Warwick Sutton Scholars Residential: How do you engage young people in their own personal development?
On a cold autumn morning on Friday 23 November 2018, sixty year 9 students from around 30 state schools across the West Midlands onto two coaches at the University of Warwick campus. After successfully completing their first year of the Warwick Sutton Scholars programme, we were about to embark on a two-day, one-night residential. This was the next big challenge for these young people - staying away from home for the first time with peers who they have only been starting to get to know over the six campus days we had together in year 8. The nervousness was palpable and there were even tears as the young people had to say goodbye and push themselves to overcome their fears. Will I fit in? Do I belong? Will I enjoy it? We knew that this event would certainly push the young people out of their comfort zones but we also knew that that is exactly where the opportunity lied to take big steps in their own personal development.
As the University’s KS3 programme for highly able students from Widening Participation backgrounds, Warwick Sutton Scholars aims to help young people develop the confidence needed to succeed at school and be able to choose and progress to Higher Education. Questions of belonging and the confidence to know “I fit in here” are even more crucial later on, when it comes to transitioning into university for example. Our Campus Days have a strong academic element that stretches and challenges the young people intellectually and develops critical thinking, problem solving and research skills. However, in our work with the young people we are also very aware that developing confidence and investing in their social and emotional learning are important and can positively impact the young people’s achievement. The specific skills we wanted to target through the residential were resilience, self-confidence and teamwork. At the same time, we wanted to give the young people an opportunity to bond with their peers in new groups and enable a successful transition into the second year. We’ve found in the past that retention from one year to the next can be a challenge. Therefore it was crucial to give the young people the opportunity to establish strong relationships with each other at the beginning of this next stage.
In order to achieve these targets, we felt that our own University campus was not necessarily the most suitable location. Rather, we decided to relocate to a Kingswood outdoor activity centre in Staffordshire. The staff at the centre were able to design a programme of outdoor activities that targeted exactly these soft skills we wanted to see the young people develop in. And so it was that, over the two days, the young people found themselves having to work together in their teams in order to build natural shelters and try to light a fire with sticks and stones. They had to persevere and believe in their ability to go further during the rock climbing activity - whilst being cheered on by their group. Their resilience to not give up was challenged when trying to hit a target with a bow and arrow. In the evening, the young people engaged in fun group activities and we closed the day with songs and hot chocolate around a bonfire.
No doubt, despite the cold weather, the young people had a lot of fun, were trying out new things and challenging themselves. But how do you engage them in taking ownership of their personal development? Professor Graham Gibbs, author of “Learning by doing: a guide to teaching and learning methods” (1988, FEU) made a very important point, “It is not sufficient to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting on this experience it may quickly be forgotten or its learning potential lost.” With that in mind, we had not jumped straight into activity when we arrived but instead, had given the young people time to consider the opportunity that was before them. We talked about the skills we wanted to help them develop and what was necessary from their part to make the most of this opportunity. To help them understand that finding something hard is not a bad thing, we used the analogy of an athlete training their body to strengthen certain muscles. Resilience, self-confidence and teamwork are like muscles that need to be trained. We asked the young people to identify the skills that they felt stronger in and those that needed more training.
After the two days of activity, we engaged the young people in a time of reflecting on how the weekend was for them. We gave each student a postcard where they had to write to themselves – What did I achieve this weekend? What am I proud of? The postcards were collected in and we posted them to the young people a couple of months after the Residential, before our next campus day.
“Dear Myself, This weekend I have learnt that taking a risk and stepping out of my comfort zone is truly worth it. Also, I have gained a lot of new friendships that I can trust.” – WSS male participant
“Dear Myself, This weekend you put yourself out there a little more and really tried when you felt challenged. You were with new people you hadn’t met before and so I’m proud of you for socialising. Well done!” WSS female participant
“Dear Myself, You really stepped outside of your comfort zone like when you wanted to give up on the climbing wall but pushed on another meter or when you couldn’t light the fire, and when you did – it went out. Good Job!” – WSS male participant
“Dear Myself, Remember when you made a new friend? You were afraid no-one in your new group would talk to you. However, you found out that people would talk to you because YOU took the big risk of making friends and succeeded greatly which has increased your confidence” – WSS female participant
“Dear Myself, Remember when you thought Kingswood would be terrible? Well, you were wrong. I enjoyed the whole experience thanks to those who helped me out during moments I needed help in. From other scholars to mentors and even my mum (…)” – WSS male participant
We finished with our usual end-of-day activity, called ‘Positive Peer Review’ where the young people are put into pairs by their mentors and have to give each other meaningful, positive feedback. We asked them to be thoughtful, kind and encouraging in their choice of words. “Did you see the other person take a step forward? Did you observe a skill they have? Were they a leader in encouraging others? Did they set a good example? Did they inspire you?” We spoke about how in order to develop in skills such as resilience, self-confidence and teamwork – we need other people to encourage us, to help us take the next step. Therefore, at each of our events, we deliberately aim to set and build a culture of encouragement and strong teamwork, starting with staff and mentors, down to the young people.
We found that repeating these values and skills, being specific about them and giving imagery and analogies to help describe them creates an awareness in the young people. Coupled with time and space for the young people to reflect on their own development, this helps the young people to then move into taking ownership of their own personal development. They are becoming not just aware but in a way accountable to themselves. This couldn’t be achieved without having activities that are clearly aligned with the aims, and enthusiastic student mentors that are fully aware of the strategic relevance of this Residential for the young people’s development so that they can keep reinforcing the values and what we are going after at the event.
A month after the Residential, before sending out the reflection postcards, we asked participants what they enjoyed about the Residential. Here are some quotes that highlight the things we were looking to develop:
· I enjoyed the group tasks because I made many new friends.
· Fire making.... I enjoyed it because we could not get the fire started and we all thought it was funny.
· I enjoyed the ride there and the ice breakers.
· I liked the rock climbing because it was challenging.
· I stepped outside of my comfort zone many different times across the span of the weekend and made many new friends.
· I enjoyed Archery the most as I really enjoyed it and we all were joking around and laughing.
· How I met new people and made new friendships and got along with my group very well.
· Making friends with members of Sutton Scholars that I didn’t know last year.
· Fire lighting because I learnt a new skill and worked as a team.
· Challenging myself and making new friends.
· I enjoyed meeting other people the most as I learnt new things from them.
· I liked rock climbing because it was a chance to push myself further than I usually would.
Is your school participating in the Warwick Sutton Scholars programme? If you would like to be notified when the next application cycle for year 8 opens in 2019/20, please email us at email@example.com.
Maria Kehr, Programme Coordinator