The Bristol Climbing Centre courses aim to develop the whole person. Jo McCready explains their teaching philosophy and describes their work with more able students

Bristol Climbing is recognised as a centre for sporting excellence producing past and current members of the British climbing team and is the driving force behind many initiatives such as the Association of British Climbing Walls and the National Climbing Wall Award Scheme. This has extended to providing a range of courses run from after-school clubs through to GCSE PE assessments, weekend residentials, Duke of Edinburgh award schemes and providing G&T courses from year 6 to years 12 and 13.

Our intention is to develop the whole person. Many G&T courses are aimed at specific subject areas to stretch students further in those areas where they demonstrate excellence. Our remit takes a wider perspective, as we are involved in a long-term, strategic programme that aims to engender the type of inter-personal skills that are crucial for an effective life.

A range of development courses have been run for the G&T students in Bristol primary and secondary schools. Initially, they were commissioned by Debbie Sainsbury, the adviser for performance data, mathematics and G&T, under the auspices of the Bristol Education Centre, to cover teamwork and leadership skills for Year 8.

Engaging and useful courses
Guy Jarvis and myself (both ardent climbers but also ex-teachers with many years experience) realised the value of personal development courses for students away from a subject-based focus.

The emphasis is on behaviour; it is much easier to change your own behaviour than to change the behaviour of someone else. You can talk to them, attempt to influence them and maybe even force them in some instances to change but there is no guarantee of success or even of that success being maintained. However you can do something about your own behaviour that may influence others. This is a recurring theme throughout our work.

To bring out these behaviours in a positive manner, we use experiential learning. Many people will have heard of David A Kolb and his experiential learning circle, namely; concrete experience; observation and reflection; forming abstract concepts; and testing in new situations. Kolb’s model is used extensively in the adult world of training. This is simplified for students to: do; review; conclude; and use it. Our activities are based on this model. The following themes regarding behaviour run throughout our work:

  • Communication can be seen as a pyramid that starts with ritual and cliché, moves onto information and facts, then deals with ideas and judgements, looks at feelings and ends with rapport. Students are set challenges and tasks that involve making friends and attempting to influence others. This will raise their awareness of both themselves and other people. 
  • Are they aware of how they present themselves, what body language they are using, their tone of voice and the actual language they use in speaking to others? Are they really listening or just waiting their turn, have they respected the opinion of other people and is the message received the one that was sent? As Neuro Linguistic Programming states, ‘you cannot not communicate’ – you are always sending out messages.
  • Planning any activity, project or task is vital to us in our work. Students are actively encouraged to produce ideas and encourage others to listen. They may have to ‘sell’ their idea in order for it to be accepted. They will also learn about prioritising their ideas and be encouraged to have back-up plans in case their first plan does not succeed. It may also occur to teams that a leader may be required at this stage to provide focus and leadership
  • Organisation will be required to make their plans work. This means identifying and using both human and physical resources. Can we find the right roles for the right people or can people respond to new challenges for the benefit of the team?
  • This may also involve motivating others and being aware of John Adair’s model of ‘situational leadership’ where the leader has to manage the tension between the task, the team and the individual. It may also mean putting systems in place to be able to monitor progress, involvement and time.
  • Decision-making is the next step in the behavioural process. The students will need to weigh up the pros and cons involved, think ahead regarding the outcome and make effective decisions. If they have developed well-formed outcomes they will know what success should look like. 
  • During the action phase various behaviours will come to the fore such as being able to manage time effectively, showing determination and ‘stickability’ and being aware of the need for adaptability. These are behaviours that may have to be learned over a number of tasks.
  • This allows students to mentally rehearse some of their behaviours and possibly try out some new ones. Hopefully, the students will realise that ‘many heads’ are needed for the team to achieve success and that if they have a range of strategies this will stand them in good stead especially when they come across obstacles and difficulties.
  • Reviewing takes place after each activity or task to ascertain what has occurred and what can be learned from it – it forms a vital part of the development process. Only by having a discussion can the students find out about which behaviours are being effective. All of the students complete a formal, written review regarding their behaviour both in terms of what went well and what they need to work on. The emphasis is on the feedback not on whether one failed or not. If the students can understand that the same behaviour is going to lead to the same problems and be aware of this then they are making progress in their self-development. They can then take this knowledge away with them and set themselves more focused targets for the future
  • This information can then be used by G&T coordinators for review purposes at a later date. Furthermore, with those schools and organisations with whom we work on longer programmes, it provides valuable information to build on, monitor progress and set better-informed targets for the future.

What we do
Each of the courses below can be seen individually as a course in its own right but increasingly we are finding that schools are taking a longer view regarding development work. They see it as an integral part of their whole school plan.

Year 7 is about ‘Identity’; the students need to get to know each other and be seen as part of a G&T cohort. This links back to the Year 6 work where the idea of ‘identity’ can build on that of ‘awareness’. They need to be inspired and involved in the process of development. This also requires them to be resilient in preserving with their learning.

Year 8 is about the central idea of ‘Communication’; students spend this year exploring the essential skills that good teams use such as planning, being organised, choosing a leader, being aware of the different roles that people can play in a team, the need for determination and the importance of effective motivation. Underlying all of these skills is that of communication.

Year 9 work is based on ‘Developing One-self’. Students are asked to focus on self-motivation through becoming more aware of their individual learning style. See the timetable below for a typical morning.

In Year 10 we want students to come away with some concrete accreditation for their development work. We offer support for the Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award which brings together many of the skills and ideas that the students have been using.

Year 12 we believe that the students should be involved in adult courses in preparation for university life or the world of work. We use Belbin ‘Get Set’ programme, an on-line interactive student questionnaire, to give them an individual report on their team role preferences. During this day, students become aware of the complexities involved in being a team member as they learn that they have a wide range of preferences regarding the various roles involved in a team.

Year 13 is the final step in our work with the G&T students. We use MBTI, a psychometric tool, to provide them with greater understanding of the impact of their own behaviour and that of others. We use the full adult version of the test and as such the students are given an adult training day of the type that would be provided by a corporate employer. At the end of the session they will know their ‘type’ and be given a report booklet outlining this. Some teachers have used MBTI to assist students with career guidance regarding courses of study or possible paths of employment or as guidance for gap year choices.

Final words This model utilising long-term development courses is one that we believe should be operating nationally. Indeed, it is our contention that development training should be part of the National Curriculum to help produce more rounded students with a wide range of fundamental life skills that underpin all others.

As for the future, we hope to set up a summer school for the National Academy of Gifted & Talented Youth South West Gateway to continue our work and increase the provision for more able students on our region.

Further information

  • DA Kolb, (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall 
  • NLP – Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour (1983) Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Psychological Skills for Understanding and Influencing People, London, UK: Thorsons 
  • John Adair, Leadership & Management 
  • Belbin  
  • MBTI Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Jo McCready, Development Manger, Bristol Climbing Centre