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Getting Started with Place-Based Education
Place-based education (PBE) is a practice and philosophy that relies on place – lands and waters, people and organizations, history, and culture – as a starting point for teaching and learning.
By its nature, PBE provides many opportunities for students to learn in a way that’s relevant to their lives and to work with local partners to enrich their community. It’s also a powerful strategy for connecting K-12 schools and the communities they serve, for the benefit of both.
This playbook provides guidance and resources as schools consider “How do we get started in PBE?” or “How can we improve or expand our existing PBE efforts?”
Table of Contents
This chapter will help you to understand:
Who is this chapter for?
Administration: Through their involvement in budgeting, school policy and instructional practices, administrators can provide critical support for the practice of PBE.
Educators: Educators who fully appreciate the nature of PBE, what it offers to their students, and what it requires of them as teachers will be well-positioned for success.
Community (including nonprofits, business, higher education, and more): Broad awareness about PBE may be limited and roles for those who work outside the school may not be clear. This chapter provides a brief overview and some encouraging examples of place-based education that can help inspire community involvement. These organizations are well-positioned to spotlight career connections and community impacts.
Business: Businesses are part of the community, but they may have a more specific role in spotlighting career connections and community impacts.
What is Placed-Based Education?
Place-based education is rooted in the local community. Students across the K-12 spectrum take part in a variety of real-world activities that are connected to student achievement, academic outcomes, whole-child outcomes and a school’s curricular goals.
In the course of their studies, students have opportunities to develop a variety of desired social, learning and employment skills and abilities such as cooperation, teamwork, problem-solving, responsibility, communication and leadership.
At its core, place-based education is an educational endeavor. So it’s not surprising that student benefits are the most frequently researched. But its benefits are not limited to students and, in fact, extend to teachers, schools and communities.
Why is Place-Based Education Valuable?
Student academic benefits
- Improved academic scores, including standardized test scores and performance improvements in subject areas addressed by PBE, including science, social studies and civics, math and writing
- Improved critical thinking skills and disposition toward critical thinking
- Increased engagement in school and motivation for achievement
- Increased workplace skills such as leadership, persistence, taking responsibility, teamwork, developing plans to reach a solution, managing time, motivating others, and dealing with unexpected challenges
- Deeper learning and action competence
- Increased awareness of career options
Youth development benefits
- Social-emotional development, including increased self-esteem, sense of empowerment and agency, social interaction and social skills, social capital and awareness of cultural diversity
- A sense of place and attachment to community
- Civic-democratic competencies and attributes
- Opportunity to pursue their interests and advance their values
- Skill development (e.g., expanding instructional approaches, integrating different disciplines)
- Increasing students' interest and enjoyment of learning, which is satisfying and energizing
Increased levels of teacher engagement and satisfaction
An integrated option to reach numerous and robust standards and curricular priorities, as well as youth development priorities
Increased community awareness of the conditions, needs and efforts of the schools
Stronger connections with nonprofit organizations, businesses and governmental agencies, as well as parents and other community members who may volunteer their time in support of PBE
Opportunities for recognition, and access to grants and funders
Opportunity to integrate other academic content, learning outcomes and pedagogies, for example:
- Academic Content
- Social studies
- Learning Outcomes
- Language arts
- Civic ecology
- Action competence
- Intergenerational learning
- Inquiry-based learning
- Project-based learning
- Problem-based learning
- Academic service learning
- Critical pedagogy
- Cooperative learning
- Environment-based learning
- Greater engagement of students, teachers and others in the work of the partner organization's work.
- More awareness of the partner organization’s mission, activities and employment opportunities
- Greater impact and efficacy as a result of collaborating with others
- Expanding networking with other organizations in the same field or industry
- Opportunities for recognition, and access to and grants funders
- More interest in place-making and preserving local heritage
- Expanded capacity to address the needs of community and its residents
- Increased social connectedness, activism, intergenerational learning and social capital
- Increased engagement in policy, advocacy, and activism
- More numerous, impactful and mutually beneficial partnerships with schools
More information about the benefits of place-based education, generally (including literature citations for the benefits listed above), can be found in the white paper, The Benefits of Place-Based Stewardship Education, published by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative.
