By Bernard Bull

“As you stroll down the halls of your neighborhood school at nine o’clock on a Wednesday morning, you notice that something is different. Many of the classrooms are empty; the students are not in their places with bright, shiny faces. Where are they?

In the town woodlot, a forester teaches tenth graders to determine which trees should be marked for an upcoming thinning project. Downtown, a group of middle school students are collecting water samples in an urban stream to determine if there’s enough dissolved oxygen to support reintroduced trout. Out through the windows, you can see children sitting on benches writing poems. Down the way, a group of students works with a landscape architect and the math teacher to create a map that will be used to plan the schoolyard garden.

Here’s a classroom with students. In it, eighth graders are working with second graders to teach them about the history of the local Cambodian community. In the cafeteria, the city solid-waste manager is consulting with a group of fifth graders and the school lunch staff to help them design the recycling and composting program. Students’ bright shiny faces are in diverse places in their schoolyards and communities.” – David Sobel in Place-Based Education: Connecting Classroom and Community

This opening paragraph comes from David Sobel’s seven-page overview of place-based learning, an educational philosophy that he helped popularize. Place-based education is an approach to teaching and learning that quite literally turns the community into the classroom. Some focus on learning that engages students in solving real problems in the community, but others just focus on the idea of place.

Often educators begin their task of teaching a group of students by accepting the restraints of a given physical room. On occasion, the teacher might plan a field trip or even a series of outings, but the classroom is still seen as the base and primary learning center. Teachers and students often design classrooms in wonderfully diverse and creative ways. Yet, the classroom is still the hub. Place-based learning is an approach that challenges that assumption. It begins with letting go of this dominant and age-old premise that most teaching and learning happens or should happen in a classroom.

Instead, a place-based learning philosophy begins with a couple of simple questions. What places in this community or the nearby community would create rich opportunities for student learning about a given topic or subject? What new possibilities for teaching and learning a given subject or topic emerge if we consider the entire community to be our physical classroom?

The moment that we allow ourselves to ask such questions, wonderful things start to happen. We find ourselves able to imagine new and promising opportunities for teaching and learning. We begin to think about the partnerships that might be needed or possible in other parts of the community. We rarely find ourselves focused upon a more narrow set of approaches to teaching and learning. In addition, we gravitate toward learning through service, projects, experiences and any number of hands-on learning activities.

It is often amazing to see the power of reconsidering what we mean by space in learning contexts or to observe the change in attitude and mindset of teachers and students when we change locations. You can find a professor who persistently turns to lecture as the dominant form of teaching in a classroom suddenly become more of a tour guide who invites students to explore. We find teachers begin to think about learning through experiments and projects who previously leaned on textbooks and worksheets. As one article referenced by Sobel describes it, place-based learning allows us to imagine learning contexts where the river becomes the textbook. The place is not just a box with walls, windows, doors and desks. The place is an intentional and thematic part of the learning experience.

Place-based learning is a philosophy that creates greater alignment between place and curriculum. It is one thing to study nature in a textbook. It is a completely different one to let the forest become a large part of the learning experience. We can sit in a social studies class and talk about social challenges, or we can actually engage in activities in the community we learners seek to understand the challenges of firsthand, then brainstorm solutions, create interventions and test them out. We can complete math problems in a classroom or we can solve math problems in the community or experience math at work through architecture, the natural world, and much more. This is the spirit of place-based learning.

While there are schools that have made place-based learning a central part of pretty much everything that they do, even a single teacher in a traditional school can begin to tap into this power and possibility. It just takes a little creativity, preparation and persistence.

Here are six helpful starting points for place-based learning:

  1. Consider the possibilities – This begins with simply refusing to accept the physical classroom as an unchangeable constant. Start to look around for possibilities in the community that might align with the curriculum.
  2. Think Beyond the Field Trip – Don’t just think about one-day trips. Those can be rich and valuable, but stretch yourself to actually think of the community and specific places or organizations as your classroom, not just a brief reprieve from the traditional school room.
  3. Start to Build a Network in the Community – Begin by reaching out to various groups and people in the community who own or work in places that align with the curriculum. Reach out to these people. Share a bit of what you are trying to do. Invite them to serve as partners. Brainstorm with them.
  4. Learn from Others Who Have Done It – The web is full of teachers and schools that promote or embrace place-based learning. Reach out to the people and organizations with your questions. Learn from their challenges and successes. Get their input on your ideas and refine from there. Your community and resources will likely be different from their community and resources, but there are often transferable lessons.
  5. Get Internal Support – You obviously can’t just throw the students in a bus and take off. There are usually policies and the like to work through. This might mean building a case with certain leaders. Be ready to address concerns about safety and cost. Both can be addressed, especially if you have some good partners.
  6. Give it a Try – Once you have the place, connections, feedback and internal support, give it a try. Invite students and other colleagues into the experiment, and treat it as that–an experiment. Learn from what works and what does not, then refine the next attempt based on what you learn.

Place-based learning is not new, but it is gaining traction. The more we begin to accept the idea that the classroom need not be four walls with desks, the more we begin to imagine a new and incredible breadth of teaching and learning opportunities. Place-based learning can help us do that.

This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education, see:

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author and Chief Innovation Officer at Concordia University Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter: @bdean1000


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here