What World Challenge Expeditions have taught me: failure is the way forward by Cathy Williams


We all learn the most when we’re challenged. Those of you who listened to Will Ord’s key-note at the school conference a couple of years ago heard lots about putting students in the ‘pit’ in order to help them out, to encourage a growth mindset and demonstrate that learning begins with confusion or even failure. The beauty of a World Challenge expedition is that the ‘challengers’ have to help themselves out. They are well and truly outside of their comfort zones, dealing with language barriers and culture shock in developing countries where sometimes very little goes to plan. They lead the expedition, with two of them taking charge each day and organising team decisions. Two become accountants, take all of our money at the beginning of the trip and work out how to spend it. Each evening, they lead a reflection on that day’s progress, on things they’ve achieved and things they need to improve. While it is clear that employers and universities value the skills developed (one student was accepted on a university course she didn’t have the grades for as soon as she mentioned World Challenge), we have seen expeditions have perhaps a more profound impact too.

cw1Girls in Morocco washing clothes by hand for the first time ever!

cw2The next day’s team leaders planning late into the night…

Epic Fails:

There have been a number of times during the five expeditions we’ve ‘led’ when students have managed to ‘fail’ in sometimes spectacular ways. In every single case, the fact that we restrained ourselves from intervening meant that they were much more independent and careful for the rest of the expedition, and hopefully beyond.

  1. Waiting for a bus in Malaysia for nearly two hours, despite the fact that the buses weren’t running in ramadan (as it clearly said on the timetable).
  2. Poor map reading leading to going into Spain instead of onto Gibraltar and wondering why people only spoke Spanish in a country that was part of the UK.
  3. Turning a 6 hour trek into a 14 hour one, during which three students cried continually. (All later apologised to the team.)
  4. Writing the word ‘one’ under the number ‘two’ on the mural on Peace Perfect School in Ghana.
  5. Forgetting to book accommodation until they asked where we were staying.
  6. Leaving litter behind on a campsite the day after they had taught a lesson about littering to the rural community in the Himalayan foothills.
  7. Not waking anyone up on the night train to Delhi until we were already pulling into the most chaotic station in the world at 2am.
  8. Forgetting to book a bus until it didn’t show up.
  9. Losing the team leader pack, including the budget sheets, contacts and itinerary.
  10. Not picking up the money at Heathrow for our Malawi expedition.


At times it has been a struggle for both Laura and I to take enough of a step back, but this struggle has definitely improved my practice in the classroom too. These examples of ‘failures’ are all things that the students continued to talk about long after the event, so the learning sticks in a very useful way. The Malaysia group read everything carefully from that point on and the Malawi accountants were so meticulous that they saved enough money to fund an extra safari activity for the whole team as well as provide more resources to the nursery school before we left. This has definitely changed the way I behave in a classroom too; while we need to make students experience in school positive, letting them fail, as long as we reflect on and make use of these failures, can only be a valuable thing. When I first started teaching I was definitely a little afraid of telling students that they’d made mistakes, but now I like to embrace and celebrate them as a first step to doing better. This is surely the best way to develop a growth mindset, especially in the high achieving sixth formers who we tend to take on expedition, since this group are often least familiar with failure and most fixed in their mindsets.

cw4Callum and Gyan proving they could be resourceful.

Last year, I looked at the impact of our expeditions for the PEG looking at learning communities. We surveyed students before and after expedition. One of the most interesting findings of these surveys was the difference between the things they said they were looking forward to before the expedition and the things that they said were the best part of it afterwards. Beforehand 78% said they were looking forward to “making a difference” or “helping people less fortunate”, whereas, after the expedition, they clearly demonstrated a much more realistic understanding of their experiences during a very short community project. 85% mentioned something about “learning from” or “getting to know” the people. They also mention working “with” rather than “for” in almost all responses. Most satisfying though, was that 78% also used the words “reflect”, “learning”, “pushing myself” or “difficult” to describe what was best about expedition, while none of them expected this to be the best thing about the experience before they went; the expedition had made them realise the value of learning through challenges.


Working “with”- students learn skills from local workers.

