Listening to the drone of the Scottish small pipes accompanying someone reading a short story by humorist Ivor Cutler, while savouring freshly caught mackerel and an Islay malt on the deck of a sailing ship, was probably not quite what Professor Gavin McCrone had in mind when he considered teachers' need for greater continuing professional development.
For the teachers on board the 110-year-old ketch, anchored off a Scottish island on a beautiful late summer evening, this was the culmination of an unforgettable week-long course that would support, strengthen and enhance relationships with their pupils when they returned to school.
The Leader is a far cry from the hotel conference rooms normally associated with in-service training where, as one teacher put it, "people are expected to learn in spite of the environment". Joyce Gilbert, the main course organiser, says: "It is one way of providing education with a deeply reflective experience in an experiential setting."
In 1998 Dr Gilbert spent four months in the Yukon on a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship, studying education and sustainability in north-west Canada. She returned determined to provide Scottish educators with a similar experience.
In June 2000 funding was secured from the Scottish Arts Council, the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (now Learning and Teaching Scotland) and Scottish Natural Heritage to bring together poets, artists, scientists, musicians and educators in a project entitled SpeyGrian (meaning sunshine on the Spey). The aim was to consider how reflective outdoor experiences combined with the different perspectives brought by arts, philosophy and science backgrounds can be used to develop a deeper understanding of the natural world and how SpeyGrian could become part of innovative educational initiatives in Scotland, including professional development for teachers.
The six-day course on the Leader was one of two piloted this summer, thanks to funding from Scottish Natural Heritage, the University of Edinburgh and Grounds for Learning, the school grounds charity for whom Dr Gilbert works as a facilitator. Both were over-subscribed.
When the Leader cast off from Craobh Haven near Oban on its first trip there were 14 primary, secondary and head teachers on board. During the journey to Mull, Eigg, Rhum, Ulva, Staffa and Iona they crewed the ship, met members of island communities, took part in storytelling and musical evenings, held group discussions on the curriculum and other issues and recorded their experiences in a personal journal.
"I've been privileged this week because at a personal level I've found it has been life-affirming," said Sandy Howe, head of the Royal School of Dunkeld, a primary in Perth and Kinross. "If I've experienced that myself, I have a stronger motivation to try to devise similar life-affirming experiences for my pupils.
"One of the things I'm going to do when I return to school is to carry out, with my staff, a reassessment of our environmental education programme and look at the range and quality of opportunities which we provide for the children in terms of coming into contact with the environment."
Pupils at Stranraer Academy may be in for a surprise from geography teacher Karen Flett. She was so impressed with the potential of storytelling that she plans to use it in class. "Storytelling could be used to help pupils remember facts. They could be asked to write a story about a landscape," she said.
Alastair Thomson, principal teacher of art and design at Alford Academy in Aberdeenshire, said he felt lucky to have been on the course. He had been invigorated by the experience and was looking forward to going back to school to deal with issues in a new way.
"I feel that I've been freshened up and can see through other people's eyes more easily and I am ready to look at cross-curricular matters with a fresh approach not bound by subject restrictions."
As a novice crewman, he said: "I was stretched in terms of my own capabilities and found myself depending on others. I feel that this will make it easier for me to see the point of view of others."
Sue Whitworth, head of Evie Primary in Orkney, said she felt "quite apprehensive" when she arrived on the ship and was conscious that she was not the youngest on board. "There were times when I questioned whether I had the energy," she said.
"But because I've gone through apprehension, met a challenge and come out the other side feeling good about myself, I am going back to school more confident in what I believe is good to do with the children because I've experienced it myself."
In the longer term there are plans for Edinburgh University to offer similar courses, though not necessarily on a boat, as a module within the existing postgraduate diplomaMSc in outdoor education or a planned course in environmental education.
Robbie Nicol, a lecturer in outdoor environmental education at the university, who accompanied Mr Thomson's storytelling on the small pipes, said there was strong evidence to support the use of outdoor contexts to promote CPD. "These programmes present participants with the opportunity to integrate subject areas and learn in a holistic way," he said. "Through such direct experiences they can embrace the concept of multiple intelligences while employing a range of learning styles.
"The programme is also designed to link with citizenship and provides a new context for participants where it is necessary to negotiate group rules and procedures so that course aims and participants' objectives are met."
Standing on the deck of the Leader, Dr Gilbert pondered briefly on the suggestion that CPD was never usually like this. "Well, it should be," she said.
For information on courses next year, e-mail GilbertMoulin@aol.com