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Capturing the influences of Gordonstoun School’s out-of-classroom learning experiences

Our guest blog this month comes from Simon Beames.

Simon is Senior Lecturer in Outdoor Learning and at the University of Edinburgh. He can be reached at

Image credit: Kara Haugseth

Character, grit, and resilience are just three of the terms that have been used to label the kinds of personal growth that can come from successfully negotiating challenging experiences. Indeed, schools and youth development organisations across the globe have been trying elicit young people’s transformation for decades. The ‘trouble’ with the term ‘personal growth’ is that there is not an agreed definition of it, there is no broadly accepted way to facilitate it in others, and it is very difficult to measure.

With this in mind, Gordonstoun, an independent school in Scotland, commissioned our research team at the University of Edinburgh to capture the influences of its out-of-classroom learning experiences. Gordonstoun was founded in 1934 by the educational visionary, Kurt Hahn; Hahn went on to co-found Outward Bound and Gordonstoun’s Moray Badge was the precursor to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. The common theme of challenging outdoor activities is obvious!

Our team of four researchers employed a range of data collection methods over a 10 month period. The process began with an online survey that was completed by more than one thousand alumni and over 200 parents of current students. We then conducted interviews with 100 students and 50 parents, as well as spending a further ten days on site to gather fieldnotes.

Perhaps the most striking finding of all was that an astonishing 94% of alumni claimed that out-of-classroom learning experiences had a positive influence on their personal growth. The interviews revealed that many students developed an enduring ‘let’s give it a go’ attitude that seemed to transfer into their everyday lives once they left school. Multi-day expeditions and sailing voyages were very clearly shown to be the most powerful out-of-classroom learning experiences, in terms of their influence on reported outcomes. Weekly Service commitments, positions of responsibility, and the performing arts were also regarded as being crucial to Gordonstoun’s out-of-classroom provision.

Image credit: Kara Haugseth

The breadth of Gordonstoun’s ‘broader curriculum’ was seen as very important, as well, as it enabled students to be exposed to challenging activities they had not come across before, and to be regularly placed in the position of being learners (and supporters of others’ learning) in non-academic settings. More generally, experiences featuring numerous opportunities to lead others, where staff provided support but gave limited direction, were highly valued.

Since Gordonstoun is so well-resourced, I have repeatedly been asked what findings from this study can be adapted to mainstream schools. Here are five implications for practice: First, provide opportunities for students to have leadership responsibilities for as many features of school life as possible (e.g. head of lost property). Second, offer chances for students to undertake self-sufficient overnight expeditions with staff members. These journeys do not have to be to far-away places, but they should involve sleeping in tents, cooking, and so on. Third, make community service part of the regular school timetable. Fourth, build a positive culture around students trying new activities and supporting others as they do. And finally, arrange possibilities for staff and students to interact outside of classroom time, in non-academic settings. All of these features are central to Gordonstoun life and can largely be achieved on a state school budget.

Gordonstoun’s out-of-classroom experiences feature a powerful mix of novel and demanding challenges that require high levels of resolve to overcome. The study’s findings strongly indicate that these varied experiences need to be woven into the school timetable throughout a student’s academic journey. In a society increasingly obsessed with exam results, it is encouraging to find of evidence of a school educating children to be more rounded, resilient, responsible citizens.

The full academic report can be downloaded here:

Gordonstoun’s research summary is available here:

Special thanks to the research assistants: Roger Scrutton, Chris Mackie, and Jenni Hume

This article was originally published in the School House magazine

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