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Professional Skills and Knowledge of Place-Based Educators
Teachers play a vital role in facilitating place-based education (PBE), a pedagogy that relies on place – lands and waters, people and organizations, history, and culture – as a starting point for teaching and learning. Because few teacher preparation programs specifically address PBE, many in-service teachers seeking to develop a place-based education practice will benefit from sustained professional development that:
- Builds awareness of and experience with specific teaching strategies
- Offers opportunities to learn about specific subject-area content
- Helps form and sustain partnerships with external stakeholders
- Develops leadership skills
- Provides access to a supportive community of fellow learners
Table of Contents
Why is Professional Development Important?
When people hear the phrase “professional development,” most imagine an in-service workshop or conference. But professional development can take many other forms: a mentorship, individual consultation, internship, residential program, seminar, academic coursework, case study, book group, peer-to-peer coaching, research and scholarship, job shadowing or classroom observation, leadership development, participation in a community of practice, or membership in a professional association. Self-directed professional development, which typically gives teachers more choice over content, accessibility and pacing (in part because it often has a substantial online component), is becoming more common. Regardless of the form it takes, effective professional development is a powerful and rewarding opportunity for teachers to improve their skills, expand their knowledge, and enhance their practice.
Why is professional development so important?
The first reason has to do with its nature: professional development is intended to benefit teachers—people whose work with students is essential to our education enterprise. It is the primary job of teachers to be concerned about students’ learning. To be effective in that role, teachers (and those who support them) must be equally mindful of their own learning.
The second reason relates to its potential: simply put, professional development is one of our most powerful tools for improving student engagement and learning.
Who is This Chapter For?
Administration: Administrators can learn how to support place-based education through planning and building- and district-level decisions related to professional development, and how to identify effective professional development.
Educators: Teachers can get a better sense of the skills and knowledge they need to be effective place-based educators and learn how connections to peers can enhance their efforts.
Community organizations (businesses, nonprofits, units of government, higher education and more): Outside organizations can discover a variety of opportunities to contribute to teachers’ professional development.
Parents: Parents can develop their capacity to be strong advocates for an effective, sustained program of professional development for teachers.
What Skills and Knowledge Do Place-Based Educators Need?
The list of skills and knowledge that place-based educators need reflects their roles as planners and facilitators of inquiry, developers of lessons, supporters of student agency, and connectors of people and resources. For many teachers, these areas represent new opportunities for professional growth and development. Professional development about place-based education should include:
Pedagogy for place-based, hands-on instruction and related assessment strategies
What are the roots of this pedagogy, and how has it developed over time? Why is it relevant and important in today’s society? How can we effectively assess its impact on students?
Inquiry, problem-based learning, and/or other instructional strategies that emphasize student-led learning and critical thinking
How can the cycle of inquiry cycle be harnessed to drive powerful learning rooted in place? What “teacher moves” support students’ agency and ownership in their learning? What strategies and activities can we use to help students identify needs and issues they could address?
Relevant content, appropriate to teachers? grade levels/subject areas and the local/regional context
What academic content do we need to understand in order to be effective guides for our students’ inquiry and exploration?
Establishing and utilizing community partnerships for place-based education
What are the qualities of effective school-community partnerships, and how can we bring them to life in our work? What organizations, agencies, businesses or individuals might serve as community partners in our students’ place-based studies? How can we recruit, manage, acknowledge and enhance our community partnerships?
Basic practices in curriculum/unit/lesson development, including backwards design, alignment to standards, and assessment strategies
What elements of lesson design are especially important in place-based education, and how can we emphasize those elements in our practice? How can we couple lesson design and assessment to create opportunities for students to demonstrate their place-based learning? How can we align our curriculum, lesson design and assessments to standards so that we can understand and describe to others the impact of place-based instruction on students’ learning?
Planning Professional Development
There’s an old adage: “Plan your work, then work your plan” A professional development plan is a record of ideas and research in a single, actionable document. Ideally, teachers and administrators should work together to create a professional development plan, although their contributions may differ; a teacher might be more involved in identifying needs for specific knowledge and skills needed for effective place-based education, while the principal might work mainly on school policies that support professional development and/or the implementation of place-based education within the school. When planning professional development, it’s important to remember that teachers and administrators are collaborators in the process. With a little experience, both parties can refine the action steps below or make major changes to the template. Use it as is, as a scaffold to create a different planning tool, or as a starting point for discussing professional development with others.
Ideally, teachers and administrators should work together to create a professional development plan, although their contributions may differ; a teacher might be more involved in identifying needs for specific knowledge and skills, while a principal might focus on school policies that support teachers’ professional development and/or broader implications of implementing place-based education within the school.
The Planning Professional Development table is one way for teachers and administrators to collaboratively approach the task of planning professional development. Use it as is, or as a scaffold to create a different planning tool, or as a starting point for discussing professional development with others. Keep in mind that the content and pacing of professional development for teachers should consider teachers’ goals, needs, and readiness.