Some musings from ‘challengers’:

“I don’t think I could ever have learned so much in two weeks at school, these lessons will last me a lifetime.”

“Being pushed out of your comfort zone, being uncomfortable, makes you realise what type of person you are.”

“It sounds cliche, but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity that teaches you valuable life lessons. You develop as a person and create unforgettable memories!”

“It was the hardest but most rewarding thing I have ever done.”

“I didn’t realise I haven’t ever really pushed myself before, so it was hard. There were times on expedition that I didn’t think I could go on, but I did, so now I know that I can.”

Cw6Overcoming the language barrier with smiles.

cw7“A real sense of satisfaction that we’d managed to do a good job in the end.”



Time for reflection…


“It just makes you realise how greedy humans are doesn’t it.”You might expect that the best thing about safari in Liwonde National Park at the end of the exhausting two week expedition would be the close encounters with beautiful herds of elephants and incomprehensibly graceful hippos in the wild. Perhaps it would be waking up in a tent to the sounds of bee-eaters and barbets. Or maybe taking a sunset boat journey. Yet the moment that stands out involved no wildlife at all. Sitting in the jeep as the guide explained why they had to make a rhino enclosure within the National Park to protect dwindling numbers of black rhino, Laura and I listened in to a conversation between two students who weren’t really friends before expedition. It was the kind of conversation we all love to hear in a classroom; they were linking things they’d learned in Science at school to new information that our guide Tom was so keen to provide, they were questioning each other and linking their experiences in the community to their lives in the UK. Without any prompting, they had taken this quiet time in a natural environment as a chance to reflect and review their own experiences.



Weaning the sixth form

– Promoting Independence in Mixed Ability Classrooms

Great ideas are often born of necessity, and though I would not recommend trialling the calamities visited on the chemistry department last year, if it were not for desperate times, the new way in which year 12 chemists worked would not have come to be. Ideas for what happened next had been seeded through many conversations with Karen, Chris and Abbie from MFL. Indeed I sat in on one of Chris Harte’s lessons with the UK’s oldest man, an Ofsted inspector, in which the students were engaged in a FLIP lesson. Here KS3 students were really taking control and deciding what they need to do to move forward. (Read more about FLIP in the next issue!!). But my story starts earlier in the year……

Last year, when the chemistry department dipped to one member of staff I found myself teaching the students for all 5 of their 7 timetabled chemistry sessions. This presented an opportunity to re-jig when topics were taught. When polled the students preferred to focus on just one topic at a time rather than follow two topics with two teachers. This meant that the pace for me and them really picked up. They simply had to become more independent, and do so very quickly. Mechanisms for quicker and more effective learning were required including feedback and support.

I created a timetable that included every staffed and independent session for their next module (Atmospheric Chemistry). The resulting grid took a little while to prepare for each group, and it took most students a lesson to organise themselves for the upcoming weeks of work, but we found we got more quality time back as a result.

In order for the students to fill in the grid they needed access to every resource they would be interacting with over the module. This included practicals, activities, texts, questions and answers. As part of the planning session they had to skim read through all these and estimate how long each task would take. Also which ones required them to be in a lab, which would be best working collaboratively, and which looked a bit too difficult to tackle individually. For the next few weeks students were working from their own big picture (which they had created) every lesson.

Taught ‘lessons’ on the most tricky concepts and teacher demonstrations were pre-timetabled on the sheets, as were topic-specific seminar sessions, the rest of the sessions available for the students to fill in as they thought appropriate.

Roughly five hours of home study was included per week as well. In the two examples included here you can see how different approaches and needs led to very different organisation each perfectly valid.

The seminar sessions involved groups of between 3 and 6 students of similar ability engaged in an entirely targeted conversation. The A/B students could consolidate quickly what they had done and be stretched and challenged appropriately, whilst those who really struggle could be given some support and encouragement.

Obviously there are still students who, like stubborn hens, refuse to produce, but now I can pick up these miscreants more easily by simply asking them to show me their planner, point to the date and the work they said they will have done by then, and get them to show me their journal for the module in which they should record everything. Cue some eyes cast to the ground and pledges of gifts of learning the following morning.

