Place-based Education

Image from Getting Smart

Imagine a form of education in which the relevance of what is being learned is completely evident to students of all ages. In this educational paradigm, the focus is on students developing a deep understanding of themselves, the place in which they live and their role in their communities. Imagine interdisciplinary, experiential learning that happens outside of the classroom nearly as often as in, with ample opportunities for students of all ages to immerse directly in their community, interacting with professionals and designing solutions to real, current challenges. Imagine learning guided by student interests, providing students with a sense of purpose, agency and the skills needed to understand the world through multiple lenses and develop meaningful solutions, all driven by a profound connection to a sense of place, first locally, then regionally and – finally – globally. 

This is place-based education (PBE), a form of education that connects learning to communities and the world around us. PBE uses the natural and cultural environment as the foundation for learning, immersing students in “local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum.”

I first heard about PBE when a new school opened in our community. Aptly named “The Community School”, its mission is to “nurture, challenge, and empower children by engaging the local community and natural world as our classroom to creatively explore all subject areas through a holistic, Place-based curriculum.” My husband and I were immediately intrigued. I also harbored a certain degree of skepticism. With many lessons taking place outside of the school room, with weekly “town meetings” through which all students participated in the governing of their school, and with every day ending with time for reflection and a closing circle, the average day at the Community School certainly seemed a far cry from the average day at any public school. Would the students truly be prepared for life after graduation? 

However, I could not argue with the vision: “To foster a sense of place, sense of self, and a love for learning in our children, so that they may live meaningful lives with a deep understanding and stewardship for our community and our world.” I stayed intrigued and kept the school on my radar.

I also started to learn more about Place-based education. 

The history of Place-based education

While the term “Place-based education” first emerged in the 1990s, learning tied to place and community is as old as human beings. In fact, before the institutionalization of schools, young people learned entirely through hands-on experience within their communities. Whether with family or other adults, in formal apprenticeships or simply through the everyday actions needed for survival, young people listened to and observed their elders and explored the natural and human-made worlds and this was how learning took place. 

With compulsory school-attendance laws, formal education in schools came to dominate the lives of most young people. However, the principles of place-based education still thrived among some of the key early thinkers on education. For example, John Dewey himself lamented that there was too great a divorce between classroom life and what took place outside of school. He sought to change this by advocating that classrooms be small communities where learning occurred through participation in tasks common to human experience – through building, cooking, making clothes and making governance decisions together. 

Since Dewey’s time, an emphasis on connecting learning to hands-on experience in the community has come and gone, reappearing reshaped and repurposed for each new era in the hands of new education philosophers and theorists. The term “place-based education” was formalized in the early 1990s by Laurie Lane-Zucker of The Orion Society and Dr. John Elder of Middlebury College and further popularized by Professor David Sobel of Antioch University New England. 

The Place-based approach

Here are the “Principles of Successful Place-Based Education” directly from, the movement’s webpage:

Learning takes place on-site in the school yard, and in the local community and environment.

Learning focuses on local themes, systems, and content.

Learning is personally relevant to the learner.

Learning experiences contribute to the community’s vitality and environmental quality and support the community’s role in fostering global environmental quality.

Learning is supported by strong and varied partnerships with local organizations, agencies, businesses, and government.

Learning is interdisciplinary.

Learning experiences are tailored to the local audience.

Learning is grounded in and supports the development of a love for one’s place.

Local learning serves as the foundation for understanding and participating appropriately in regional and global issues.

Place-based education programs are integral to achieving other institutional goals.

Place-based education occurs in many settings. It can happen in the home, it can be integrated in public-school classrooms or other places of learning or an entire school can be founded around the principles of PBE. Basically, anyone working with young people in a place of learning can adopt the principles of PBE. From parents and children engaging together in volunteerism to public school teachers bringing in classroom speakers and taking field trips to designing an entire curriculum around place-based principles, implementation can vary widely. Wherever local places are leveraged as learning ecosystems, place-based learning can occur and students can, in turn, develop an understanding of communities and their role in impacting and improving local places. 

PBE personalizes learning. Students have a voice in determining what, how, when and where they learn. Learning is tailored to individual strengths, needs and interests. Mastery of high academic standards is ensured, as students are given the opportunity to take the time needed to develop mastery, recognizing that this process looks different for different learners. Success is measured in a way that is meaningful to the students involved.

Educating true citizens

Now, six years after its founding, both the specific success of The Community School and the value of Place-based education are clear to me. So, too, is the answer to my question regarding the ability of such a model of education to aptly prepare students for life after school. I’ve watched as the students of The Community School participate in this community and make a tangible, positive difference. Through this experience, the students are clearly developing the skills most needed to encounter real-world challenges and solve them in a way that respects the intersection of human cultures and the rest of the natural world in each unique manifestation of place. This education is so evidently preparing students to be informed, empowered and engaged members of democratic society. And how could it not, as students learn through participating in their communities in a meaningful way. This is education for the real world and provides students with a deep-seated sense of purpose. 

I’m excited to see the movement grow.

Categories: Education

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