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”  
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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

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.

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