Place-Based Education

Helping children and young people understand and  value their communities : developing an international  ‘place -based learning’ collaborative.


"It’s not often an event makes your soul think”  

Symposium evaluation form

Plockton, a small lochside village in the North West Highlands of Scotland was the venue for a small symposium in November 2013, bringing together educators and poets, economic development workers and crofters,  musicians and academic researchers to discuss the concept of place-based learning and whether there is a  case for an international place-based learning collaborative.

Photo credit: Jim A Johnston

Students from the National Centre for Traditional Music at Plockton High school welcomed participants in the morning and after lunch.


Place-based learning (sometimes referred to as place-based education) is an approach to learning that is rooted in local communities and makes use of local economic activities and the unique history, culture, tradition and other community reference points to engage more effectively with children and young people within the context of their lives. It recognises the role of place, culture and community in informing their own identity and their social relationships. It has three key aims:

  • enhancing children’s learning experiences and well being by making learning relevant to their lives
  • involving families and community in the learning process – beneficial for learning and helping children to understand and engage with their communities
  • strengthening communities 

The event was sparked by a two-year research project(2012-2014) funded by the US-based  Kettering Foundation.  This is being undertaken by senior researchers in Scotland, Norway and Alabama -  Professor Bronwen Cohen, University of Edinburgh; Dr Wenche Rønning, University of Nordland, Norway; Dr Jack Shelton and Dr Jennifer Adams, PACERS and the University of Auburn. Three of the four researchers first met at an Arkleton Trust seminar held in 2004. The final stage of the fieldwork had just taken place in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.


The researchers reported on some of the activities they had examined in the three countries, ranging from  the production by schools of community newsletters and   ‘documentation’ to  gardening and aquaculture, school crofting and boat building courses to farm kindergartens and increasing use of the arts.

Aquaculture in Florala High School. Alabama

Dinosaur at Medås Farm Kindergarten, Norway where kindergartens established on working farms or farms converted to kindergartens have become popular.

Boat building, taught by a local boat builder, is one of a number of courses, including crofting,  offered at Sgoil Lionacleit School in Benbecula,  intended to ensure the relevance of the school curriculum to local economic requirements whilst also supporting aspirations for higher education and entry to professions. One of those currently taking boat building is an aspiring marine biologist.


Young musicians participating in the Fèis Rois Ceilidh Trail. The Ceilidh Trail is both a professional development and a cultural tourism initiative. The project aims to give young people the opportunity to experience life as a touring artist whilst also providing an authentic high quality cultural experience for visitors to the Highlands of Scotland.

Fèis Rois

Local islanders join school pupils for music-making sessions in North Ronaldsay’s small primary school in the Orkney Islands


The researchers outlined some of the themes emerging from the research and issues they were exploring  further. These included the contribution of place-based learning to local development and community building in urban as well as rural areas, the importance of support for new as well as indigenous minorities, and the barriers posed by centralised curricula with insufficient space for recognising local culture, acquiring traditional skills and indicators of educational performance which are too narrowly conceived.  

The Galson Estate Trust is one of a growing number of trusts established as a result  of legislation and funding to enable  communities to purchase the  land on which they live and work. The Trust  income – boosted by  wind turbine revenues –will contribute to activities and engagement with the local school.


 Evanton Community Wood,  Ross-shire purchased in 2012.  Community woods initiated in the late 1980s are  a growing resource for schools. They now number  some  250 in Scotland  and 300 in England.

A number of Highland organisations work with young people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds  but often lack the resources to make this an effective cultural resource.  This 2009 project brought young people from Chinese and Scottish backgrounds  as part of an Inverness winter music trail workshops for Primary 7 pupils at Crown Primary School in Inverness.

The Polish Saturday school in Inverness takes over 60 children aged approximately three to thirteen years every Saturday afternoon

Photo credit :Inverness Polish Association

Place-based learning requires a wide range of skills  which come from those involved in occupations and areas not commonly seen as part of the education system.  Making the necessary connections and co-ordinating local resources can involve new kinds of skills from teachers and appropriate planning forums. 

The afternoon discussion, chaired by the Director of Education, Sport and Culture at Highland Council, Hugh Fraser, explored  ways  in which schools and communities could learn more about the developments taking place elsewhere. It was felt that more needed to be done in Scotland itself. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, the national curriculum, covering schools and nurseries for children aged 3- 18 years, offers a supportive framework for place-based learning but benefits from programmes such as Crofting Connections, to help schools realise its potential in this. It was suggested that other parts of Scotland as well as  the UK might benefit from programmes similarly aimed at enabling children and young people to connect with their communities.

Writer and Poet Tom Pow

Photo credit: Jim A Johnston

The writer and poet  Tom Pow described a place-based learning film project in the village of Ae in Dumfriesshire in South West Scotland, an area which lacks the support provided by Crofting Connections

Much could be learned from other countries as well. School student exchanges were seen as one way of initiating an international place-based collaborative, enabling children and young people to take a leading role in exchanging experiences. An exchange programme of this kind could begin with the  three areas which formed the basis for the research project - Nordland (Norway), Scotland and Alabama(US), and extend out from this, prioritising emerging economies in Africa, Asia and South America with which there are some existing links through twinning programmes and cultural exchanges such as the Norwegian Cultural Rucksack programme.  

“Student exchanges might be one way of initiating an international place-based collaborative, enabling children and young people to take  a leading role in the exchange of experience.”

Participants at the symposium



Participants visited students on the school’s newly introduced crofting skills course in the hut they built. Photo credit: Jim A Johnston


The symposium was organised by  Crofting Connections with the support of  Plockton High School, Highland Council and the Arkleton Trust. 



Photo credit : Crofting Connections

Initiated in 2009, Crofting Connections is an example of a programme which supports place-based learning through working with schools and crofting communities across the crofting areas of Scotland to promote understanding of the history, culture economy and future prospects for communities where this traditional form of land tenure has laid the basis for a way of life.