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Place-Based Education | Issue #3
My sister is driving out to visit next week (yay!), and riding copilot is a box of things from my childhood (eek!). All my old toys and papers and things had gotten mixed in with hers sometime over the last two decades, and she had a good time sorting through them, sending me occasional photos of particularly funny bits of writing and other random personal and school projects from my formative years.
Among these mementos was a middle school life science project/nature journal centered around tree biology.
This had always been one of my favorite school projects from that period of my life, so I remember it rather well. The goal was to learn to identify different trees based on the qualities of their leaves and press and label them in a notebook. During class, we had the rare opportunity of exiting the school building and squeezed in a walk to the city park nearby to look at a sampling of trees.
Given some examples and a short list of trees that our teacher knew were around town, we were tasked with tracking down 12 or so different leaves and putting together a field journal. After school, we hopped on our bikes and explored our little town of 1200, looking with new eyes at the trees we had walked, rode, or driven by for years without knowing their names.
As a result of this project, we learned that apple trees have what are considered “simple” leaves, and that they smell like apples, too. We learned that locust trees have a compound leaf pattern, and how to tell the difference between a ponderosa and a spruce. To this day, when I walk past an apple tree, I stop to smell it.
We also grew in our knowledge of something else though — our community. Our spatial memories of the small town we knew so well grew to include the names of the trees that shaded our yards and parks (especially those that were useful toward maintaining our life science grade). We could compare one tree from another, and so built a baseline understanding of tree families common to the place we called home.
Something magical happens when a tree becomes more than just a tree. When trees have names, the world becomes a little more knowable and somehow a little friendlier.
I wanted to start with this story because it is the best example I have from my own life of a pedagogical practice I’ve grown to appreciate and advocate for: place-based education.
The best time to start practicing placefulness is as children, when our world views are malleable and our curiosity is seemingly endless. While the majority of readers of this newsletter are adults, I believe an overview on the merits of place-based education is pertinent. As adults, we are the best advocates for encouraging place-based pedagogy in our child care centers and school systems.
What is place-based education?
David Sobel, a prolific writer, researcher, and author on place-based education, offers this description:
Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens.
To look at it from another perspective, the authors of The Power of Place: Authentic Learning through Place-Based Education list these six principles, stating that place-based education:
Embeds learning everywhere and views the community as a classroom.
Is centered on individual learners.
Is inquiry based to help students develop an understanding of their place in the world.
Incorporates local and global thinking and investigations.
Requires design thinking to find solutions to authentic problems.
Place-based education forms the basis of the curricula for many schools and community organizations. For a diverse list of programs that fit under the umbrella of place-based education, check out this list put together by the folks at Getting Smart.
Why place-based education?
Pedagogies of place offer a wide range of benefits to students of all ages and their communities. For one, place-based education creates opportunities for cross-discipline problem solving, preparing students for project-based work beyond the classroom. In real life, much of the work we do in our day-to-day lives and in our jobs and careers is cross-discipline, and preparing students for this style of work is only going to become more pertinent. According to one estimate, up to 65% of the jobs that young children will have when they enter the workforce do not yet exist, making the argument for developing critical thinking and problem solving skills even stronger. And this actually leads me to my next point, which is that…
With place-based education, learning becomes more about meaning over memorization. This is achieved by using place to contextualize systems that are relevant to students’ everyday lives. In an era where so much information is available at our fingertips, rote memorization is only beneficial to a certain extent. A student learning about watersheds and water quality is more likely to absorb the important information—and associate a feeling with learning about the subject—if they work to identify nonpoint sources of pollution in their community versus learning about a nameless town in a textbook.
Place-based education is also more equitable than traditional classroom learning. Students with different learning styles benefit from place-based pedagogy. Additionally, place-based education has been shown to be moderately successful at improving educational outcomes for students with additional learning needs, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, who are English language learners, or who may have developmental delays. Place-based education has also been shown in one study I found to narrow the GPA equity gap of underrepresented students in a first year STEM program.
Place-based education creates more potential for developing empathy, which is incredibly important within social and environmental movements. One research study found that placing a coral reef in a Montessori classroom and using inquiry-based lessons around coral reefs increased the students’ empathy and connection to coral reef ecosystems. Considering also that place-based education has been shown to increase students’ environmental stewardship behaviors, this type of connection is key if we are to raise a generation of students motivated to take on current environmental issues.
In addition to the individual benefits gained by students in place-based programs, communities also benefit. Schools and curricula developed with place in mind show an increase in beneficial connections between their communities and schools, leading to positive changes for both. Students from Lawrence Barnes Elementary School were able to experience first hand to process of identifying a community need and seeing it through the governmental processes of implementing a positive change:
Lawrence Barnes Elementary School students went into their urban Burlington, Vermont neighborhood and made a detailed assessment of it. They noticed that the neighborhood lacked “school zone” safety signs alerting drivers to the school on this busy thoroughfare. So the fourth and fifth graders went to see the city’s Director of Public Works. They were told the process would take a long time. The students pressed, asking why the process could not be sped up for such an important safety issue. The process was expedited and the signs were installed with the mayor on-hand to congratulate the young activists. The students also presented their larger findings to the City Council and Neighborhood Action Committee. Students from this low-income, urban neighborhood have been referred to as “the future of city government.”
Equity extends outside the classroom with most place-based education programs. As S. Anthony Deringer writes in his paper linking mindfulness and place-based education, “PBE is an opportunity for formal education to
create a more humanizing and generative society through identifying injustices and
promoting compassion at a local level.”
Think global, act local is a phrase many of us in the sustainability realm have heard over the years, and place-based education nestles perfectly within that framework.
Sustainability, empathy, and place are interconnected in so many important ways, and just like learning a new language, starting in early childhood is easier than starting in adulthood. The entirety of a school’s curriculum does not need to be place-based for students and communities to experience some of the benefits discussed above. A great starting place is integrating place into one project, or one discipline. Promise of Place is a great site for tracking down curricular resources.
For me, what it comes down to is this: our students are current members of a community, not future members of a community. Knowing all the benefits of place-based education, let’s engage our children and young adults with their communities and wild spaces, for the good of all.
"I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living."
I believe that the school must represent present life-life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.” - John Dewey, 1897, My Pedagogic Creed
Writing Prompt: Name a subject that you are passionate about. How could you turn a lesson about it into an opportunity for place-based education? Remember the 6 principles listed above.
Listening/reading/watching/noticing this week…
This essay on living with climate grief, from a climate scientist
A convincing argument for dumb cities
Another delightful film from Taika Waititi from 2010 … Garrett and I are old school and still rent movies from the library
Returned to one of my favorite albums from The Dip, a Seattle-based soul revival group
Book I’m currently reading: Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer*
*Any books I mention in this section of my newsletter end up on my online Bookshop shelf. I may earn a commission from any books purchased through these links, at no additional cost to you.