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Supportive School Policies and Structures
Place-based education (PBE) is a teaching and learning practice and philosophy that takes place in the community, takes place with the community, and yields benefits for the community. Like the closely related pedagogies of project-based learning and problem-based learning, PBE is a form of experiential education – it emphasizes the value of learning through doing.
Place-based education provides robust opportunities for hands-on learning in school and in the community; encourages long-term projects in which students make some choices about what to do and how to do it; and promotes learning about real-world issues, including those affecting students’ home communities. A generation or two ago, these types of experiences were offered in many schools – you may have memories of this kind of learning in your own K-12 experience. In the modern STEM classroom, however, teachers often find that school and district policies prevent them from offering robust, hands-on, community-embedded learning opportunities with space for student voice and choice. This chapter explores how school policies can support place-based learning and similar experiential pedagogies of value in STEM classrooms.
Table of Contents
This chapter will help you to:
Why Are School Policies Important to PBE?
School and district policies set the rules of the road for teachers, and those rules can be quite varied from school to school and district to district.
In some schools and districts, teachers have a considerable voice in how they teach – the materials, the pace and the pedagogy. They are responsible for meeting standards and benchmarks and for attaining good outcomes for students, but retain some flexibility in how they accomplish these goals. In other schools and districts, teachers must use a common curriculum for their subject and grade level, and each teaching cohort (such as seventh-grade earth science) must follow a common pacing guide describing the timing of each lesson and assessment.
Another set of policies affecting teachers’ capacities for place-based education have to do with collaboration. To what extent does the school day include intentional time for teacher-to-teacher collaboration? Especially at the secondary level, teachers may lack meaningful opportunities to connect with other teachers in their building. The challenges appear to be particularly widespread for cross disciplinary connections: science teachers with social studies teachers or teachers of English language arts, for example.
These and other variations in a school’s policies can result in a culture and opportunity structure in which interested teachers can pursue place-based education or that make it difficult or impossible.
Who is This Chapter for?
Administrators: Administrators seeking to improve educational and whole-child outcomes can learn about the role school policies play in supporting experiential pedagogies and which policies are particularly important to this practice.
Educators: Educators who wish to use place-based education and need to approach administration to seek policy changes can learn about the types of policy options that could make PBE more achievable in their school.
Parents: Parents hoping for more experiential learning for their students can learn about policies that help this type of education.
Taking Stock of Policies
The following policies, practices, structures and other attributes are important to consider when assessing your building or district’s receptiveness to PBE:
Professional Learning Support
Sustained professional learning is a necessity for most teachers attempting to transition from the role of “sage on the stage” to the role of “guide by the side,” as most teachers did not learn to teach this way in college. Some questions to ask as you review these policies and practices in your school or district include the following:
- Is your building or district providing professional development related to place-based education or, more generally, to the facilitation of inquiry-based learning and other student-centered pedagogies?
- Does your building or district provide substitutes and allow teachers to leave the building for relevant professional learning and conferences sponsored by other organizations?
- Is effort ongoing within the building to provide mentorship and peer-to-peer learning opportunities for teachers trying to develop their skill sets in experiential teaching?
Curricular flexibility, when present, allows a teacher to pursue a topic through community-embedded learning, either as an add-on to a school’s official curriculum or as an alternative to the official curriculum. Curricular flexibility also allows teachers to slow down or speed up in response to students’ emerging questions, interests, challenges and needs. In the absence of curricular flexibility, teachers will not be able to initiate or carry out meaningful place-based education.
Support for Cross-Grade and Cross-Curricular Teacher Teamwork
A few buildings and districts – often rural – are small and intimate settings where the teachers know one another and the teaching context very well. These conditions are ideal for teacher teamwork. If your building or district doesn’t have these advantages, you’ll need to make intentional choices to encourage teacher teamwork and to support it.
When place-based educators collaborate, many benefits follow:
- Easier for teachers: Teachers can share the responsibilities of meeting with community partners, making travel arrangements for off-site work, readying students for off-site work, and can support one another as they develop new skills and understanding.
