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Learning in place: Thoughts about place-based education

By Cathy Jordan

What difference does it make where a child is, when he is learning?

Last year I had the opportunity to bring David Sobel of the Center for Place-based Education at Antioch College New England in New Hampshire to my children's K-8 school for a staff development workshop and public forum on placed-based education (PBE). What I learned from Sobel got me thinking about three things:
  1. What are the benefits of learning in place to its multiple stakeholders? 
  2. Can youth out-of-school time programs make use of the principles of PBE?
  3. Do diverse youth have equal access to PBE?
According to Promise of Place, a public-private partnership in Vermont, PBE has its roots in environmental education, community development and service learning. PBE:
  • Immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences
  • Uses these as a foundation for the interdisciplinary study of language arts, math, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum; and
  • Emphasizes learning through participation in service projects for the local school and/or community.
Sobel would add that PBE provides learners with a path for becoming active citizens and stewards of the environment.

In PBE, learning focuses on local themes, systems, content and contexts that are personally relevant to the learner. Learning is grounded in and nurtures the development of a connection to and a love for one's place. Learning on the local level forms the foundation for understanding and participating in regional and global issues in developmentally appropriate ways.

According to a report of the Placed-based Education Evaluation Collaborative, PBE fosters stewardship by helping students learn to take care of the world by understanding where they live and taking action in their own backyards and communities.

Benefits to stakeholders

A growing body of research points to numerous benefits of PBE:
  • Higher student engagement;
  • Strong academic achievement especially in the area of writing, higher standardized test scores (reading, writing, math, science, social studies) and higher GPA;
  • Improved behavior in class;
  • More enthusiasm for learning because learning is more relevant to students' daily lives, their home, and community;
  • Greater pride and ownership in their accomplishments and enhanced self-esteem, conflict resolution, problem solving and higher-level thinking skills.
In addition to student benefits, PBE invigorates educators; results in higher teacher retention; encourages positive relationship among students, educators and the community; and builds strong community support for education. Communities and the environment also benefit through student service projects.

PBE in out-of-school time

PBE can take place in the school, in the local community and in the natural environment, and programs can take place during school hours as well as during out-of-school time. Youth out-of-school time programs could be ideal settings for, and greatly enriched by the application of principles of PBE.

Access to PBE

I could not find much information with respect to the question of whether diverse youth have access to PBE, in the literature or on the web. PBE is definitely appropriate in urban, suburban and rural settings and in built environments as well as natural ones. All of these contexts can provide the natural, economic, social, political and cultural dimensions that form the foundation for learning in PBE. But has PBE "caught on" in some locales or types of schools or programs more than others, in some cultural communities more than others, or in schools or youth programs with different levels of resources than others?

What are the attitudes, skills and training necessary for adults to provide quality PBE? Is training and professional development widespread so that educators and youth workers serving youth in diverse contexts can offer quality PBE?

What are your opinions, observations or experiences? Are there certain contexts or populations for which PBE works better, or worse? Would there be different challenges to, or benefits from, implementing PBE in some contexts or with specific populations, compared to others?

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