By Nate McClennen

Let’s take a giant step back and accept that place-based education is not new. In the midst of project-based, problem-based, deeper learning, experiential learning, and all of the other acronym-ready methods that challenge teachers and students to think about approaches different from the industrial model, place-based education lives in the background, patiently waiting to be uncovered once more.

For most of history, education has always been embedded in place. Out of necessity, lack of other resources, and simply the need to pass on cultural, political, and ecological information, place was used to teach – about food sources, land ownership, leadership and governance, history, art and stories. In our recent history of industrialization, we removed the veil of place and inserted a one-size-fits-all model to teach all students in the same way with the important goals of reading, writing and math literacy for all students. In the process of doing so, however, we decreased relevance, agency and impact in schools to such low levels that many students (and teachers) were left behind.

A changing world requires changing the education paradigm to one where “place” is once again relevant. The Place-Based Education approach can engage, challenge and offer opportunities for students to thrive in a 21st-century education system. This transition will take re-learning on the part of teachers, and thoughtful implementation to ensure success.

Teton Science Schools inspires curiosity, engagement and leadership through transformative place-based education. As part of our mission, we support the professional development of teachers to aid in the implementation of place-based education through an intentional scaffolded progression.

Phase 1: Inquire into place

The first shift is that educators themselves must develop a keen sense of wonder for their place—its function, history, economics, politics, ecology, social dynamics and future. Through a personal process of inquiry, educators begin to see the community as a potential classroom full of rich resources and possibilities. Practical first steps include reading local news, exploring resources, hiking in the parks or woods, or talking to elders in the community. We start by having educators learn to authentically observe and ask questions around the ecological, social and economic components of a place.

Phase 2: Identify challenges

The second shift is to understand challenges that are faced by the community. Communities and places are always dynamic, struggling with change and adapting to new forces. Understanding these challenges allows you to move beyond the obvious to the contextual. We ask educators to accept that their students can be change agents. We teach design thinking as a way for students to systematically develop creative solutions to increase the community sustainability and vitality. With both phase 1 and phase 2 complete, we ask educators to develop “resource guides” or “asset maps” for their communities. Over time, students add to these maps as they carry out place-based projects.

Phase 3: Revise and implement curriculum (or unit, or lesson)

Once educators understand their place, we ask them to connect their curriculum (one lesson, one standard, one unit) to the place in a variety of different methods. By linking the unit or lesson to a tangible component of the local place, learning begins with experiential previous knowledge. We believe that educators need to begin with small steps in this redesign process as it can be intimidating. Tools from project-based learning and problem-based learning can be introduced at this time. During this phase, it is also important to introduce risk-management to ensure safety for the students when you leave the classroom. Facilitating experiences outside of the confines of classroom walls takes attention and care which eventually needs to be owned by students (see Phase 4).

Phase 4: Build student ownership and skills

After success with one or more teacher-led place-based implementations, we work to develop increased student agency around both the inquiry and design-thinking component of the curriculum. Over time, it is important that students begin to guide the experience through comfort level with the core skills of inquiry and design, leadership competency and risk management. Educators need to specifically transfer this ownership through levels of inquiry and levels of design that lead to increasing autonomy in students. The emerging knowledgebase around learner-centered education is complementary to this phase.

Phase 5: Collaborate with peers in an interdisciplinary approach

As educators become more comfortable implementing within their subject area or classroom, we guide collaboration and cooperation between teachers to build the capacity for interdisciplinary place-based learning experiences. Because of the nature of place-based education, educators naturally come up with many ideas, and challenges emerge around time and resource availability. The more collaboration with other teachers, the more flexibility needed in use of time and resources. While introduced in earlier phases, leadership skills are critical in this phase to engage peers. These skills also can be transferred to students to achieve the goals of phase 5.

Phase 6: Measure outcomes and successes

The final area of development for educators is to understand how to measure the outcomes of place-based implementation. Through survey tools measuring student engagement, designing pre/post assessment tools and comparing classrooms with and without the place-based approach, educators increase their capacity for research. Specifically, we ask educators to carry out action research projects around place-based education and report back to others who participated in the experience. Outcomes can also be evaluated through tangible change in the community that emerge from the experiences—as reported by the students or those impacted by the change.

As educators begin to think about how the community can be a classroom for students, it is important to consider developing their own sense of place, student ownership, and long-term strategy to ensure effective implementation. Through our experience, we find that the process is transformative not only for the students, but also for those educators who are participating in the journey.

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:

Nate McClennen is Vice President for Education and Innovation of Teton Science Schools. Follow them on Twitter: @tetonscience


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