- Better learning opportunities for students: Through collaborative PBE, teachers can address cross-curricular standards through a single, integrated project involving multiple teachers and classrooms. Given that real-world problem-solving is inherently interdisciplinary, cross-curricular learning opportunities are of great value for students. However, most secondary schools do not have intentional structures to allow teachers to collaborate this way.
Common planning time is the most important tool in your toolkit for supporting teacher collaboration. Collaboration can also occur in the context of a co-taught or co-planned multidisciplinary class, but this approach is more limited in its potential for reaching students.
Culture and Readiness
When teachers begin to incorporate place-based education into their teaching practice, the right building culture can propel them forward and encourage them to persist through the initial difficulty. Does your building culture reward experimentation and view failures and setbacks as opportunities for learning? Do teachers feel safe asking for help and support in your district? As an experiential pedagogy, place-based education is not a form of teaching that is quickly mastered, so teachers need to feel confident that their efforts to stretch and grow are valued and that they will not be evaluated negatively if there are some missteps along the way. Administrators can also do much to communicate the benefits of place-based education to students and parents.
Additionally, policies that offer students a strong voice in school decision-making can help to build a culture that supports student voice in the classroom. School boards can establish a practice of hearing regularly from students on questions of their learning.
Access to Building and Grounds for Place-Based Learning
Can teachers use the school building and grounds as sites for place-based learning? Are maintenance and grounds staff on board with these uses? Schools offer fantastic opportunities for place-based studies such as energy audits, trash audits, indoor air quality studies, traffic studies, gardens and orchards, biodiversity studies, solar installations, recycling and composting programs, and more.
School and district policies that encourage such uses are helpful, as are efforts to communicate these policies to maintenance and grounds staff and to proactively address any concerns.
Access to the Community for Place-Based Learning
Place-based education opens the community for the benefit of students’ learning, but sometimes teachers find that a maze of school and district policies intended to protect students and foster equity have the unintended consequence of making place-based approaches untenable.
A policy audit for place-based education should test for such barriers: Can teachers take students off-site without being required to include every student enrolled in the building on the trip? Is there sufficient flexibility in scheduling to allow reasonable time for fieldwork, or are teachers limited to their 55-minute period? Are district funds available to support transportation for place-based fieldwork? Are community partners welcomed into the school and as part of an educational team for place- and community-based learning?
Goal-Setting and Measurement
When place-based education or other experiential pedagogies are explicitly included in a school or district’s improvement plan, there will typically be an effort to measure and monitor implementation, identify barriers and challenges, and explore student outcomes. Over time, these forms of focused study can help your team document benefits of place-based education and identify opportunities to enhance implementation.
Examples of Effective School Policies
Broward County Public Schools, Innovation Configuration: Reimagining Middle Grades 2018-2025
This published road map for implementation of project-based learning in all middle schools in a large district provides a window into a broad and thoughtful transition to an experiential learning approach.
Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative: Superior Stewardship at Washington Middle School
This case study of place-based education demonstrates the potential when teachers have significant opportunities for collaborative teaching, including common planning time.
Learning Policy Network Video Series on School Policies and Structures to Promote Deeper Learning
This series of video interviews focuses on leaders from three different networks of schools organized for deeper learning.
Common Planning: A Linchpin in Transforming Secondary Schools
Common Planning: A Linchpin in Transforming Secondary Schools provides comprehensive information about common planning time.
Best Practices in Professional Development
Best Practices in Professional Development reviews best practices and profiles three districts.
Finding Time for Common Planning and/or Teacher Collaboration
In Finding Time for Common Planning and/or Teacher Collaboration, The College and Career Academy Support Network outlines a variety of strategies for providing common planning time.
What Teachers and Administrators "Need to Know" About Project-Based Learning
What Teachers and Administrators "Need to Know" About Project-Based Learning Implementation reports findings from a study of implementation of project-based learning, with particular emphasis on the challenges and the role played by policies.
Project Based Learning: A Literature Review
Project-Based Learning: A Literature Review includes information about implementation issues for experiential teaching and learning.