us, along with programme partner Commando Joe’s and evaluator Sheffield Hallam University, to run a ground-breaking study on the impact of Adventure Learning on the development of character and attainment.
The character agenda has now also led to a new, in-depth discussion and the Education Secretary has created a Character Advisory Group. Chaired by Ian Bauckham CBE, there is an open consultation and call for evidence from young people, parents, carers, schools, teachers and activity providers. At Outward Bound, we are providing our own contribution to this consultation and if you’ve got a view and some evidence and impact to share, I would encourage you to do the same.
So, when I look back at my 15-year-old self struggling to put up that tent or trying not to get lost whilst hiking around the Murray River, I’m incredibly grateful for this experience that my school provided for me as it’s helped shape me into the person I am today.
I passionately believe that all young people should have similar opportunities and access to character building experiences like my own, so they can realise who they are and that they can be more than they think. Anything that helps to develops character must be a good thing for our young people today."
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