Building sustainable communities using place-based learning
Building Sustainable Communities Using Place-Based Learning
Master in Teaching thesis, by Cleome P. Rowe
Place-based education (PBE) can make learning relevant for students by contextualizing it in their current lives while utilizing resources found in the community. This study examined empirical peer-reviewed research that looked at how a sense of place developed and how place-based education affected student learning using various performance criteria. Students came from varying backgrounds, included fifth grade to university level, and included those in the U.S., Estonia, Bolivia, and Australia. The studies indicated that a sense of place could be fostered and increased when there was greater interaction with a locale. Student performance as measured by standardized tests, critical thinking skills, and quality of work produced increased in all but the additive approach. Programs of longer duration and greater connection to the local community showed the greatest increase in student learning. Few studies were available, and the most thorough ones were conducted in other countries. PBE can benefit students, educators, and communities by making learning relevant and the context of place can lead to deeper understandings than traditional textbook-based learning. Collaborations between those within schools and those outside of schools contribute to increased sustainability of both the community and the local environment.
Rural communities are shrinking in proportion to the number of people living in urban and suburban areas, and many rural towns want to find a means to survive and provide ways for their young people to remain after they finish school. School practices are often focused on helping children become successful in college, but not all young people want or need an education focused on this one outcome. Students need an education that is relevant today, not just as a path to college and the local community can serve as a nexus of learning for both all students, helping them gain needed skills and strengthening their communities and their connection to it.
This paper examines some of the factors that contribute to connectedness with a local place and the advantages for the students, the educators, and the larger community, involving all parties in educating children for the future as well as for the life they are living right now.
The Origins of Place-Based Education
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the migration to the cities, rural life was seen as backward and people many moved away from the farm and village to make more money in the cities (Spring, 2008). Those who stayed were seen as less ambitious or less capable than those who left, and remaining was seen as an impediment to success (Long, Bush & Theobald, 2003; Howley et al., 2010). Remnants of our rural heritage can be seen in the school calendar, with a long break in the spring coinciding with planting times, while the summer break was a time when all family members were needed to tend and harvest the year’s crops. Schools taught math, science, reading, and writing to add important elements to the agrarian life, not replace it (Williams, 1998). Students attended a small school close to home and there was a deep connection between the classroom and the community. During the summer, young people frequently worked in summer, young people frequently worked in an apprenticeship role, with more skilled elders interacting with and transmitting knowledge to children. Those whose livelihoods were based on the land valued the ability to assess problems that arose, act quickly and flexibly, and do whatever job was at hand. These skills were seen as more important than slow, deliberate solutions taught at school, making students who excelled in the classroom look like the ones who could not make it in a rural setting (Shamah & MacTavish, 2009). Using the local setting and resources for education was necessary since resources were limited, schools were close to home, and family cultures had a strong influence on what was valued in school (Corbett, 2004).
Current Challenges Facing Rural Schools
Rural students face a different set of challenges than their urban and suburban peers because the best and the brightest rural students often find more opportunity away from home (Long, Bush & Theobald, 2003; Bartholomaeus, 2006). It is important that young people have options and it is essential that all are educated in a way that honors their desires while still offering them the skills they need, whether they want to attend the best colleges or find a way to remain successfully in their communities. As Bartholomaeus noticed, “There is an expectation that rural schools prepare their student to function well biculturally” (p. 480), both in their local community and in the larger society. Rural schools with the highest graduation rates serve the smallest number of students, and small schools offer a protective advantage to those from the lowest socio-economic strata (Jimerson, 2003; Howley & Bickel, 1999; Johnson, Strange, & Madden, 2010). In small schools, students are more satisfied, there are fewer behavior problems, and the path to graduation is faster (Howley & Bickel).
Even with these advantages, small rural schools continue to close because of financial pressures, limiting student access to after-school activities and increasing the time spent riding the bus (Howley et al., 2010). There is often a huge disconnect between what is taught in larger schools and the experiences rural children bring to the classroom. In order for deep learning to occur, students need to be able to connect their daily lives to what they are learning in the school (Rogoff, 2003).
Grunewald (2003) explains that in order for education to be transformative, “A theory of place that is concerned with the quality of human-world relationships must first acknowledge that places themselves have something to say. Human beings, in
other words, must learn to listen (and otherwise perceive)” (p. 624). He continues by asserting, “When social relationships are analyzed with respect to the material spaces that contain them, one discovers that these spaces are not just cultural products; they are reciprocally productive of particular social formations” (p. 628). Our immediate surroundings are critical to who we are, and we can use our sense of place to work to sustain the communities that nourish us.
Why Consider Place-Based Learning?