As noted earlier, professional development takes many forms, and time and funding for it is often limited. This means that you will probably have to make some choices as a consumer. Everyone wants the best return on their investment in professional development– but how do you achieve that? One way is by asking questions and having discussions with others at your school: “What should we consider as we weigh our options for professional development?” “Are there certain features of professional development offerings that predict good outcomes for teachers’ practice or students’ learning?”
Fortunately, there is an excellent resource that can help guide your choices. In 2017 the Learning Policy Institute, in its report, “Effective Teacher Professional Development,” defined effective professional development as “structured professional learning that results in changes in teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes.” The authors identified seven shared features of effective professional development, regardless of topic or format.
Effective professional development:
- Is content focused
- Incorporates active learning
- Supports collaboration
- Uses models of effective practice
- Provides coaching and expert support
- Offers feedback and encourages reflection
- Is of sustained duration
A second way that you can be a smart consumer of professional development is to question its designers or providers. Asking questions sends a message that you take your investment in professional development seriously and expect results. “What sort of follow-up support do you provide to participating teachers?” “What other opportunities do you offer for teachers to further explore place-based education?” “Do you have data or success stories about teachers’ implementation of what they’ve learned?” “Do you collect data about teachers’ satisfaction?” “Can you put me in contact with a few of your teachers so we can hear about their experience with you and how they’ve applied what they learned to their classroom?” These are all fair questions.
One caveat: Professional development for teachers is chronically underfunded. Even when providers of professional development receive grants, they are sometimes asked to reduce their budgets so that other deserving projects can also be supported. Often, one of the first budget casualties is evaluation. So don’t be surprised if some providers of professional development have only modest artifacts to offer as evidence of success. Others, especially those that have been around for a while and enjoyed generous funding, should be able to make a strong case for impact.
Center for Great Lakes Literacy curriculum tied to Great Lakes Learning
Great Lakes Literacy Principles and Resources
Great Lakes Water Literacy Lessons and Data Set resources provided by Michigan Sea Grant
Insights About Professional Development in Place-Based Education
Foundational Training in Place-Based Education – Most teachers who are new to place-based education will benefit from foundational training. In the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (GLSI), this takes the form of an in-person, multi-day institute organized by a regional GLSI hub and attended by local teachers (and sometimes community partners). Something special happens when teachers go into the community with fellow institute participants and “do” place-based education as part of their foundational training. While especially true for teachers who are new to the practice, it’s often invigorating and inspiring for experienced teachers, too.
But in-person institutes aren’t always possible. Online foundational institutes can work, but they must be thoughtfully designed and facilitated, as was the case when GLSI’s regional hubs converted their successful in-person institutes to a virtual platform during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Collegiality and Social Capital – Whether a beginner or a seasoned veteran, all teachers benefit from collegiality. Some find it in a team of teachers within a school who work together on place-based education efforts. Research (see Resources) suggests that this “social capital” within a school is a strong predictor of student achievement.
Other teachers take their inspiration from regional meetings of place-based educators who periodically convene as a large group to build community but receive individualized support between meetings.
The focus on collegiality and social capital is not to say that individual teachers cannot be successful place-based educators, only that often the path is made easier and the journey lasts longer if supportive peers are involved.
Sustained Professional Development – Teachers need time to develop a place-based education practice. Sustained professional development can be responsive to teachers’ emerging needs and often results in strong, supportive relationships that boost morale and increase their sense of efficacy.
Presenters and Facilitators – Schools used to rely heavily on “experts from elsewhere” to provide professional development. Today, teachers often contribute to professional development as highly credible presenters, mentors, observers, scholars, researchers and cheerleaders. Students are also emerging as powerful presenters and facilitators. Their involvement adds an important perspective and helps build a school-wide or regional culture of learning.
Connecting Our Great Lakes at Au Gres-Sims Elementary School
This GLSI case study features a variety of professional development opportunities for teachers (see p 6; p 42)
Duck Habitat Project at Southwestern Classical Academy
This GLSI case study highlights professional development in inquiry- and project-based learning and content expertise provided by local partners (see p 6; pp 51-55)
Fundamentals of Inquiry and Assessing for Learning
The Exploratorium offers an excellent Institute for Inquiry at its San Francisco facility. In addition, it publishes facilitators’ guides for two professional development series: Fundamentals of Inquiry and Assessing for Learning.
Schoolwide Stewardship Education at Whitehall Middle School
This GLSI case study highlights the coordinated efforts of many teachers to engage students in schoolwide place-based education (see p 6; pp 66-67)
Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition
This hub of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative offers its participating teachers a diversified, annual cycle of professional development.
Superior Stewardship at Washington Middle School
This GLSI case study highlights the work of a team of teachers who make use of a local park for place-based education (see p 6; pp 30-34)
Effective Teacher Professional Development
This 2017 report from Learning Policy Institute identifies shared features of effective professional development, regardless of topic or format.
Does it Make a Difference? Evaluating Professional Development
This article presents a straightforward, 5-level framework for evaluating a school’s professional development program that is based on the practice of “backward design.”
The Missing Link in School Reform
This article focuses on the importance and impact of social capital in schools, particularly among teachers.
“The best professional development is ongoing, experiential, collaborative and connected to and derived from working with students and understanding their culture.” – Edutopia