Teaching the 3 R’s Through the 3 C’s: Connecting the Curriculum and Community

slideshow_12xBy Clifford E. Knapp

The exploration of the educational potential of communities through direct experiences is not a new idea.  In 1912 naturalist, John Burroughs, wrote: “. . . The way of knowledge of Nature is the way of love and enjoyment, and is more surely found in the open air than in the schoolroom or the laboratory” (Burroughs, In Finch and Elder (Eds.), 1990, p. 275)  In 1915 educator and philosopher, John Dewey, re-published some earlier speeches in his book, The School and Society.  He wrote: “We cannot overlook the importance for educational purposes of the close and intimate acquaintance got with nature at first hand, with real things and materials, with the actual processes of their manipulation, and the knowledge of their social necessities and uses” (p. 11).  Why has it taken so long for educators to expand their concept of classrooms to include community outdoor laboratories?

Today, many innovative educators are venturing into the community to enrich the curriculum and to energize the instructional program and their own teaching lives.  Why are they doing this?

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Evidence from current cognitive research has shown that the human brain has two primary memory systems.  First, the spatial system allows for “locale” or natural memory of past experiences in three-dimensional space and is enriched over time as humans increase their categories for storing information.  Second, the “taxon” memory system is used for rote learning of isolated facts and skills and requires more practice and rehearsal for retention.  Outdoor learning usually capitalizes upon the personal worlds of learners by engaging their locale memory systems through direct experiences within a nearby context.  Humans understand and remember best when facts and skills are embedded in this memory system (Caine and Caine, 1994, pp. 41-46).

Howard Gardner, a psychologist, author, and educator, has identified eight human intelligences that have been used by some schools to plan balanced learning experiences for students. Recently, he described the naturalistic intelligence that meets eight stringent criteria, including an identified location in the brain and documented experimental data gathered by cognitive psychologists (Roth, 1998, pp. 9-11).  The naturalist intelligence accounts for how people recognize patterns in nature and culture, classify objects, and understand relationships in their environment.  It is “. . . the human ability to discriminate among living things . . . as well as [demonstrate a] sensitivity to other features of the natural world” (Roth, 1998, p. 7).  Trips to local areas outside the school can develop this intelligence and result in long-term knowledge acquisition and retention.

One current educational reform effort involves providing students with authentic experiences and assessments.  Educational authenticity simply means creating more realistic learning situations that mirror what others are doing in the community.  Some educators also advocate a philosophical approach called constructivism – instructional strategies based on research about how people learn.  This involves students actively learning and explaining their reasoning behind how they arrive at answers to questions of importance.  Constructivism incorporates the support of groups of learners engaged in problem solving, reflecting, and connecting the lessons to prior knowledge and past experience.

Another educational trend relates to bioregional education or place-based pedagogy Woodhouse & Knapp, 2000).  As urbanization and information technologies increase, the innate, genetically programmed human need to relate to natural places has emerged from our ancient past.  The scientist, E. O. Wilson, named this human affinity for nature “biophilia”.  Some educators believe that without a sense of place, students can not fully know who they are and where they fit into the community.  Most suburban and urban students and teachers don’t understand where their drinking water originates, can’t identify many native trees or birds, don’t know whether the moon is waxing or waning, or have ever seen the stars over the city.  How can people feel whole without an awareness of their bioregion”s natural cycles and processes?  Many youth are growing up with little firsthand knowledge of where they live and therefore, don’t know their ecological addresses or understand how their ecological footprints relate to their consumptive lifestyles.  The only field trips many urban and suburban youth take are via the software programs chosen for their computers.  Learning, conducted in the context of the community, helps students to better comprehend the relationship of the school curriculum to more of life’s pleasures and problems.

Another educationally relevant field has been labeled, “ecopsychology” or “conservation psychology” – the combination of ecology or conservation and psychology.  One principle advanced by ecopsychologists is that humans need natural spaces to relieve the modern-day stresses of crowded and fast-paced living.  Breathing clean air, viewing green plants, and caring for and observing animals can improve mental health and relieve some forms of stress and depression.  Educators have only begun to understand the importance of direct contacts with the green islands located within steel and concrete dwelling places.

One of the most promising new outdoor education studies resulted from a 12-state research project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by Gerald Lieberman and Linda Hoody.  The study described the common features of instructional “best practices” and the factors leading to student learning in 40 K-12 schools across the United States.  These schools were selected because they used natural and socio-cultural environments as integrating contexts (EIC) for learning.  “Evidence gathered from this study . . . indicates that students learn more effectively within an environment-based context than within a traditional educational framework.” “. . . EIC appears to significantly improve student performance in reading, writing, math, science and social studies, and enriches the overall school experience” (Lieberman and Hoody, 1998, p. 2).  Although more research is always needed, this study provides some support for teachers who believe that sometimes the community can be the best laboratory for learning and applying certain educational goals, standards, and benchmarks.

In our graduate course, “Integrating the Community into Curriculum and Instruction”  we used two other community-based educational models to guide our learning.  We chose the Foxfire Program (The Foxfire Fund, 1990), a nationally recognized, student-centered approach and Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, (Campbell, Liebowitz, Mednick, and Rugen (Eds.), 1998), a program initially funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation in 1992.  Both of these programs are currently operating successfully in schools across the country and have shown that a wide range of students can learn important objectives and become motivated and actively engaged in the process.  Each of these programs employs several core principles and practices that reflect sound experiential-learning philosophies.  These project-based models place high priority on student decision making, critical and creative thinking, and problem solving in the context of the community and local issues.  School curricula that are more reality based and immersed in local contexts are becoming more accepted by school boards, parent groups, and educational leaders around the country.  Several states and school districts, including the Chicago Public Schools, have required service learning programs designed to connect students to the wider community and teach civic values.  These types of explorations beyond the classroom walls increase the chances that the curriculum will be more meaningful now and in the future.  The following writers hope that their articles will inspire learning adventures in local areas, including school sites, businesses, agencies, industries, nature centers, museums, parks, historical sites, residences, and natural areas.  Will you accept their challenge of teaching with the three C’s in mind?


Burroughs, J. (1912). The gospel of nature. In Finch, R. & Elder, J. (Eds.). The Norton book of nature writing. (1990). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Caine, R. N. & Caine, g. (1994).  Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Campbell, M., Liebowitz, M., Mednick, A., & Rugen, L. (1998). Guide for planning a learning expedition.  Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Dewey, J. (Fourth Impression, 1959).  The child and the curriculum and The school and society.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lieberman, G. & Hoody, L. (Eds.). (1998). Closing the achievement gap: Using the environment as an integrating context for learning. Poway, CA: Science Wizards.

Roth, K. (1998). The naturalist intelligence. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing, Inc.

The Foxfire Fund, Inc. (1990). The Foxfire approach: Perspectives and core practices. Hands On. Rabun Gap, GA: The Foxfire Fund, Inc.

Woodhouse, J. L. & Knapp, C. E. (2000).  Place-based curriculum and instruction:

Outdoor and environmental education approaches.  ERIC Digest EDO-RC-00-6. Charleston, WV:AEL, Inc.