The problem of learning disconnected from experience was most obvious during the time I spent at a rural school. About half of the students were members of a local Native American tribe and many others depended on logging or agriculture for their livelihoods. When asked what they planned to do after high school, many said that they wished to find jobs close to home. While some mentioned college, it appeared that they knew this was the” right” answer, but they were not looking for a career that took them away. Additionally, these rural students and the suburban children where I did my student teaching did not find the math and science taught in school related to their immediate lives. There was little motivation to tackle more difficult and abstract concepts except as needed to pass a course. A few young people were thinking about long term plans, but most wanted to know why they needed learn about proportions, scale factor, scientific theory, algebra, chemistry and many other topics. I felt that I needed a way to tie their learning to their current lives and make science and math relevant now, not just something they needed for college. Whenever I was able to gather science materials from a local pond for examination, bring in local plants, or have them share their concerns about the environment, the room came alive. Reluctant students spoke up and there was more energy in our discussions and observations. I realized that more than expensive curriculum, students wanted to share what they saw around them and discuss local environmental issues that impacted them on a personal level. They wanted to see their algae and their aquatic insects and their native plant species, and discuss their concerns about global climate change. Their point was entirely valid.
Theoretical Foundations of Place-Based Education
Place-based education (PBE) offers a potential solution to decontextualized learning since it is focused on concrete practices and grounds them in the local area and in the values place holds for the families who live there. As Howley et al. (2010) expressed, “Place, in this sense, refers to the nexus of culture and the interaction of local communities with local land: stewarding the land, cultivating the land, and inhabiting the land—investing it and accessing its already- existing complex meanings and varied usages” (p. 6). Limiting the physical scope of curriculum allows students to gain direct experience and gives them reasons to use problem solving skills. Ecology and sustainability are an integral part of students’ lives and when students see themselves as part of the community, they are more invested in its economy and environment, and work to protect and enhance those aspects (Williams, 1998).
Sobel (2004), sometimes called the “guru of place-based education,” uses this definition:
- Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens. Community vitality and environmental quality are improved through the active engagement of local citizens, community organizations, and environmental resources in the life of the school. (p. 7)
This entails focusing the whole school and curriculum around specific community issues, making local people and institutions integral to the process (Endreny, 2009). Usually, there is a strong focus on environmental and community sustainability and these are deeply intertwined because the sense of belonging to, being dependent upon, and having responsibility for a particular place is a strong motivator for taking care of it (Cheak, Volk, & Hungerford, 2002; Howley et al., 2010).
The Foxfire project, started in 1966 in the Appalachian hills of Georgia by Eliot Wigginton and his students, focused on local history and language studies. Students collected and published stories and histories contributed by local residents, usually elders, who had lived in the region their entire lives. This place-based history and language arts model has been used in many schools throughout the country (Foxfire, 2005), but much less has been done to localize math and science instruction. This may be because the math presented in the classroom is abstract and bears little resemblance to math used in young people’s daily lives. Abstract mathematics and science are a prerequisite for college, but math and science as applied disciplines are rarely experienced. Making learning transferable from the classroom to the community is important since math and science are promoted as a key to the “continued economic and cultural hegemony of the United States” (Howley, et al., 2010, p. 60), yet many students lag behind their international peers. These skills are also needed within the local communities.
The Importance of Community Involvement.
One foundational aspect of place-based learning is community involvement and this can take many forms. Services— medical, dental and social—can be coordinated through the school (Yamauchi & Purcell, 2009), after school programs may provide tutoring and enrichment, and local artists, business owners, and skilled crafters may offer learning opportunities in the classroom (Howley et al., 2010). Indigenous knowledge is honored and utilized, respecting awareness that has been handed down for generations and is still useful today. In this way, the culture of the community is utilized to make learning more relevant to the students. As Alaskan Frank Hill observed, “Culture is not a subject matter, but a pathway” (quoted in Emekauwa, 2004). The school addressed issues that went beyond the classroom walls to encompass the world students interacted with daily. Most rural places have some residents who have lived and worked there for generations and these individuals can teach others what cannot be found in a textbook, imparting lessons that scientists and historians have yet to learn. If we want young people to work on the world’s social and scientific problems, we need to offer them the chance to solve local ones first.
Using the Local Environment as a Focus for Interdisciplinary Learning.
