The new OnBoard focuses on developing specific character attributes - these are creativity, confidence, teamwork, communication, determination, independence and performance.

The work to identify how sailing can nurture these traits and crossover into all areas of a young person's life has been done with Professor Bill Lucas, Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning and Professor of Learning at the University of Winchester.

But why is developing these character attributes important in the modern world? We caught up with Prof. Lucas to look at the reasoning beyond the boats.

How did this idea of teaching character through sailing come about?

When you speak to people in sailing they have known for a long time that the life skills young people learn from sailing go far beyond the practical skills of controlling a boat. Working with Victoria Lenz (RYA Participation Manager) and Alan Williams (renowned youth sailing coach) we found that what educational research says and what sailing experts say matched. The new OnBoard backs practice with evidence.

So what is the research that says character learning is so important to young people today?

There is an almost universal consensus now that character, as well as examination results, has a significant role to play in shaping young people's life chances, and these character 'skills' are much sought after by employers too.

For several years now the Department for Education has recognised the importance of developing character in schools and has committed to helping them ensure more children develop character traits, attributes and behaviours that underpin success in education and work.

It is a tricky, fast-paced and increasingly competitive world young people are growing up in. To be successful they need to evolve in line with this ever-changing world in which they are living. Through having developed a number of core character attributes an individual can be flexible and adaptable to embrace these challenges.

*For full academic insight download the 'Learning To Be Employable - Practical Lessons From Research Into Developing Character' - a report for the City and Guilds Alliance by Bill Lucas and Janet Hanson (2016).

How were the OnBoard character attributes identified?

We didn’t start with the words themselves. Rather we looked at attributes the research says are really helpful to individuals in life and as learners. When we reflected this back to sailing, we found a level of similar generality in the language. We could then articulate the research through words that were most relevant to sailing, and that is how we arrived at the seven attributes of creativity, confidence, teamwork, communication, determination and independence for OnBoard.

Could each of these words mean something different to different people though? 

They could, so to ensure the meaning of the words are interpreted in the same way in the sailing context we have broken each word into two definitions. These are:

Creativity
1. Having a good idea when you need it
2. Solving problems

Confidence
1. Open to new experiences
2. Mistakes are ok; it’s how you learn to get better

Teamwork
1. Read the group; uses empathy to understand others’ feelings
2. Always prepared to learn new roles

Communication
1. Give and receive clear feedback
2. Clear speaking; no doubt about what you are trying to say  

Determination 
1. Never gives up
2. Bounces back after set-backs

Independence
1. Knowing what do what when you don't know what to do
2. Knowing when to ask for help 

Performance 
1. Always a better way; keen to try new techniques
2. Self-critique; always reflecting on how to improve

How will these actually be nurtured in an OnBoard session?

We are developing activity cards with Alan and Victoria that instructors can use as a springboard for ideas and session plans that have the character attributes embedded within them. It is a light-touch approach but one that helps instructors and students really understand and apply what they are learning from sailing.

For example on a 'Creative' session card for solving problems, the practical sailing skill you want to teach might be how to sail across the wind. But sailing to windward does not always go to plan. One minute the wind is blowing in one direction and the next moment it has dropped or shifted. Good sailors are also good problem solvers, ready to spot problems and come up with possible solutions.

Through shore-based games and challenges suggested on the cards instructors can get students to start thinking in 'problem solving' ways before they go afloat. Once back ashore a short debrief will enable instructors to check learning and find out from students what problems they faced on the water and how they solved them.

So the debrief really is a critical part of the process?

Absolutely. Not only is this when the students reflect on what they did, what they found tricky, what worked, how they overcame challenges, how they worked and communicated with others, and how they and others felt, it is also when they can be encouraged to think about where else they can use those skills in the rest of their lives.

This isn't an easy thing to do, especially for younger children who tend to see skills in isolation. For example, they may discover they can problem solve when sailing but they don't always see they can apply that to other areas of their lives. When these messages are reinforced in the classroom, with teachers saying things like, "You can use the problem solving skills you learned from sailing here" it is really powerful.

When students start making connections between sailing and their real lives in two or three of the character attributes, then these traits develop, start to transfer more naturally and instinctively and become embedded in a young person's character.

When you learn to sail you really do learn other things then?

All the evidence says that for a young person to flourish in the 21st century the character attributes they need are on that list. It is no longer a question as to whether these things are important it is now all about how you do it. Sailing can provide an answer to the 'how you do it', while at the same time providing all the other benefits sailing brings like having fun with friends and family, being active and getting outdoors.


Find out more!

The following websites provide more information about the work Prof. Lucas and his colleagues are doing in developing character and lifelong learners.