How Does One Develop a Quality PBE Practice in a School District?
There is no single right way to establish a place-based education program. But there are certain actions and resources that can help in this endeavor:
Step 1: Take Stock
Establishing an effective and sustained place-based education practice that’s accessible to all students requires strong, internal commitment and support from the school.
Conducting an initial inventory of the school's assets and challenges can help chart a realistic, achievable course of action to establish and implement place-based education. Discuss with others at school why this approach seems useful and how it connects to the school’s priorities, provide space for people to express concerns or highlight potential problems. Good communication at this stage will help everyone begin with some clarity and assurances about the journey ahead.
Step 2: Keep the Community in Mind
These potential individuals, stakeholders, partners and organizations are sometimes viewed as being “external” to the school, but really are integral to the success of quality PBE.
You might choose to start small, with modest efforts by a few teachers who involve a few community partners. Once PBE is in place in a few classrooms, you could be more intentional about engaging the broader community in your PBE practice and asking for their involvement and feedback.
Or you might decide to co-develop your PBE practice in a way that engages the broader community from the very start. You could share your school’s vision with partners, community organizations and thought leaders, provide time for discussion and feedback, and then invite them to participate and support your work.
Step 3: Position Teachers for Success
Place-based education is only rarely mentioned in teacher preparation programs, although a growing awareness of the efficacy of this approach has prompted several universities in Michigan to emphasize it in their pre-service curriculum.
Even so, most classroom teachers will need access to sustained, professional development focused on the fundamentals of PBE (e.g., inquiry-based instruction, including authentic assessment; strategies for incorporating community-related data, phenomena, and resources; and practices that support mutually beneficial school-community partnerships). See PBE Professional Development chapter for more details.
Step 4: Provide Adequate Support for the Enterprise
Place-based education can make new and significant demands on teachers, learners, parents, administrators and community partners. Certain policies, practices, and structures in schools or communities can be a great help or a significant barrier to successful PBE.
Additionally, place-based education, like any other instructional approach, comes with a cost and impacts a school’s budget. Having clarity about the benefits of PBE can help school personnel justify related expenditures.
It is important to understand how a school’s policies and funding can be leveraged in support of place-based education. See Community School-community partnerships, noted earlier as an important element of place-based education, may help schools offset certain expenses (e.g., supplies and materials, transportation costs, facility or entrance fees). See PBE Professional Development chapter for more details.
Ann Arbor Learning Community, Diving into the Huron River Watershed
This case study summarizes a place-based stream remediation and habitat preservation effort. It lists the names and roles of community partners and provides information about the growth of a teacher’s place-based practice and the academic standards she addressed through this project.
"Growing Up Green"
This short trailer of a full-length documentary provides a quick overview of the work of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, a large and active network of place-based practitioners across the state of Michigan.
SOAR High School Enterprise
This is a powerful, full-length documentary about the Dollar Bay Tamarack City Area Schools' marine robotics elective and its service-learning High School Enterprise Team, SOAR. It includes clips of real-time instruction, educators’ insights and comments by students, parents and community partners.
Thriving Communities and a Healthy Environment
The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative offers a collection of detailed case studies about place-based stewardship education efforts at regional hubs across Michigan. Collectively, the studies span the K-12 and urban-rural spectra; individual case studies are identified as to grade level and context for the viewer’s convenience.
Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative
The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative has many resources about place-based education and also offers consultation services to those who wish to establish place-based education in K-12 schools. Examples of school-community partnerships can be found in the “Team and Planning” section of case studies that describe exemplary place-based stewardship projects supported by the Initiative.
Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities
This short book by scholar and practitioner David Sobel provides a very basic, helpful overview of place-based education.
The Benefits of Place-Based Stewardship Education
Published by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, this PDF white paper reviews the literature and summarizes what is known about the potential benefits of place-based stewardship education and the circumstances that favor or limit its use. Many findings are generally applicable to place-based education.
A Student’s Perspective on Place-Based Learning
This blog post is part of Edutopia’s “Schools That Work” series, which features Hood River Middle School in Oregon. It provides an interesting and rarely documented perspective of a student.