As we become more aware of humanity’s effect on global climate change and species diversity, efforts to educate students about the world around them become increasingly important. Place-based learning is concerned with the land and our relationship to it, making this type of curriculum a natural way of increasing students’ understanding of science and mathematics. Students become involved in surveying land use, collecting environmental data, improving local waterways, and restoring native flora. There is a strong service component to PBE and projects can help student connect to more experienced community members, governments, natural resource personnel, forestry professionals, agriculture specialists, and long- term residents (Cheak et al., 2002; Hammer, 2001). This renders current place-based learning an almost exclusively rural phenomenon, and while some suburban or urban residents may have a similar connection, most do not interact as intimately with their immediate natural environment since land is too valuable as a place for homes or businesses to be left “unused.” Fortunately, this is changing and there are a few examples describing how learning anchored in urban or suburban places increased students’ attachment to and concern for local areas (Endreny, 2009).
Scope and Limitations of Research
In an effort to gain a broad understanding of how place attachments are fostered, how they impact student academic outcomes, and what advantages they offer the larger community, I have undertaken a survey of the current literature. There appears to be little empirical research on student outcomes based on standardized measures, and much of the available research is in the form of monographs or articles in rural education publications. Of the information available through the Washington State University and The Evergreen State College data bases, little comes from peer reviewed research conducted in the United States. By surveying the available research, I discovered that there is a great deal of information on the concept of place-based learning, sometimes called place-conscious learning or project-based learning; a bit less on methodology; many examples of how various communities utilized this approach; and some research on student outcomes, mostly from other countries. Very few of these articles are both empirical and peer- reviewed. Because of this problem, I selected information from a variety of sources. The first four papers describe how place attachment and place identity is formed in three different locales. The next two studies are specific to science learning and describe how critical thinking and knowledge can be increased. I then show transformative examples of culturally relevant PBE in Alaska and Bolivia plus an example of an additive approach from Estonia. The final two articles are examples of successful PBE and offer suggestions for strengthening communities with this approach.
Examination of the Current Research: Place Attachment and Place Identity
In order to build curriculum that is grounded in place, it is necessary to understand how a sense of place is acquired. Several studies from various disciplines addressed this issue from different perspectives.
What Do Residents Find the Most Notable About a Particular Place?
This first study was done in rural Massachusetts where residential growth is threatening the natural and agricultural character of a small town. Lokocz, Ryan and Sadler (2011) sought the answers to the question: How does local residents’ attachment to the rural countryside affect their willingness to preserve the area. Researchers sent photo surveys to a random sample of households and 172 completed surveys were returned (34%). The survey sample was older than the median age in the area and often the survey was completed by the household, not a single individual so age and gender differences were not discussed. For the interview portion, a small sample (n=10) of representative residents participated in a one hour interview.
The Lokocz et al. (2011) demonstrated that preserving the rural quality of the area was important to both new and long-term residents, and they perceived both natural and agricultural aspects as the most important. Place attachment was seen in connection to special places and local landscapes and is not equally distributed to all parts of an area, with the new residents feeling as much connection as longer-term denizens. Those most interested in participating in land protection tactics were generally newer residents, but on the whole, all residents were less willing to conserve their own land because they saw this as reducing their options to sell or modify their properties. Farmers felt that all resident want the visual beauty farming offers but that newer residents did not understand what actively working agricultural land entailed. The impact of growth must be planned to have a minimal impact on natural and agricultural areas while respecting the cultural landmarks such as churches and cemeteries valued by those living in the area the longest. Those with the strongest attachment to place grew up in the study area, suggesting that early childhood experiences are important in forming place attachment.
Increasing Attachment to Place Through Education.
Two studies using Arizona university students further defined how place attachment can be formed or strengthened. The first study was small and looked at place identity, “an emotional attachment to place,” and place dependence, “a functional attachment associated with the capacity or potential of a place to support the needs, goals, or intended activities of a person” (p. 1048). Semken and Butler Freeman (2008) gave 27 students pre and post tests to assess both items. They wanted to see if changes in attachment and meaning could be discerned in a student group over a 10-week course and if place-based teaching might increase their attachment to and richness of meanings represented by Arizona as a place. Students were selected randomly from a list of volunteers, with a distribution similar to the university as a whole. It should be noted that those who had the greatest initial attachment may have had a more positive reaction to this type of learning. In this small, preliminary study, a control group was not possible; there may be reasons for the outcome that were not considered, but researchers concluded with 95% confidence that after the geosciences course, both place attachment and place identity increased.