A core issue with this approach is that in most sessions the class is engaged in many activities, which means the teacher has to be completely on top of all aspects of the module at all times. A question that needs consideration for September is ‘how will this approach work when we revert to two teachers per group?’

I feel this approach really does develop students as independent learners, who are in direct control of their learning. I look forward to running a short workshop in the near future for a more in depth discussion of this model of teaching, and to see how it might be developed within the sixth form context or even further down the school.

New ideas for independent learning

With the next cohort of year 12s I intend to provide ever more opportunities for developing independent learners, responding to students’ feedback.

I intend to give them the answers to all the questions on the course. The large majority have found that they make quicker progress and can self-assess themselves better as they work if they have the answers. I was initially sceptical about this but will put in some provisos so that I can be sure they are making the progress they appear to be.

I will require evidence that work has been attempted in the following ways.

I will not be collecting vast scripts of uniform work, which is woeful to mark and largely unhelpful – the answers to all our published resources are all over the internet anyway.

I will require the full working of three levelled questions that the department has devised themselves, and are inherently google-proof. When appropriate, full and annotated working to one standard question must be submitted. And a paragraph to explain how they found the work in terms of what is easy / difficult etc.

Fergus Hegarty

Intervention in the Sixth Form: creating quality time with students (Issue 8, January 2011)

Welcome back to the Muse blog and what we hope will be an invigorating restart for it!  Over the coming weeks and months we are going to be working in reverse chronological order uploading articles previous published in the hard copy of Muse before the next new edition comes out.  We hope this will give you some great new ideas and help you to understand the journey we’ve been on.  – Ed.

Intervention in the Sixth Form: creating quality time with students

If I had a pound for every time the phrase “there’s not enough time” has been mentioned in relation to post-16 study I would be a very rich man.

Now, whilst we have always been able to restructure schemes of learning in order to absorb time constraints and therefore deliver the required content, what has had to take a back seat is the quality time – the time for reflection and consolidation.

It has become increasingly clear that if we are going to raise standards it is imperative that we “create” this quality time. That’s where our intervention programme comes in.

Our intervention programme is new and therefore embryonic, but what I am going to share with you is where we are at with it at the moment and more specifically address the following questions:

1. How are interventions triggered?

2. Who manages/oversees the programme and how?

3. Who runs the interventions? How and when?

4. What do we perceive as being the

How are interventions triggered?

Roughly 15 milestone assessments are planned into our schemes of learning both in year 12 and year 13. These assessments are not just marked and fed back with comments in the usual manner but scrutinized carefully in order to identify specific weaknesses for specific students.

The teacher will not only record the mark and grade in their mark book but also a note as to what the key misconceptions were, if any, in the students’ script. Interventions have also happened as a result of problems with homework and particular lessons but these have been much less in number.

Who manages/ oversees the programme and how?

A small team of three oversee the programme; myself, Anne Grant and Graham Macphail, but Anne really runs the show. All requests for interventions are fed to Anne in the first instance and she enters the name of the student and what intervention is required into a central spreadsheet in the department’s shared area. This allows us to store a wealth of useful information; useful not least for writing reports or when speaking to parents. Anne will then Frogmail the students, asking them to come to speak to her to arrange an appointment.

Who runs the interventions? How and when?

Each member of the sixth form teaching team has a shared responsibility for staffing intervention sessions. We try to ensure that we do not run interventions for our own classes where possible, as we believe that a different teacher’s approach may be more likely to hit home if the initial teaching did not in the first instance.

The sessions could be run either in the student’s free period, after school, before school (with Graham) or at a break or lunch time. It is worth noting that the sessions are not frequent enough to massively affect workload (in our opinion) and the benefits for the students in terms of confidence seem to justify the extra time spent.

What do we perceive as being the next steps for the programme?

The next steps for the programme will be to use it to enhance our schemes of learning, and not just in the 6th form. If we can identify topics that students of a certain ability struggle with, we can really nail down what the misconceptions are. Then we can strengthen our schemes of learning all the way through the school, so that the issue is addressed at the appropriate time. This information will almost certainly inform what we cover as part of our bridging course too.

Andrew Sargeson