Friday, August 13, 2010

Place Based Education

I took a walk the other day through a woodland which is on the grounds of one of our local elementary schools. I had walked it several times when our son was younger, especially when he was in school there. This time he and I were looking for any invasive plants or out-of-the-ordinary plants to report to Terri, the teacher who uses that woodland in her 5th grade class.

The woodland is only about 5 acres but it has a nice combination of large trees of several species. The woodland is old enough to have built up some amount of downed wood (coarse woody debris) and uneven microtopography. The students already do a number of projects at the site. Another project could be to monitor salamanders. The coarse woody debris should be good for salamanders and students could use that hands-on, in-their-own-backyard work to learn better about salamanders, forest habitat quality, and the concern for loss of biodiversity of amphibians not just globally but also locally.

That's how this handy on-campus field site helps the students understand the woodlands that are so much a part of our place here in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula. Textbooks, class videos, the cable channels and the national magazines do a nice job of explaining global issues, such as the plight of the rainforests. Students need to know about global issues. But they also need to know about conservation needs in their local community. Terri does a nice job of integrating local conservation into her in-the-class curriculum -- and not just in her science classes. Language arts, social science and other topics make natural connections to lessons learned in the woods.

She also incorporates these opportunitites into outside-the-class curriculum. Like her, many teachers have discovered that by getting their students outside, in this case in the woodland, the students will become more engaged and interested in school and will thus do better academically (and even on standardized tests). The engagement can be in an environmental setting, it can be history and culture, it can be local social issues such as local hunger and poverty or local issues with youth or the aged. It’s called place-based education. It uses the local community as the classroom. It builds sense of place, stewardship of the place and builds future social capital. These kids will grow up and be willing to be civic leaders, help put together projects and groups, run for school board, and so on.

This particular grade school has a woodland on site. Some clever designer way back when made that happen. Not all schools have that resource. For those that don’t have an on-site woodland, teachers can find a local stream, park, open space, garden or other place with some plant life for nature-based enrichment/engagement. Cultural or historical sites would be the place for that kind of engagement. Every school has access to social service agencies for that kind of engagement. Any and all of those avenues for student involvement in the local community build sense of place, stewardship of place and social capital. These projects get students involved in a concrete way rather than just in the abstract. This kind of real-world, hands-on approach to education goes beyond facts learned for a standardized test or even ‘critical thinking skills’ and lets students see what they can do and will be doing to make their world a better place.

SIDEBAR: Service Learning
A specific strategy for place-based education is service learning. Students do projects that involve them directly with agencies to help address the problems. Students research the problem, meet with agency staff to find a suitable project, help design the project, carry it out and report on it. That’s powerful learning, especially when the students complete some reflection on what they did, how they did it, what they learned by doing it, and how they now may see the world a bit differently. In the case of Terri’s students, we may end up putting them to work in invasive plant control in the school woodland, but the possibilities are limit-less.

If you work in an agency or organization that could work with local K-12 or college/university students, let the teachers in your area know that you’d be interested in looking at the possibilities of working together.

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