The second study was also done with a group of Arizona university students and researchers wanted to determine if students’ amount of prior experience with a place was correlated to one’s sense of that place Semken, Butler Freeman, Watts, Neakrase, Dial, & Baker, (2008). Place was defined as “any locality or space that has become imbued with meaning by human experience” as quoted in Taun, 1977 by Semken et al., 2008), and place attachment was “an emotional bond that develops from direct experience (e.g., living working, or
vacationing in the place), vicarious engagement (e.g., through books or visual media), or some combination thereof “ (p. 138). According to Young (1999), the meanings of place are socially constructed and negotiated between those who distribute them (teachers) and those who construct them (students). The degree of emotional attachment and the richness of the meanings students ascribed to the Grand Canyon were related to the frequency and recency of visits there, and physically visiting the canyon increased this meaning more than when students interacted through videos, images or writings. Student responses were subjective, and some may not have had a positive connection with the place, but the link between visits and place attachment was correlated with a 95% confidence interval on the various measures, and showed that attachment increased with the number and frequency of visits.
Place Attachment in Transformative Education.
Not all places are rural or spectacularly scenic and most public school students do not have access to the resources available at a university. Endreny (2009) focused on the way 33 urban fifth grade children’s ideas changed during a unit on local watersheds. He wanted to know how students’ science conceptions transformed during a place-based inquiry unit and how the unit influenced their view of the watershed. The participants from a post-industrial northeastern city represented a diverse mix of ethnicities, incomes, and skills, and included students with learning disabilities. A teacher-researcher did a qualitative study and designed, taught, and examined what happened in the classroom during the project. Concept maps, familiar activities for these students, were used before and after the unit to assess how student knowledge adjusted. Ideas that could be understood through direct experience were done outside the classroom, and more abstract concepts were taught using models and maps in the classroom. Every student was able to make progress towards standards-based objectives and saw watersheds as existing in urban areas. Most students only learned lessons that they experienced outside the classroom and failed learn concepts taught solely inside, either because they were not experienced directly or were more abstract in nature. At the end of the unit, students’ found that the watershed held more meaning for them and wanted to keep it clean. This indicates that place-based learning is not solely a rural phenomenon and can be useful in urban and suburban settings if carefully constructed.
Attachment to and identification with place are not fixed and can be increased when people visit and spend time in an area, whether or not the area has a great deal of natural beauty. This is true for people of many ages and suggests that students who are physically engaged in studying a particular place will feel more connected to and more responsibility for that place.
How Place-Based Education Affects Science Learning
Buxton (2010) measured whether curriculum designed to be transformative in helping students understand their place in the world would increase their understanding of science, even if that were not the reason for the lessons. Twenty-three middle school students were recruited for the one week course. Although self-selected, they represented a wide range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and geographic locations within the urban city. The project was run at an urban seaside nature center that had access to the local marine environment. Mixed methods were used to determine if students made gains in their science knowledge. Data analysis of scored performance rubrics, interviews and presentations found that students’ science knowledge improved in all areas tested. By the end of a week, “participants were able to generate more scientifically complete and correct responses to question related to the environmental health topics they had been studying” (p. 128). Growth in their thinking about “decolonization and re-inhabitation of their local environment” (p. 130) was noted. They also gained the type of science knowledge that is usually measured with standardized high-stakes testing.
Ernst and Monroe (2004) examined the relationship between environment-based education and critical thinking skills using a mixed-methods design in 11 Florida high schools. The control groups were taught using traditional textbook-based classroom models while the treatment groups adopted the local environments as contexts for much of their learning. Lessons for the treatment groups were project-based, student-centered, constructivist, and interdisciplinary in nature. For both the ninth and 12th graders, students in the treatment groups did significantly better than those taught in traditional programs, and both the Caucasian and non-Caucasian students made similar gains. The lessons had a significant positive impact on students’ disposition toward critical thinking, and some of the students had critical thinking skill levels that “were comparable to or exceeded those of college students in several American universities, as reported by test norms” (p. 517). Qualitative data indicated that environmental-based instruction seemed to influence critical thinking skills and disposition to critical thinking when it was multidisciplinary, consisted of open-ended projects that necessitated hypothesizing, investigating issues, and conducting research, made students responsible for their own learning, and provided opportunities for students to reflect so they could make connections to the “real and local purpose of their efforts” (p. 517).
Recommendations from the researchers are numerous. Suggestions included incorporating students of all skill levels, allowing students to participate in environment-based learning for multiple years, giving teachers the freedom to utilize environment-based education, using interdisciplinary approaches, and recognizing that the environmental context may only be useful when the other aspects of the PBE concept are included (Ernst and Monroe, 2004).
