Basalt School – Let’s go outside to learn!

17/01/23 | Guest writer


Text: A series coordinated by arch. Monica Popescu


Editor: arch. Monica Popescu

Photographs: CAN architects


Reading time: 6 minutes

De-a Arhitectura Association is launching in 2023 a new series of interviews centered around Built Environment Education (BEE), that will complement our “Talking to UIA – Architecture and Children members” series launched in 2020, featuring members of the International Union of Architects’ (UIA) Architecture and Children Work Program.

We think it’s vital to raise awareness about Built Environment Education (BEE) around the world, be it that we talk to organizations or initiatives within the framework of the UIA Work Program or not. Highlighting organizations, programs or individuals that implement BEE activities, learning from each other and spreading the word and our common knowledge on the subject are some of the ways we can grow this field, educate the public on important issues and see an improvement in our surroundings.

We start the new series with an interview from Hungary, with our friend András Cseh, who came to De-a Arhitectura’s first conference dedicated to architecture education for children in 2014 – De-a arhitectura Talks.

This interview first appeared on January 12th, 2023 in the online magazine Modern Iskola. The questions were asked by Éva Tóth. We thank both the magazine and journalist for allowing us to publish the interview!

Basalt School, also considered as the Kodály method of outdoor learning, is the new educational project of CAN Architects to integrate outdoor learning into the national school system in Hungary. It consists of creating learning spaces, toolkits and methods for school communities through participative design processes and multidisciplinary research. A growing number of schools and municipalities have been joining the initiative with the support of Veszprém-Balaton 2023 European Capital of Culture. We asked two of the founders, András Cseh DLA and Szilárd Köninger, about the concept of outdoor education and the future aims of Basalt School.

ET: Basalt School was envisioned by the professionals of CAN Architects, that is you – what exactly does this program entail, what lies behind it?

AC: When using the notions of constructed and natural environments, we tend to think of them as opposites, drawing a line between what is allowed in one or the other. Let’s take schools for example. The inside, the classroom, is for learning; while we only go outside during recess. This has been an unwritten rule for decades, while, in many cases, the natural environment would serve as a more suitable setting for education. The experience of outside classes helps us more easily retain what we have learned there, all the while providing an excellent environment for tackling learning difficulties. Natural learning environments have been a mainstay of alternative education for a long time now. We believe that teaching outdoors should not be a privilege of such forms of education; hence our target groups are elementary schools. Our aim is the integration of conscious utilization of natural environments into public education.

ET: The program gives birth to the Kodály method of outdoor education; what does this mean exactly?

AC: Just as Kodály was able to develop a universal method that can be applied internationally in music education, our aim is to develop a basic educational methodology, this not only in practice, through implementation of the outdoor locations, but also by compiling theoretical material. Creating the tools for outdoor education will happen in partnership with the Veszprém-Balaton 2023 European Capital of Culture program, firstly in tandem with schools of the Balaton-felvidék region – involving teachers and students alike. One layer of this is space creation, where we will construct an outdoor classroom. A crucial component of creation is community planning, where we organize workshops to develop a common language with users, utilize tools and talk about usage. We then compile a methodological summary using the lessons from the workshops and participant feedback. This will become the Basalt Educational Repository. The educational program compiled in this way can be the basis for the national spread of outdoor education.

ET: Nature is the rediscovered tool for education in the 21st century – one of the base tenets of your program. How can nature help us step out of the conventional learning settings?

AC: Learning and its environment have changed tremendously over time. While the Greeks learned while walking and talking, the school system that developed over the centuries included nature as an important part of the learning environment in addition to the built environment, which ended with the Industrial Revolution, where education was completely relegated to the corridor and cell system of schools. Since then, the conscious perception of the natural environment, in the process of moving away from it, has emerged as an increasingly intense demand in pedagogy. Forest schools, scouting, and educational trails attempt to reconnect children to the environment that has been part of everyday life for almost the entirety of human history.

Frontal education in the 21st century was supplemented by contemporary learning models. Even in the classroom we don’t just look at the blackboard anymore. Team and project oriented work is getting ever more common for learning. The natural environment provides another layer to this. It not only moves us outside, but we also learn differently in the new setting. There is no need for notebooks or textbooks. Instead, we convert the acquired information into knowledge via real tasks.

ET: What motivated you to create the program?

AC: We have been researching the connection between spaces and learning for more than a decade now. We believe this is the missing link for the renewal of education. We constantly strive to include the conscious utilization of spaces from a young age, or in education of teachers.

Have you ever thought about starting a school?” – many have asked when they received knowledge that they could grasp and process from joint work during a training or planning sessions. This educational program is our answer to the question, where years of research, experience, collective knowledge collide; with which – we hope – we can renew the Hungarian school system.

ET: “Collaboration is not a self-evident soft skill – it has to be developed”, is stated on your homepage. How can you implement this in practice?

AC: Construction is an important method of learning. In case of physical challenges, teamwork becomes evident, since we alone are not strong enough, tall enough and cannot be in multiple places at once – we become each other’s support. Our cooperation hinges on constant communication, and on observing each other and our surroundings. During our workshops we always utilize objects which push our abilities to the limit. These can range from large sheets, to 2,5m long oak sticks, or pallets, which we can use to build large structures in no time. If participants can experience these sessions as an adventure, they might have an easier time recalling how they could solve a problem in a different situation while sitting in class.

ET: You have planned outdoor classrooms in three villages in the Balaton-felvidék region – how will this work in practice and what’s the status on these?

AC: It was important for all three locations to find how each school was special and how the schoolyards, parks and nature were utilized for learning until now. In Balatoncsicsó, we have built four pocket classrooms for individual and small group learning, which the students can shape in their own image. In Monostorapáti, on the other hand, we designed a classroom for the Szentkút Spring, which is frequently visited by the village community, which can accommodate and inspire 2-3 classes at the same time. Here we have designed a volcano-shaped step bench, where you can study in multiple positions. While in the “crater” facing inwards, focused knowledge sharing is the priority, at the edges, the surface can be used in an amphitheater-like way, even for group sessions. In Nemesgulács we use the surrounding forest as material to create learning spots in a clearing for both large and small student groups. It is important for the school communities to define their use, since only this way can these constructions be integrated into everyday work and play.

ET: What are your plans for the new school year? Will the program be expanded nationwide?

AC: The Basalt School network is expanding. In addition to the first three schools, we will work with half a dozen other partner schools in 2023, whose program will go live in January. The area of ​​the European Capital of Culture program is Veszprém and the Balaton-felvidék region, but we are already negotiating with several schools about how they could enter the Basalt School program from around the whole country. 2023 will be a turning point in the life of the Basalt School, as we will organize a competition among the students of the participating schools, in which we will also involve the community of the applying schools, furthermore, the toolkit developed in the project, the “Basalt Book of Outdoor Learning” will be published by the end of the year, which will make the jointly compiled knowledge available in book and website form, providing a tool not only for the teachers, students, but for other youth programs as well. Based on the intensive interest, we are hoping to create a Basalt Classroom for most Hungarian schools in the next 10-15 years and also to join in the international network of outdoor learning.

The Basalt School (Project ID: OC-MUV/3-2021/760242; Project code: P-120) is sponsored by the Veszprém-Balaton 2023 European Capital of Culture program.

The article can be read in Romanian, here.