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September 1, 2002
Vol. 60
No. 1

Going Local

Place-based education offers students engaging learning experiences that also contribute directly to their school and community.

Going Local - thumbnail
Nearly every Thursday during the first half of this year, I observed two classes of 6th through 8th graders at the Environmental Middle School in Portland, Oregon, as they ventured onto the school grounds or into the community for special learning experiences that are integral to the school's curriculum. I accompanied classes to the Brookside wetlands and the Tideman-Johnson Park to conduct tests for water quality and to survey wildlife and plants; to Portland's wastewater treatment facility to learn how it purifies water for return to the Willamette River; to a local Hispanic theater to watch a play in Spanish and English about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; and to the native plant garden on the school grounds to draw new buds or to construct maps of which species grow where.
Service learning is another important commitment at the Environmental Middle School. Students have been involved in a number of service learning projects, including building raised garden beds for homeless people at a city-sanctioned tent village, visiting a local center for children with cerebral palsy, organizing canned food drives for the Oregon Food Bank, and creating a small park in a low-income neighborhood.
The students at the Environmental Middle School are engaged in place-based learning, an approach to curriculum that is grounded in students' own lives, community, and region. Educators are increasingly recognizing how this approach engages students and improves the health of their communities.

Embracing the Local

Place-based learning adopts local environments—social, cultural, economic, political, and natural—as the context for a significant share of students' educational experiences. Schools using the approach include many that are associated with state or national efforts, such as the Rural School and Community Trust (formerly the Annenberg Rural Challenge), the Center for Ecoliteracy in California, the Coalition for Community Schools, the Orion Society's watershed projects, contextualized education programs linked to Ohio State University, and many other homegrown versions that have arisen from the work of creative teachers. Not wishing to replace national or international explorations in the curriculum, proponents simply seek a better balance between the local and the distant.
By focusing on students' local context, proponents address one of John Dewey's (1899/1959) major concerns about 19th century public schools that still applies to this century: the lack of connection between formal schooling and students' lives, a disconnect that makes learning an imposed chore rather than an opportunity to explore questions that arise from students' innate curiosity and desire to become competent and contributing members of their families and communities. By locating learning in the lives and concerns of students and their communities, place-based education takes advantage of students' natural interest in the world and their desire to be valued by others.

Characteristics of Place-Based Education

Place-based education does not come prepackaged. Its curriculum and activities arise from the individual qualities of specific communities and the creative impulses of particular teachers and students. Nonetheless, the activities do have some common characteristics. One important feature is that the activities provide students with opportunities to produce rather than consume knowledge. When Environmental Middle School students go to the Brookside wetlands, for example, their water samples and inventories of macro-invertebrates, collected and compiled over the course of the year, become part of a report to Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services. The project allows for a direct rather than mediated experience of the world. The water is cold—the mud, slippery. And when the class spots two geese threatening with outstretched necks a third who tries to cross the invisible boundary that marks their territory, everyone watches in silence.
During place-based learning experiences, teachers act more as colearners and guides than as instructors. To bring elements of place-based learning into my own teaching, a colleague and I have developed a graduate-level course on hunger and homelessness that combines the reading of sociological and historical studies with regular visits to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and drop-in centers for homeless youth. In the classroom, we facilitate discussions and invite guest speakers, but at the St. Francis dining hall, we are just additional volunteers. We have to confront our own shyness and anxiety about conversing with strangers, knowing that we need to model what we are asking from our students.
In this way, place-based education changes the power relationship between teachers and students. We may be more experienced and still responsible for students' safety, but we must also confront and interpret the unpredictable nature of the experience with the same uncertainty and immediacy that students feel.
With this shift in roles, the questions and interests of students can become the center of the curriculum. Commit-ted to creating classrooms that integrate democracy and the curriculum, Nagel (1996) encourages elementary preservice teachers to engage students in real-world problem solving. After students identify a local problem that they wish to address and that is amenable to their collective response, the teacher incorporates as many traditional subjects as possible into the unit that follows. Students and teacher work together to gather information about the problem, develop a set of strategies for addressing it, and cultivate some of the skills needed to enact a solution.