How Culturally Relevant Instruction in Place-Based Learning Affects Student Outcomes
Some populations are more invested in the benefits of place-based learning as they seek to maintain their cultural ties to the land of their ancestors and indigenous ways of understanding the world. The research of Whitbeck, Hoyt, Stubben and LaFromboise (2001), examined how traditional Native American culture affected the academic success of 194 fifth grade students from three reservations in the Upper Midwest. By controlling factors usually correlated with academic success, researchers wanted to find out if traditional culture offered unique advantages to American Indian students. Three measures of enculturation were used: ‟1) involvement in traditional activities, 2 identification with American Indian culture, and 3) involvement in and importance of traditional spirituality” (para. 2). Because success is culturally defined, it was measured using self-reported school grades and positive attitudes toward schooling that were measured with 10 questions such as, “I do well in school” (para. 22). Statistical analyses showed that the older the student, the lower his or her academic performance, but that extra-curricular activities and enculturation were related to school success. Results showed that enculturation, even when other factors were controlled, increased school achievement. Studies involving other American Indian groups showed similar results, indicating that students who have a sense of belonging and congruence with their cultural heritage are more resilient, but due to the heterogeneity of Native Americans, these results many not be generalizable to other cultures. Yet, offering culturally relevant school experiences for these American Indian children had a positive effect on their social and academic development.
Yamauchi and Purcell (2009) examined a grass-roots course, the Hawaiian Studies Program started in 1995, aimed at reducing the Native Hawaiian dropout rate and low achievement level. The researchers wanted to know how community collaborations developed and what challenges they faced. Researchers carried out interviews and focus group meetings with numerous teachers and community organizations, with the snowball technique used to recruit additional outside participants. They wanted to know how community collaborations developed and what challenges they faced. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to find out the individual’s or group’s role in the program, what led them to become involved, and what barriers needed to be overcome. During the 2001-2004 school years, teachers, students, and others were observed and the data was analyzed to see what worked, what didn’t and why. The educators incorporated aspects of the particular places the students lived, used a constructivist student-centered approach where members constructed their own learning, and actively involved community members in projects inside and outside of the school. This voluntary program was open to all 2000 students in the high school, but the usual number of participants varied between 60 to 100, and all students wanting in were allowed to join. The students and teachers learned together in ventures designed by both the students and other community members. Several themes emerged: Ownership and responsibility between the school and community members needed to be shared. Communication needed to be ongoing and frequent so commonalities could be built between the different stakeholders. And increasing standardization reduced participation in the program when the efforts were not complementary and productive. According to the researchers:
- The goals of place-based education programs like the HSP are generally not focused on increasing standardized test scores, but rather on making education more relevant and engaging. Whereas many accountability systems focus on general learner outcomes that can be readily assessed by standardized tests, place-based education highlights the characteristics, problems, and solutions of particular communities. (p. 186).
Not all educators feel that standards- based reform and place-based education are necessarily at odds with one another and believe that standards should be used to develop lessons that focus on the bigger concepts instead of particular activities. In Vermont, where there are place-based standards, teachers felt that the two aspects enhanced each other.
Over half the participants in this study are from a single ethnic group in a fairly isolated region, possibly increasing community participation. All had a strong desire to offer something more to the indigenous students and expended large amounts of time and energy to make the program work. This may not be the case when responsibility seems more diffused. Yamauchi and Purcell (2009) observed that with the advent of No Child Left Behind, the number of people and groups involved has decreased, indicating that some programs may not be sustainable in the face of ever increasing standardization (Yamauchi & Purcell, 2009).
Other countries have done studies that investigated how local knowledge is maintained in the face of social and cultural changes in indigenous populations. As formerly isolated regions are altered, there is an opportunity to discover how education affected the construction of local
knowledge. A formal test of the connection between schooling and indigenous environmental knowledge was conducted in the Bolivian Amazon within a society of forager-horticulturalist (Reyes-Garcia, Kightley, Ruiz-Mallén, Fuentes-Peláez, Kemps, Huanca, et al., 2010). Schooling was not mandatory and used the local area as a context for learning. Both “the theoretical knowledge of informants— people’s ability to name, identify, and report the use of natural elements. . . . [Plus] self- reported skills, or people’s ability to put
theoretical knowledge into practice (i.e., the ability to use plants)” (p. 308) were measured. Three years of data were collected and analyzed. Although there was a statistically significant negative relationship between the amount of schooling and local environmental knowledge, the degree of this association was small. It was found that when there is a limited amount of time and resources, there is trade-off between schooling and local knowledge. Additionally, the more academically skilled individuals had the lowest local environmental skills. Most of the awareness of the local environment came from interactions with the elders and in exchanges outside of the classroom. There are many types of expertise that cannot be learned in the classroom and are either not mastered or time must be spent in nature to acquire them.
