Classrooms without walls: how did we get to this place?

In July 2019 our journey towards establishing ‘classrooms without walls’ began. Now two years later, I’ve been reflecting on the successes, the lessons learned and perhaps most importantly the relationships with ‘place’ that we are now striving to form. 

Early days

When I arrived as Head Teacher in September 2018 I quickly came to view Corstorphine Hill, the wild space our school sits at the edge of, as an under-utilised resource. The barriers to Learning Beyond the Classroom (LBtC) including time, timetables and staff ratios were very real. Although there was a willingness across the staff team and pupil population to ‘go there’, making it happen meaningfully and regularly (rather than the tokenistic one-off treat or adventure day) was going to require the full might of curriculum and curriculum making.

Time, training and curriculum are key in the early stages

Armed with new timetables ensuring staff ratios could be maintained, alongside a good dose of professional development opportunities, teachers began slowly but enthusiastically to build curriculum (the totality of all that is planned for children throughout their education) that would take place beyond the classroom walls. ‘Bush craft was deliberately avoided’ remembers a class teacher ‘rather we scanned our curriculum pathways for ‘fits’ asking what could be better taught outside the classroom.’  The opportunities, of course, proved endless and curriculum turned out to be our greatest enabler.

Practice and perseverance

We worked through weather, gathering and distributing preloved kit for those who needed it. We invested the time to train even our youngest pupils to ‘gear up’ quickly and ensured that, by removing the traditional wet break/lunch times, we were outside whatever the weather.

Initially over cautious and a little risk adverse (we possibly spent too long debating the numerous hazards presented by wind, dogs, road safety and lines of sight!), once actually ‘out there’, our working knowledge of risk shifted dramatically. Supported by the expertise of outdoor education staff we moved, with greater ease than we expected, from a ‘perceived-risk‘ and rather cumbersome framework to an increasingly balanced approach to risk/benefit based on a deliberate mixture of generic, specific and dynamic assessments.

We quickly learned the importance of prioritising quality LBtC induction for new staff and families to our school. We included LBtC elements in all job specifications as well as ensuring at least one direct LBtC question formed part of the recruitment process. This, along with a refreshed school website, ensured that all in our community understood and bought into our unique LBtC offer.

Both our school’s Quality Improvement Manager and the City of Edinburgh Council’s Principal Officer for Outdoor Education were a supportive sounding board and offered advice throughout. Perhaps more importantly however they also challenged our thinking and ensured we remained focused on the output and impact of our approach; attainment and participation were regular features of robust professional dialogue.

We navigated the bumps (including scratches and nettle stings) along the way. As a school leader, I examined and re-examined the delicate balance of my own ‘push and pull’ in establishing LBtC across the school. My role as facilitator or enabler evolved as the team’s practice and confidence developed. Staff were increasingly empowered as one of our teachers illustrated candidly in a planning and monitoring meeting ‘…actually the best place for that lesson is inside the classroom, to take it up the hill would be false and feel a bit empty’. Teacher judgements about the right place for learning were becoming increasingly astute and staff were now leading the work pushing and pulling each other through healthy dialogue and the exchange of ideas.

Start sharing 

We kept curriculum and kids at the centre of our approaches and pedagogy, attainment, achievement and participation all benefited.  By the Autumn of 2020, despite Covid-19 challenges, we were beginning to be recognised more widely for our work ‘curriculum making in the outdoors’. The shift in pupil understanding of where they learned was significant and our parent community were engaged and supportive.

Schools across the city were beginning to reach out and we contributed regularly to Edinburgh’s Outdoor Learning Map. We were invited to make a video in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland to showcase how their outdoor spaces could be used for learning. We presented our LBtC story at a City of Edinburgh Council event and we were asked to feed into Local Authority reports and working groups. As the first council run school in Scotland to achieve recognition from the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (Bronze Level) in January 2020, we were delighted to be invited to feed into the Council’s strategic plan for the future by offering a Scottish policy dimension to the award structure and application criteria.

Where next?

Our pupils and staff will tell you (and show you) that learning beyond the walls of their classroom is now just a normal part of the school day. We can evidence how we use the outdoors to enhance learning and teaching across all curricular areas and our work feels embedded. Yet, by Easter of 2021 a new and rather unexpected narrative had started to emerge amongst the students; they were beginning to explore the concepts of space and place.  Simultaneously, I too was beginning to realise that that the Hill, which I had always viewed as a wonderful resource in facilitating excellent learning and teaching, was also a landscape with a story and that our staff and learners were developing a deeply personal relationship with this place. It is the interconnectedness of people and place that we will explore in session 2021/2022 so I invite you to watch this place for my next blog coming soon.

%d bloggers like this: