This post originally appeared: https://www.qaeducation.co.uk/blog/Challenge-Academy

Greg Brookes-Clayton is the Educational Director at Challenge Academy – a Community Interest Company (CIC) set up and directed by experienced professionals and leaders from education and the military. Challenge Academy offer active outdoor learning experiences. Its aims are to provide innovative and accessible learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Based at Baggeridge Country Park, Staffordshire and working on a number of national initiatives in education, criminal justice, employability and health and wellbeing, Greg offers an insight into improving personal potential, mental toughness and resilience through Learning Outside the Classroom…

Teamwork – it’s not just a cliché

So, this thing called teamwork. “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and all the other clichés that come with people’s perception of team development activities.
And of course there’s the resistance, “I’m not a team player.”
“Why not?” would be my question. The trouble with clichés (and why they become so entrenched in our vocabulary) is that they are regularly close to a shared reality – they are borne out of years of experience crammed into a short statement.
Proverbs too – “Many hands make light work.”  Though, many people would counter this supposition with, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” However, couldn’t these cooks be just a dysfunctional team? If the menu is well planned; if a collective and shared vision has been verbalised and agreed; if everybody has a role and feels included; if communication is simple, effective, emotionally intelligent and supportive; if all the cooks take personal responsibility; if, when the broth gets spilt and the team shows resilience, deciding collectively it needs to start again because mistakes are made and there is no room in their kitchen for a blame culture… then the broth could be cooked in half the time and it would taste a whole lot better.

Overcoming differences within a team

So, what make teams “work”? How do you get a dysfunctional team to become a functional and effective one? This is the question that interests me, and the conclusion I have arrived at through extensive research and a 30-year career is that effective teams need:

•    To develop growth mindsets to enable the ensemble of different characters, egos and energies to be truly open to the ideas of others to achieve the shared aim of improved performance.
•    For each team member to be committed to being the best version of themselves for the good of the team.
•    To know that a few simple and practical steps can make a whole lot of difference.
•    The employment of “soft skills” – people skills including emotional intelligence.

Collaborative learning activities (aka teamwork)

In terms of educating our young people, I find it encouraging that there seems to be a recognition of the need to develop positive learning cultures through the development of such soft skills. I know from my experience that the development of soft skills through experiential collaborative learning activities can be transformative with young children and adults.

However, how powerful would this learning be if it was started at the formative age of around seven or eight and was continuously developed with emphasis on the transference of the skills into the classroom and ultimately into life?

We have a responsibility to find time in the curriculum to do this effectively. I understand the pressures on the school timetable, however, time spent on specific collaborative activities becomes value-added if the learning approaches, attitudes and skills are referenced and reinforced throughout the general school curriculum and become part of the ethos of the school.

Too often we hear the rhetoric, “We need teamwork.” A task will be given and completed and the young people, when asked what they did, will reply, ”We did teamwork!” No! This word is meaningless if the young people are not able to identify the awareness, skills and attitudes they have developed or identify the elements of their approach and behaviour which were essential for the team to work effectively.

Only by having an explicit understanding of what these are can they utilise this knowledge to develop the essential skills for life and work, i.e. to apply themselves with confidence and commitment and able to confront challenge and difficulties with clarity and emotional controI. In short, to be mentally tough.

Developing skills for life – not just paying lip service

“Be more confident.”
“You need to challenge yourself.”
“Show more control.”
“Be more committed.”

How often will these phrases come out of the mouths of some educators, parent, employers? “Ok…thanks I’ll be more confident now…” It’s a ridiculous notion, it means nothing, and we are doing our young people a disservice if we aren’t actively helping them to develop these skills. The lip service paid to the concept of teamwork and team development by many institutions is a missed opportunity to do exactly that!

How do we develop confidence, challenge, commitment and control (the 4Cs of mental toughness) in our learners? All of these require soft skills, many of which are developed through interaction with others. Team development activities provide a unique and fertile learning ground for the development of mental toughness and resilience.

How can we convince young people and their teachers of the need for these soft skills? If young people are skilfully facilitated in fun, engaging activity, which allows individual and group growth mindsets to develop, where the nuts and bolts, the mechanics of a team, are not just understood but practised again and again, and where helpful and unhelpful attitudes, behaviours and skills are recognised, reviewed and refined, then they will convince themselves of the positive effects of:
•    Communicating effectively, focusing upon the salient points and cutting out extraneous and distracting “white noise”.
•    Experiencing what it feels like to trust and to be trusted.
•    Assessing and managing risk and seeing the benefits of taking risk.
•    Being included and being inclusive.
•    Feeling freed up to be confident and develop creative ideas.
•    Resolving conflict because they recognise that effective teams care enough to have conflict and can self-regulate through resolution.
•    Recognising that even with a shared vision and enthusiasm, it may require several attempts to improve performance and that that is part of the process.
•    Engaging fully “in the moment” and being involved in shaping outcomes.
•    Developing emotional intelligence and an emotional lexicon that enables support and empathy.
•    Employing a Plan/Do/Review//Improve/Apply process.

They will have experienced for themselves that the development, application and practice of these skills do improve performance, and by the very nature of this learning, they will be developing resilience and mental toughness.

Feeling free – learning outside the classroom

The best place for learning such as this to occur is outside the classroom, where students, and teachers will be freed up to take risks with their learning, to push themselves from individual and group “comfort zones” into the “stretch zone”, where learning takes place.

It’s vital to provide repeated opportunities for experiential learning opportunities where there are no right or wrong answers; where the value of the exercise is in the process. This process is then reviewed using meaningful, structured methods to complete the learning cycle, and to develop young peoples’ resilience, their approach to learning and to encourage curiosity and resourcefulness.

Wouldn’t we love all our learners to be able to develop the mental toughness and resilience to be able to commit to tasks, to accept challenge by being prepared to take risks, to have confidence in their abilities and approach and to have the emotional control to cope if setbacks occur? Can we rely on the National Curriculum to do this? Will the National Curriculum alone prepare our young people to be effective, valuable, competent members of society? Will it give them the awareness, attitudes and skills to reach their personal potential within education and society, be happy and healthy and get the best out of their lives? I don’t think so!

Challenge Academy were one of the first organisations in the UK to be awarded the LOtC Quality Badge which it has held since.