The study that collected data over the longest period of time was funded by the Rural Trust and conducted in Alaska by Emekauwa (2004) but did not go through the peer review process. Because of changes in accountability, the vast distances between rural schools, and a desire to “develop the untapped potential of indigenous knowledge systems as a foundation for rural/Native education in general, and science education in particular” (p. 4), a 10-year school improvement effort was launched. Called the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative (AKRSI), it was designed to increase the involvement of Alaskan Native peoples and to apply indigenous scientific and non- scientific knowledge to what was taught in school. Of necessity, learning was deeply embedded in the local area. Educators wanted to make the knowledge interesting and useful both at home and still prepare students for college. Collaboration was needed between elders, parents, students, local schools, the state, higher education, and national interest groups. Test scores increased during all six years of the study, from 1995 through 2001 and the number of first-time AKRSI students enrolling in college increased by 49% over the duration while the number of students from non- AKRSI schools only increased by 19%. Directors of the AKRSI program noted that Directors of the AKRSI program noted that “building an educational system with a strong foundation in the local culture produces positive effects in all indicators of school success, including dropout rates, college attendance, and standardized achievement test scores” (p. 8). Test scores for AKRSI students increased four to seven times more than for rural schools in general. The most important aspect of this program was said to be the inclusion and recognition of indigenous knowledge as a valid way of educating youth, providing communities with a stronger sense of responsibility for the education of their children. The extreme isolation and great percentage of Alaskan Native children may make their particular solution ungeneralizable to other regions, but does indicate that including indigenous knowledge from the local community has the potential to increase learning for students.
Although all these studies considered how learning was affected when indigenous culture was incorporated, this does not mean that other cultures do not also benefit when taken into consideration. The advantages of connecting learning to place is that many cultures—rural, ethnic, religious, urban, to name just a few—are not limited to particular places.
An Example of Additive Place- or Project-Based Learning
In an effort to balance the positive aspects of place-based learning with the possible problems, I diligently sought out opposing views, recognizing that negative results are not accepted for publication as frequently as are positive ones. In my search, I found only one example where using place as a basis for learning did not increase student learning and I include it here to demonstrate that not all methods that claim to be place-based fit the robust definition.
The researchers, Pata and Metsalu (2008) wanted to know if different teaching approaches led to greater understanding of various environmental problems such as acid rain, ozone depletion, global climate change, and air pollution and whether students could relate then on both a global and local level. Eight classes from seven different Estonian schools comprised of 204 students filled out an open-ended questionnaire before and after a week of environmental teaching. Teachers also filled out a questionnaire and researchers used these and information from lesson plans to divide the teachers into two groups, active teaching and traditional teaching. It was found that teacher-centered traditional methods worked best because students were able to develop both task and process related approaches and increased their social and contextual knowledge. The traditional method had the teacher lecturing from the front of the room in a structured manner and the students took notes. Textbooks and workbooks were used to further learning. This study is very limited because it was only one week long, and there was very little student-centered instruction, even when students were “actively involved in the knowledge-construction process” (p. 60). In the treatment group, the only outdoor activity was to go count the cars on the street to facilitate thinking about air pollution. Students also made posters and prepared a PowerPoint presentation. New knowledge was constructed during classroom discussions. The ability of students to gain discussion and questioning skills necessary to deepen their understanding in a single week after years of traditional schooling is questionable.
Examples of Successful Innovative Place-Based Science and Mathematics Curriculum
The monograph was researched in the U.S. and although not peer-reviewed, has a huge amount of information on using PBE for teaching mathematics. The second study gives several examples of projects using widely differing PBE approaches generated in Australia. Schools may be hundreds of miles apart and strongly supportive of PBE because of diverse student and community needs.
Howley et al. (2010) examined seven rural communities to see how mathematics was taught in their schools. They looked for common elements across the cases found that there were few universal elements of successful instruction. As Hattie discovered when he did a meta-analysis of meta- analyses, “nearly everything works to improve student achievement, and the few things that don’t do less harm than one might suspect. In the end, ’what makes things work’ well is attention, reflection, and feedback” (as cited in Howley, et al., p. 58). The studies focused on the well-being of the local rural community, not just on the educational outcome of individual students and the continued success and existence of the schools was integral to the success of the community. The emphasis was on the health of the community as a whole, not just on the accomplishments of individual students.
The schools Howley et al. (2010) studied found ways to make everyday math deeply significant to students by grounding mathematics in place, and the learning was transferred from the classroom to meaningful applications in students’ lives outside of school. Parents and other adults who were interviewed for these studies found value in math and science as applied concepts their communities, but there were some who wanted their children to become top professionals and move away from the constraints of a small community. They saw traditional classroom abstract math as a ticket out. These families are not interested in connecting math to place, “but cleaving ardently to the prevailing purposes of schooling—sorting students, conveying privilege across the generations, and ensuring widespread powerlessness among the losers” (p. 61). Having a stable rural middle class who value place is seen as important in sustaining rural communities politically, economically, and culturally.
