Residential contexts provide fertile ground for new and memorable experiences that have a positive and sustained impact on students and staff alike.
New experiences include the residential environment, the activities, domestic routines including the overnight stay, and spending extended informal time together.
Staff involved in the first phase of Learning Away talked frequently about experiences that gave opportunities for ‘awe and wonder’. These experiences were different for individuals depending on their previous experience – for some it was seeing a cow or the sea for the first time, for others experiencing a huge vista unlike anything in their local environment. One teachers’s comment illustrates this sense of awe and wonder:
“It’s magical. It’s like a world that they’ve never experienced before, and you can see them light up with this wonder at a deer.” (Primary Staff Focus Group)
These staff noticed that just being in a new environment for a residential stay makes students more open to new experiences and, by allowing students to develop a wider comfort zone, can even help to break unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Being somewhere different often opens students up to attempting new challenges and developing new practical and curriculum-related skills; it also opens staff up to expanding their pedagogy to include more practical, learner-centred styles. These new challenges often lead to different children ‘shining’ than in the classroom, which often has a positive impact on the leveling of relationships between students. One secondary teacher summed this up neatly:
“Residentials blur all the lines… if you decide to go with it it’s a much more fulfilling experience, because everyone’s working together and there’s no hierarchy.” (Secondary Staff Focus Group).
One new challenge that students face on residentials is the change to their domestic routines, particularly around sleeping and eating, which can lead them to develop new, more helpful, routines that they sustain back at home along with a new sense of taking more responsibility for themselves.
The extended informal time that students spend together on residentials means that existing friendships are strengthened and new friendships are formed; staff and student relationships also change as they live together and these changed relationships are sustained back in school.
The memorability of a residential experience and the shared memories of participants help to maintain the sense of community developed on a residential back in school and to sustain a residential’s positive impacts.
Memorable experiences and a sense of community
Staff and students in Learning Away schools frequently referred to their ‘common language of experience’, particularly in relation to the new experiences and activities they shared on the residential.
The memorability of the residential experience was reinforced by shared jokes and stories. Staff felt that these experiences caught students’ imagination and fully engaged them, both at the time and later in telling stories to others. These common experiences helped staff and students stay connected back in school; connections continued long after the residential experience. They also had an impact on learning:
“I’ll be doing work and I’ll remember the jokes that we had down there and that will help me remember the rules, and it becomes easier.” (Secondary Student Focus Group)
Learning Away has shown that ‘new’ does not have to be exotic, for example it could involve camping in school grounds. One staff member commented that their venue let them down at the last minute so their school agreed to host the residential. Afterwards staff commented that it was “just as successful as being further away from school.” (Staff Survey)
Memorable experiences were not always planned and were often linked to overcoming adversity, such as camping in bad weather or dealing with unexpected events.
Sustaining the impact
The shared experiences between students, and between students and staff, kept the memories of the residential alive and helped sustain impact. Stories were often retold in class or around school and were passed on to the next year group or staff member going away.
Residential experiences built into lessons, themes and projects back in school also sustained impact. Likewise, staff using incidents from the residential as positive reinforcement in the classroom, for example for being prepared to try something new, created more potential for long term impact.
Songs and dances students learnt with staff on the residential to help them remember formulae or rules in maths were still remembered back in school:
“The dance helped me learn better. Rather than just sitting there getting bored they actually made it fun.” (Secondary Student Focus Group)
Staff also used photos of students experiencing success on the residential to show to them when they were struggling back in school, which helped motivate them to keep on trying. Photos were powerful for triggering students’ memories of the residential, and the feelings of success and achievement they had experienced there.
Perhaps of greatest significance was increased student and staff expectations as a result of learning more about each other whilst away. If only a few students attend residentials then it is easy to treat them as though nothing has happened when they return. When most of the year group or class go away with some of their teachers this is not possible because the culture of the group has irrevocably changed.
In these filmed interviews, staff and a parent of a child involved in Learning Away residentials describe the impact of these ‘new and memorable’ experiences.
Be inspired by our case studies from Learning Away schools.
Have a look at our theory about how change happens on brilliant residentials.
Read our recommendations for schools, providers, policy makers and researchers.
Read our independent evaluation report.