10 Questions to Ask When Developing Place-based Learning Experiences

10 Questions to Ask When Developing Place-based Learning Experiences

10 Questions to Ask When Developing Place-based Learning Experiences


by Gregory Smith, Professor of Education, Lewis & Clark College

T1he March 19, 2014 Oregonian included an article about two math teachers at Benson High School in Portland who have created a course they call Tech Geometry that requires students to apply their emerging mathematical understandings to projects that have social value. They combine work in the classroom with work in a spacious auto shop where they use what they’ve learned about triangles, the Pythagorean theorem, or trigonometric functions to design and construct a 120-foot structure for the otherwise homeless residents of Portland’s Dignity Village or a playhouse for Escuela-Viva, a nearby bilingual preschool.

The class is an example of place- and community-based education. This approach to teaching and learning involves finding ways to give young people a chance to use their emerging academic knowledge and skills to make positive contributions to their community. The result is almost always engaged students, energized teachers, and enthusiastic community members. Learning becomes meaningful as the boundaries between classroom and the world beyond are reduced, students understand the value of what they’re learning, and tax-paying citizens come to see public school as an institution that gives back as well as takes.

Developing lessons or units that incorporate these possibilities can serve as an important motivation for student learning. Even with today’s emphasis on instruction driven by standards and tests, teachers in school districts around the United States and other countries are finding ways to integrate opportunities for applied learning outside the classroom into their work with students. Teachers successful in moving in this direction start small with projects that easily connect to curriculum requirements and have a strong likelihood of success. To guide their efforts, they often consider the following questions:

1. What local topics, issues, or projects are likely to be meaningful for students and give them an opportunity to participate in learning activities that others will value?

2. What aspects of the required curriculum are related to this issue or project? List specific subtopics that students might explore, including those related to other subject areas.

3. What four or five overarching questions might guide your students’ study?

4. What specific learning standards would this topic or project enable you to address?

5. How will you assess student learning? List possible strategies, including some culminating projects. Discuss how you will scaffold the learning that students need.

6. What community partners might you bring into the classroom to help teach this unit or to support activities outside of school?

7. What field studies, monitoring, or other inquiry activities might students become involved with in their neighborhood, community, or region?

8. What community needs might students address as part of this unit or project? What service learning opportunities does it afford? How might you publicize the contributions that students make?

9. How might students become involved in community governance activities related to this project? How could they participate in data gathering, reporting, or other forms of public participation, such as organizing meetings or planning community events?

10. What creative possibilities in the fields of art, music, dance, film, or theater relate to this project? What about vocational opportunities or internships?

More than anything, implementing place- and community-based education requires a shift of perspective and the willingness to see learning opportunities in something other than textbooks, computer programs, or laboratory experiments whose end results are already known. By approaching the world beyond the school as a text filled with potential resources and needs, teachers can bring to their students the kinds of learning experiences that once lay at the heart of cultural transmission in earlier human societies, experiences that gave young people the chance to develop valued competencies and to perceive themselves as people able to contribute to the well-being of their community. When this happens, learning becomes not a chore but a means for realizing one’s identity and ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Gregory Smith is a Professor Emeritus of Education at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Contact him at gasmith@lclark.edu

This article originally appeared in TOST, the journal of the Oregon Science Teachers Association, June 2014.


Place-Based Education Northwest was formed following a suggestion from a participant at a two-day workshop about this educational approach in November, 2005. Its primary purpose has been to serve as a meeting place for people interested in making room for local knowledge and learning experiences in regional schools. The organization now meets twice-yearly in early December and May at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. These gatherings have provided an opportunity for local educators who have adopted place-based approaches to share what they are doing with others. Meetings have also served as the springboard for the beginning of local workshops and Institutes about place-based education as well as presentations at regional conferences.

For more information about this network, go to the PBENW Blog at: http://placebasededucationnw.blogspot.com/p/history.html