In an effort to better understand the key elements needed for successful innovative place-based curriculum projects, Tytler, Symington and Smith (2011) collected data from 16 exemplary projects of 74 Australian School Innovation in Science, Technology and Mathematics (ASITSM) ventures. These used community-school partnerships to develop local curriculum projects that worked toward greater student engagement, made learning relevant to local problems, promoted current science practices, and paid attention to the ethical, social and personal aspects of science. They quoted Laugksch (2000) as arguing that while there is a strong push for a more science literate public, “’the notion of an absolute definition of scientific literacy is an impractical idea. For all intents and purposes, scientific literacy depends on the context in which it is intended to operate’” (p. 20). In order to improve student learning in areas of science, technology and mathematics, Australia funded over 350 projects where schools worked with community partners and all projects were locally created, planned, and executed with a focus on the practical application of new ideas. The goal was to improve the educational experience and learning outcomes.
According to Tytler et al. (2011), they uncovered the major themes arising from the best plans by interviewing project coordinators, initial applications, interim reports, other relevant documentation and vital personnel such as teachers, students, community partners, and other stakeholders. Their questions hoped to reveal which ideas were most productive, how those ideas arose, what practices were most successful, who the partners were, what resources were required, and what the outcome was. They found that there was a lot of variation in the details, but all sought to engage students more fully. When students were actively engaged with solving problems present in the wider world, connecting with practicing scientists and other relevant operators, and seeing a need for the kind of expertise they were gaining, learning was increased more than in the traditional classroom. This new knowledge acquisition was rarely measured with standardized tests since they are not required by the Australian government. Teachers often deepened their content knowledge, gained confidence, and may have gained a greater sense of the vibrancy and power of science.
Some project examples Tytler et al. (2011) presented are summarized: BioTech Units at Serendipity Sanctuary: This was a four-year plan in sustainability to increase environmental awareness and included visiting scientists and other community members. Marine and Environmental Education: Scientists engaged student efforts to monitor fish and other environmental conditions in order to build up a data base and ended up creating other research and intervention projects. Leading Edge Marine and Environmental Science Development: This complex plan involved 16 schools in various projects designed to increase science and mathematics learning though a number of marine projects and develop curriculum projects. The Kids Design Challenge: In an effort to see science as useful in their everyday lives, elementary students focused design projects on building go-karts and the local environment by working with engineers and other professionals. Waste Busters and Wind Gusters: Reality Science in Schools: Since the local area had a bio-reactor and there was a proposal for a wind farm, teachers investigated with their students the science behind these technologies. All these projects used the local areas as a resource and included both professionals and community members in their design. Teachers were co- learners and searched for ways to solve complex problems presented by the place in which they lived and the needs of the community, both economically and ecologically.
The most important finding was that teacher professional development was at the heart of their success. Educators came away with increased confidence and learned about current pedagogical and scientific practices by engaging in ongoing, long-term projects rather than by taking occasional classes or in-service opportunities. They developed stronger ties with the community and increased their desire to work within the environmental constraints of each area. It is hoped that teachers will be able to take what they learned and apply it to future programs. Also, the projects were designed to have an impact on the local communities, often in direct ways. Local innovation allowed local people to determine what happened in the school, exposing students and teachers alike to a wide range of new ideas and experiences. Assessments were changed to support the curriculum instead of tying the goals to a national test. Unlike traditional education, this type of learning increased the complexity of knowledge by conducting it within the context of the community and worked with its attendant problems and strengths (Tytler et al., 2010).
Much of the current research is coming out of Australia and what they are finding is that PBE works well for them. Unlike the U.S., there is a reduced focus on national standardization since they recognize that each locality has its own strengths, weaknesses and resources. Students and communities are not standardized so neither is the curriculum and expected outcomes. There may be something the U.S. can learn from the Australian examples if we want to make our communities and environments sustainable.
The examples of place-based learning can be organized on a continuum from additive to transformative. The additive approach was the example from Estonia where instructors included a trip outside the classroom to count the cars on the street (Pata & Metsalu, 2008) while the best examples of a transformative approach were the exemplar projects in Australia (Tytler et al., 2010). Additive approaches may offer students the advantage of seeing that science and math are happening in the world around them and are readily integrated into existing curricula. Students could go outside to look at local plants around the school, visit a nearby stream or wetland, or look at the storm drain system and recognize that street pollutants go into waterways when it rains. When such items are included, learning can be more relevant for students while taking only a small amount of planning for the instructor.