Solving Real Problems

Influenced by Nagel's work, two primary school teachers and their students identified a neglected greenspace on the school's grounds that students now called the “brownspace.” The two classes decided that they would redesign this area and, with luck, replant it. They catalogued the plants that still grew in the “brownspace,” mapped the area, and wrote a book that contained information about each of the plants. In doing so, students found that many plants were poorly situated. They used this knowledge to construct a new landscape design, one that would require relocating some existing plants and planting several new species. With the help of a small grant, they visited a nursery, chose species that matched their design, and organized workdays during which they and parent volunteers replanted the entire area.
Interviewing students from these classrooms, I was struck by the degree to which they had come to think of themselves as problem solvers. One student remarked that whenever he was walking around the school now and saw something that wasn't right, he often thought, “We could fix that. We could work on that.” He and his classmates had come to care not only about their own learning but also about their school.
Teachers can further extend students' sense of caring by encouraging students to play a more active role in the life of the community. Believing that schools are valuable intellectual resources for their communities and that students are citizens as much as anyone else, Maine (1998) encourages teachers to involve students in local information-gathering and decision-making processes.
A class of 5th graders, for example, conducted a survey of playground equipment in the county's parks and then presented their needs-assessment report to the county parks commission. High school students conducted biological surveys of an old lumber mill site; the city incorporated their findings in a grant proposal for purchasing the land.
Students in a calculus class measured and photographed the structures in a section of the city that most expect will eventually be engulfed by a tidal wave. Their work helped county emergency planners who needed these measurements for a special software program that projected the impact of tsunamis of various sizes.
Other communities have similar projects. In Eastport, Maine, high school students regularly analyze water quality and conditions in local mudflats and clam beds; they post their findings on the city's Web site, sometimes including warnings to shellfish harvesters about red tides and the possibility of toxic contamination (Rural Challenge Research and Evaluation Program, 1999). And in Roxbury, Massachusetts, students at the Greater Eggleston Community School have helped monitor air quality and lobbied the state to reduce pollution and the rates of asthma associated with it.

Activating the Desire to Learn

Some readers may be thinking, “All of this is well and good, but what about the standards? What about student achievement? Is place-based education likely to encourage the learning gains against which teachers' worth and their jobs are now measured? Does this demanding approach encourage students to care about learning and invest themselves in academics?”
A recent study of 40 U.S. schools that have adopted the social, cultural, and natural features of local environments as the context for learning reported that students act more independently and responsibly, display pride in and ownership of their accomplishments, exhibit improved discipline and self- control, and academically outperform their traditionally instructed peers (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998). In schools where comparative quantitative data were available, students who experienced place-based education earned higher grade point averages, demonstrated better behavior, and scored higher on standardized tests in language arts, math, and social studies.
Although Newmann and Wehlage's (1995) five-year study of mathematics and social studies education in successfully restructured schools did not explicitly investigate place-based education, the researchers found that student involvement in authentic and meaningful work—such as the projects typical of place-based education—enhanced student engagement and performance. Newmann and Wehlage argue that these findings are the result of how teachers hold students to the same intellectual standards to which society holds adults: the construction rather than consumption of knowledge, in-depth understanding and communication associated with disciplined inquiry, and the creation of reports, products, or performances valued beyond the school.
In addition to authenticity, place-based education offers cognitively demanding tasks that stimulate student engagement and achievement. When students can directly experience what they learn in contexts familiar to them, their capacity to understand and communicate its meaning increases (Cummins, 1996).
At Open Meadows School in Portland, Oregon, students who have failed to thrive in conventional classrooms participate in a place-based education program that integrates academics with community-based projects in health and human services, natural resources, and technology. The approach has helped them connect to their communities and to their own futures. Steve, for example, spoke about how the experience of mapping a nearby wetlands for Portland's regional government had opened up new possibilities.I'd always thought that I was computer illiterate. But I got into making map overlays with the computerized geographic information system, and it was like, “Wow! This stuff is really interesting and fun.” It sparked new ideas of what I could do in the future.
By teaching others, Shannon discovered something important about herself. She remarked,What excited me the most was reading to little kids. I was able to make a difference for them. It's not necessarily about me learning—but I did learn how to talk to kids, and that's what I want to do: be involved with kids when I'm older.
Austin spoke of the value of connecting to the community. She said,Not only are we learning the basic skills that we are supposed to be learning, we're also learning how to be in a community. How to live in a community. How to give to a community.
Place-based education holds out to students the promise that they can become valued members of a community. Schools often neglect the universal desire to join with others in meaningful work. Our attention to individual learning and testing often overshadows an appreciation of this fundamental drive to be connected to others and the world.
How can we encourage students to care about learning? Demonstrate to them that they live in communities that care for and value them, communities willing to acknowledge a long-term dependence on students' talents and interests, communities willing to make their assets and issues an honored part of every school's curriculum.

Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Dewey, J. (1899/1959). School and society. In M. Dworkin (Ed.), Dewey on education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lieberman, G., & Hoody, L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap: Using the environment as an integrating context. San Diego, CA: State Education and Environment Roundtable.

Maine, N. (1998, Winter). Playing the community game. New Directions for Youth Development, 14(1).

Nagel, N. G. (1996). Learning through real-world problem solving. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Newmann, F., & Wehlage, G. (1995). Successful school restructuring: A report to the public and educators. Madison, WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.

Rural Challenge Research and Evaluation Program. (1999). Living and learning in rural schools and communities: A report to the Annenberg Rural Challenge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Gregory A. Smith has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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