The Time is Now for Place Based Education

Schools are not just training grounds for children to learn content and job skills for twelve or more years before they are allowed back into broader society, ready to pursue their own individual enrichment. In the place-based education vision, schools and students become an integral part of the community acting for the public good.

By Sarah Anderson

here are multiple reasons why now is the right time for place-based education. Across the country, the stage is set for a new community-based, student-powered form of education.

Disconnection from Nature
Children are separated from the natural world more now than ever before. This crisis was well documented in Last Child in the Woods where author Richard Louv labels the problem “nature deficit disorder.” Kids are getting outside less and less, partly because of the seductions of technology, but almost more so because of parents who fear danger. The obvious result is a new generation that is less informed about the environment, and therefore potentially less likely to care about it in the future. This inadvertently places more responsibility on schools to get students outside and into the natural world around them.

Revitalizing of Democracy
While it is essential that student learn about worldwide issues and understand the idea of global citizenship, it is also vital for them to know about what is right in front of them. Technology has made it easy for us to connect with people and places thousands of miles away and spend hours of our day immersed in alternate or virtual realities. The less time we spend learning about our own towns and cities, the less knowledge we have. This leads to us feeling less qualified to participate in the local democratic process. Civic engagement connects neighbors and puts students in touch with local issues.
It is as important for students to learn how their city government works as it is for them to know about the Constitution. Local politics often affect us more directly than national issues, even if the topics may not be as sensational. Additionally, students- and their parents- can get involved and make real change on a local level. Maintaining a democracy means giving young people the tools, information and confidence they need to truly participate.

Need for a New Civic Education
The Annenberg Public Policy Center recently released the results of a poll that found that only 36% of Americans can name all three branches of government. (Annenberg 2014)[i] If American citizens don’t understand how the government works, how can they actively participate or accurately reform? We are charged with a substantial responsibility to teach students the basics of how our government operates and our democracy functions.

Another study, this one from Northwestern University and Princeton University, found that the United States is no longer a democracy, but is now an oligarchy. (Chumley 2014)[ii] Under this system of government, decisions and policies are not made by average citizens or for their benefit. The power is shifting. If citizens don’t use their voices, they risk losing them altogether.

It is our responsibility as educators to balance the scales and ensure that our children will have a say in the future. It will be the children’s responsibility to play a more active role in securing that future.

Cultivating Character
Social education has increasingly become a priority in classrooms and schools. As educators, we know that our charge is not just teaching the common core, but to show kids how to be kind and compassionate, honest and respectful. When examining the purpose of place-based education, retired Lewis and Clark College education professor Greg Smith wonders what attributes people will need in order to “contribute to the resilience and adaptability of their communities in the face of climate change, resource exhaustion, and the social disintegration likely to become widespread in coming decades.” (Greg Smith, pers. comm.)
Students working to improve their community naturally strengthen character. By actively engaging with their community, students learn to take responsibility for themselves and others. By gaining insight into diverse perspectives and experiences, students develop empathy. By performing collective acts of service, students learn to collaborate.
Long-term projects require perseverance and effective teamwork. They also demand patience and kindness. Presenting to authentic audiences made of invested adults builds both integrity and courage. Place-based education fosters the growth of caring and involved humans who recognize and value the ways in which we are all connected and depend on one another.

An Eye on Justice
One of our roles as educators in a democracy is to give students the tools they need to advocate for a better future. Our citizens need to be well-versed in American history, which includes the close study of times when we as a nation strayed from our mission of “liberty and justice for all.”
Learning from our mistakes allows us to avoid similar injustices in the future and also gives students a context for current events and conflicts. By studying slavery, students can see the roots of racial tensions today; by examining colonialism, we have a more informed understanding of recent conflict and global trade.
Likewise, looking at examples of compassionate leadership and courageous action gives young people models for own lives. For instance, it is important to know that most of the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement were average, working-class citizens who felt compelled to stand against injustice. The more students can connect to such individuals from the past and recognize our common humanity, the more opportunity there is for young people to imagine themselves as agents of positive change.

School and Communities as Mutual Resources
Many of our communities are in crisis. Paul Nachtigal, former director of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, declared that,


    “When school only focuses on how to benefit the individual, they become the enemy of the community. They educate young people to leave and so fulfill the prophecy that these places are doomed to poverty, decline and despair. Instead, we intend to rally communities to reinvent their schools as engines of renewal for the public good.”

(Cushman 1997)[iii]

As many rural areas across America lose industry, resources, and their young people, place-based education can offer a strategy for revitalization and renewal. By integrating school into the local towns, students work with partners to create or strengthen community programs and initiatives. Students develop a stronger bond with their place, rooted in experience and deep knowledge. The school and the students can even inspire local citizens to take a more active role. Place-based education recognizes that there is a link between healthy communities and a vital economy; when people are actively engaged, it attracts more people, and the hope is that the economy will follow. (Sobel 2013, 55–56)[iv]
Although many examples of place-based education can be found in rural areas, the model can also fill a special niche in cities. As the American population becomes increasingly urban, more kids are going to school in densely populated areas. Inner city areas may have just as much need for grassroots revitalization and community-building. Likewise, the city has a lot of offer to schools. Students can make better use of their local resources such as the public library, city hall, historical societies, public universities, and art museums. The city can literally become the classroom.