A deeper use of place was exemplified by the use of Arizona, and the urban watershed as a basis for a unit that is important in students’ lives. Lessons could focus on how water quality is affected by road building, logging, or farming. Students could test the runoff into permanent streams to look for sediments or pollutants. They could study the effect this has on fish, water quality, wetland habitats, and organisms that are dependent upon clean water. They could also compare photos from a decade or more ago to current ones to look for changes in soils, plant coverage, and other topological changes. If an instructor wants to take it a step further, plans for mitigation of damaging effects can be designed. Students could present their findings to the community, work with professionals and lay persons outside the school, and come up with possible solutions that they help to carry out. When students become involved in solving local problems, the learning has become transformative. They have gone from simply studying the world around them to participating in protecting their environment and finding ways to resolve issues. Instead of believing and teaching that places can be altered to meet the needs and desires of the human inhabitants with little regard for the environment, a transformative approach respects the natural world and recognizes that human are not separate but rely ultimately and completely on the world they inhabit.
When the ecosystem is used unsustainably, cultural diversity is usually a casualty as well. PBE can empower individuals to operate in both the local and global spheres in a powerful way since they have access to multiple ways of knowing and interacting. Long-term residents have a wealth of knowledge that educators can tap to give students a deeper connection to the world around them. Those who have cared for the land for decades both see the changes that have occurred over time and can help young people visualize what needs to be restored. Farmers who have been on the land for most of their lives know what plants were there before the plows took them out. They remember how deep the soil used to be, methods that did not require the use of large amounts of fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides. Farmers can also teach student about invasive species and suggest ways of controlling them and can participate in weed eradication programs initiated by the students and teachers. Some might be willing to come into the classroom to help the school design community gardens or re-envision the surrounding landscape as a natural area.
Indigenous people have oral histories that tell of the time when the fish and wildlife were plentiful and they can explain the uses of various plants and other natural resources. Students can use this science knowledge to survey the flora where they live, describe their uses, and grow and replant damaged areas. Local crafters can teach students science concepts by explaining the chemistry behind making soap with wood ash and lard. Carpenters can explain the math they use to design and build furniture. The local bicycle shop owner can demonstrate how gears work, and students can practice the math of gear ratios, how much power or energy it takes to climb the hill to the school, and how far the bicycle travels with each turn of the crank. These are just a few of the possibilities, and although they take time and support from the school and community, more and more places are taking on projects that require time a depth of learning only found by engaging the whole community in place- based learning.
Connecting the school to the greater community benefits teachers as well. Learning can be coordinated between disciplines, building collaborative relationships within the school. Teachers become co-learners with their students and model learning strategies and allow students to be experts, not just novices. Educators who want to institute PBE are encouraged to work with administrators, existing community groups, local experts, and interested laypersons to build a foundation for support. Although it requires a lot of time and effort to fully implement PBE, additive approaches can help lay the groundwork for more extensive projects.
Environment-based programs can increase critical thinking skills that are needed to deal with the increasingly complex environmental issues that face our planet. The ability to ask quality questions and to work both independently and cooperatively on current problems is a critical skill that can be taught using place as a nexus for learning. When individuals are able to claim the knowledge gained at home and synthesize it with new information gained in school, they become more capable. An education that respect and utilizes both forms of knowing can be transformative since there is less conflict between different ways of understanding the world. Many communities want students to achieve high standards without rejecting the values and knowledge of their places of origin.
Transformative education addresses issues of applied learning, who benefits from the type of education offered, and focuses on real gains in understanding deep concepts instead of small increases on standardized tests. The examples from Australia demonstrated that real learning occurred while simultaneously addressing real community needs so all benefitted. Students gained expertise in a current context, not just information they could check off on a test (Tytler et al., 2011). According to Bransford (2000), real learning requires that students have a deep well of knowledge on a topic, place this information in a conceptual framework, and have a way of recalling the information when needed. This is not possible if facts are not connected. Experts do not have better memories—they recognize what pieces are important and how they relate to other ideas. A transformative education allows students to make connections that are not apparent to the novice who sees the problem as discrete units and not a unified whole. While student learning may not be as quantifiable as data from a standardized test, there is evidence to support the claim that significant and transferable learning is enhanced using place as a context for learning.
Although the research that is available points to positive outcomes for communities which embrace place-conscious strategies, there is little empirical research to back the assertions. More needs to be done, especially studies that compare student learning using strong place-based methods with traditional ones. These need to be long term and the various approaches carefully noted. Because places and communities vary considerably, there will probably not be a single factor that works in all communities, but common factors can be uncovered making the establishment of effective programs sustainable for students, communities, and the environment.
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