Place-based education engages students with their local cultures, environment, and heritage.
It is an active learning approach emphasizing the importance of community and social action for causing change at a local level.
A place-based approach often teaches the importance of sustainability, cultural heritage and conservation.
Key features of place-based learning include:
- Active project based learning
- Engagement with local issues
- A focus on natural environments and sustainability
- Emphasis on heritage and culture
- Embraces community service and local citizenship education
Place-based education (PBE) is an environmentally and culturally conscious approach to education that uses the local environment and community as a context for learning.
It is designed to provide students with the chance to exercise citizenship and agency, build connections in their community, and provide them with knowledge relevant to their everyday lives.
Scholarly definitions of PBE include:
- It is “…the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum.” (Sobel, 2004, p. 7)
- It “…focuses on using the local community as an integrating context for learning at all levels” (Powers, 2004, p. 17)
- Is education that has “…some direct bearing on the well-being of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit” (Gruenwald, 2003, p. 3)
characteristics of Place Based Learning
1. Hands-On Learning
A place-based approach to education breaks out of the traditional ‘banking model‘ where teachers teach and students memorize.
Instead, it emphasizes the importance of learning while contributing to projects and social programs.
This sort of ‘learning by doing’ helps students engage in deep and meaningful learning. When students learn through doing, they are more capable of remembering information (contextual recall is enabled) and applying what they learned to new concepts (because they have a deep understanding of ideas).
2. Contributing to the Community
A place-based approach emphasizes the importance of community engagement. Students are asked to become a part of their community and participate in community programs.
This is a step out of the four walls of the classroom and involves learning through and with local community spaces.
When students contribute to their community, they make social connections, learn more about their local community spaces, and feel a deeper sense of belonging.
A place-based learning module should also ensure that learners are not just taking from their community, but also giving back. They should build things for the community, identify areas of need within their community, and work to improve local spaces.
3. Engagement with Indigenous Perspectives
Place-based learning resonates with many Indigenous peoples’ sense of connection to the land on which they and their ancestors were raised.
Indigenous land stewardship and close family ties are consistent with a place-based focus on community and sense of place. This has been identified in Australian (McInerneya, Smytha & Down, 2011), Canadian (Scully, 2012), and New Zealand (Penetito, 2009) contexts.
Penetito (2009, p. 6) in the New Zealand context states:
“Most of the literature on PBE arises out of the work by teachers and researchers with Indigenous peoples…”
Similarly, in Australia, PBE resonates with many Indigenous people due to:
“…a heartfelt need on the part of many Indigenous Australians to reconnect with the earth, the spirit and the culture of their forbearers – to once again walk in the land from which their families were evicted during a century of European colonisation.” (McInerneya, Smytha & Down, 2011)
4. Environmental Stewardship
A place-based approach also involves caring for the local environment.
The approach emphasizes the importance of regenerating local ecosystems, ensuring ecosystems are sustainable and learning about the unique features of local environments.
5. Rural Engagement
A place-based approach has longstanding roots in rural settings. While it can and should be used in urban settings, rural places are where the place-based approach emerged.
This is because rural communities are close-knit and already have a well-established community atmosphere that teachers and students can tap into (and often rely upon) in order to enhance their learning.
For example, Jennings et al. (2005, p. 44) argue:
Locally responsive or “place-based curriculum” is, and always has been, a feature of rural schools, in part out of necessity and in part out of desire.
Place Based Learning Examples
1. Constructing Murals at the Local Boardwalk
McInerneya, Smytha and Down (2011) discuss a situation where students go to a local run-down boardwalk. They researched ways to revitalize the boardwalk, research the local area’s history, and created designs for a new mural. They then submitted their designs to council to get approval to create the mural.
2. Community Service
Community service involves volunteering with local community groups to help improve the community. For example, students doing a course on child development could volunteer in a daycare center to get first-hand experience with children’s learning. Similarly, students learning about health can volunteer in healthcare settings.
3. Restoring Local Ecosystems
One of my favorite approaches is to restore a local ecosystem. Students can work on park land to help remove trash and re-plant local plants in order to help the restoration. This project would necessarily involve conducting a biodiversity audit and learning about local flora and fauna so that native plants can be re-planted so that local animals can thrive within those local spaces.
Pros and Cons of Place-Based Learning
Pros of Place-Based Learning
1. Encourages Child Citizenship and Agency
Students are encouraged to act within their communities and do things that actually have an impact on others’ lives (Rodriguez, 2008). They therefore learn that they have power to affect their communities and the lives of their neighbors.