Making School Relevant
Student engagement is a concern for schools everywhere. Many educators are trying new strategies to combat high dropout rates. As David Perkins noted in his March 2016 Educational Leadership article “Lifeworthy Learning,” one way to keep students engaged now and for years to come is to make education more “lifeworthy.” In other words, student learning should not focus on isolated, abstract subjects, but on larger, integrated topics which have relevant connections to students’ lives such as current events or local problems.
When engaged in a successful place-based education unit, students don’t ask the age-old question, “Why do we need to learn this,” because the answer is obvious. Many times students don’t even notice that they are learning because the education is so deftly camouflaged as real life.
Making learning more relevant has an impact beyond higher graduation rates. It provides a new role for schools within their community, one where teachers and students actively contribute to civic improvement. Collaborating with colleagues and partner groups can be incredibly reinvigorating for teachers and can help combat the feelings of isolation often reported by educators in traditional schools. (Mirel and Goldin)[v]

Being the Mirror
The demographics of our nation are changing. The U.S. census predicts that by the year 2020, “…more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.” (U.S. Census Bureau 2015)[vi] Despite this trend in student populations, 82% of teachers are white. This is what the Center for American Progress and the National Education Association are calling a “diversity gap.” (Holland 2014)[vii]
It is vital to the health of our country that our educational programs reflect the diversity of our student bodies. When students see their experience reflected in the curriculum, they feel recognized and included. Place-based education gives us the opportunity to create content which is truly culturally responsive.
Through place-based education, teachers can shift the attention away from their own personal experience to further explore the experience of their students’. Children learn about issues relevant to them and build relationships with organizations who are working on similar topics. They will have the opportunity to examine the history of their particular place and gain more insights into local current events. Students and their communities are at the center of their learning, which will make each project unique to the needs and interests of that specific community.

“Soft” Skills
Traditional schooling does not prepare students for the world we live in today. Our colleges, universities, and places of work are not looking for young people who only know how to memorize facts, fill out worksheets, and work alone. Society is now in need of students with “soft” skills, many of which are also 21st century skills.
The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has placed four learning and innovation skills at the heart of their “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Also known as the 4Cs, they are: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. (P21 2017)[viii]

Practicing these skills are natural components of quality place-based education programming and are necessary in its implementation. Conveniently, it is almost as if place-based education emerged in synch with this need in the marketplace.
At its core, place-based education gives us a process through which we can reconnect with our community, environment, and with each other. In a 2013 interview with Bill Moyers, the writer, activist, and farmer Wendell Berry said:
We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it, we have to know it. And to know it and be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.
There are many aspects involved in knowing, loving, and caring for our world, from incorporating diverse perspectives to honoring the rural or urban nature of our environment to teaching our kids to care for each other and the places where they live. Place-based education provides a way for us to bring our children more fully into the world while preparing them to be strong and capable stewards of their own future.

Sarah Anderson teaches middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies at a place-based charter school in Portland, Oregon. This is an excerpt from her book Bringing Life to School: Place-Based Education Across the Curriculum. Originally from rural Vermont, Anderson has also taught nature studies to urban middle school students in the California Redwoods, career skills to at-risk youth on an educational farm in Vermont and Civics and Global Studies at an independent school in Maryland. She earned a masters in education in Integrated Learning from Antioch New England Graduate School.

[i] Annenberg Public Policy Center. 2014. “Americans Know Surprisingly Little About Their Government, Survey Finds.” Accessed May 7, 2017.

[ii] Chumley, Cheryl K. 2014. “American Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy of Republic, University Study Finds.” The Washington Times, April 21. Accessed May 7, 2017.

[iii] Cushman, Kathleen. 1997. “What Rural Schools Can Teach Urban Systems.” Challenge Journal (The Journal of the Annenberg Challenge) I, no. 2

[iv] Sobel, David. 2013. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society

[v] Mirel, Jeffrey, and Simona Goldin. 2012. “Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated.” The Atlantic, April 12. Accessed March 4, 2017. .

[vi] The United State Census Bureau. 2015. “New Census Bureau Report Analyzes U.S. Population Projections.” Accessed March 24, 2017. 3/24/17

[vii] Holland, Jesse J. 2014. “U.S. Teachers Nowhere as Diverse as Their Students.” The Big Story, March 4. Accessed March 24, 2017.

[viii] P21: Partnership for 21st Century Learning. “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Accessed March 27, 2017.