This also encourages students to have closer ties to (and a deeper sense of belonging) within their communities.
2. Local Projects are Achievable
The emphasis on local environmental sustainability means students can learn to do things that make a difference. It turns the abstract concept of “sustainability” into achievable localized objectives.
3. Encourages Knowledge Production
Students don’t just learn through ‘consuming’ information, they learn by creating things and finding solutions to real-world problems (Smith, 2002).
4. Makes Learning Relevant
Students don’t learn about abstract concepts. They learn how to apply ideas that are being taught to their lives, as well as people and places surrounding them.
Cons of Place-Based Learning
1. Disconnect Between Global and Local
Gruenewald (2003) worries that PBE teaches local issues, but may not teach how local behaviors impact global issues.
2. Difficult to Implement
It is very hard for educators to find people in the local community who are willing to support and participate in learning experiences. It may also be costly to get access to local community spaces where learning can occur, e.g. accessing local history museums can be costly.
3. Time Consuming
In an era of standardized testing and crowded curricula, it is hard to find the time to conduct ongoing out-of-class projects. Teachers need to ensure they tick off all elements of the curriculum. This can be hard to do if there is an out of class project going on where time is spent going to and from local settings, conducting research, etc.
Links to Other Approaches
1. Sociocultural Theory of Education
The sociocultural theory highlights the importance of social and cultural interactions for learning. It argues that social interaction (such as interaction with members of the community) helps broaden horizons and presents new perspectives.
Similarly, it believes culture is integral to learning. Different cultures learn in different culturally appropriate ways. By engaging with local communities, young people can learn through and within their own culture.
Learn More: 18 Examples of Sociocultural Theory
2. Constructivist Theory of Learning
Constructivism highlights the importance of learning through doing. When we learn through doing, we construct new knowledge through our experiences rather than passively learning from a teacher. This helps us have a deeper understanding of what is being learned.
3. Service Learning
Service learning involves learning while serving your community. This perspective is very close to a place-based approach. However, PBE has a stronger emphasis on local history and sustainability, whereas service learning tends not to focus on these two dimensions of learning.
4. Education for Sustainable Development
Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) involves learning about how to be a good steward of the environment. Students are taught what sustainability is and what behavioral changes are required for humans to get onto a sustainable footing. There are clear overlaps here with PBE, except PBE also emphasizes local community practices and local history.
5. Situated Learning Theory
Situated learning theory argues that we should learn while participating in activities in the workforce or community. SLT highlights the importance of working alongside experts as an apprentice, which is an approach that can be inserted into a PBE pedagogy.
6. Inquiry-Based Learning
Inquiry-based learning involves conducting scientific or systematic studies into a topic to gain deeper knowledge of it. This is an approach that is often employed within PBE sessions.
For example, once students have identified a place within the community that they want to improve or regenerate, they will undertake an inquiry into how to go about making improvements.
7. Phenomenon-Based Learning
Finland’s phenomenon-based learning approach (PhenoBL) embraces teaching through phenomena (specific events, places, or things). It is a multidisciplinary approach that replaces silo-based curricula (mathematics, literacy, science history) and instead applies methods from all curriculum subjects to explore a phenomenon. In PBE, the place or community event under analysis can be the ‘phenomenon’ and the class can employ a multidisciplinary phenomenon-based approach to go about their PBE project.
Place-based education encourages active, engaged, and community-minded education that shows students the importance of taking action to improve the lives of people around them. Its emphasis on taking action that improves lives is consistent with 21st Century educational goals of engaged citizenship and sustainability.
The best PBE examples involve engaging with local history, environments, and (where appropriate) Indigenous perspectives.
Gruenewald, D. (2003). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3–12.
Jennings, N., Swidler, S., & Koliba, C. (2005). Place-based education in the standards-based reform era—Conflict or complement?. American Journal of Education, 112(1), 44-65.
McInerney, P., Smyth, J., & Down, B. (2011). Coming to a place near you? The politics and possibilities of a critical pedagogy of place-based education. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1): 3-16. DOI: 10.1080/1359866X.2010.540894
Penetito, W. (2009). Place-based education: Catering for curriculum, culture and community. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 18(1), 5-29.
Powers, A. (2004). An evaluation of four place-based education programs. Journal of Environmental Education, 35(4): 17-31.
Scully, A. (2012). Decolonization, reinhabitation and reconciliation: Aboriginal and place-based education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (CJEE), 17, 148-158.
Smith, G. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(8), 584–594.
Sobel, D. (2005). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms and communities. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]