American education today seems characterized by standardization and homogenization. This shelves critical thinking in favor of teaching-to-the test. It leaves out the individual voices of students and their unique cultural and personal backgrounds. Could place-based education, or PBE, offer an alternative to this disturbing trend? Place-based education “works to counter the negative trends of social fragmentation and disconnection from nature, culture, and community by re-connecting people to the natural and cultural world to which they belong” (Clark). Through place-based education, students are given the opportunity to go out into their community and have a hands-on learning experience where they actively engage in their own learning rather than passively memorizing facts for a test. Through this they are also able to build personal connections with individuals in their community.
Place-based education can be set up in many different ways and can cover a wide range of subjects. It is possible to incorporate this type of learning at any level – from a second grade social studies classroom to a 12th grade physics lab. Ideally, PBE is guided by students interest, so even within the same grade level, the specific way in which it is implemented can vary greatly. Also, because PBE is specific to each geographical location and community, every instance of PBE will be different in how it interacts with that unique community. As Proctor writes: “The ways we are connected to our surroundings are not universal; they are place-specific” (3).
Place-based education can give both the student and the teacher flexibility and ownership in their own learning. Students and teachers can work together to decide what aspects of their community are the most important to engage with outside of the classroom, while at the same time bringing those aspects of the community into the classroom. For example, in Holler if you hear me!, Michie writes about how he worked with some of his students in an after school based setting to record pieces of “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros. This was the first time, for many of those students, to work directly with a text that was so closely related to their own culture. The students were able to record the text, using a local recording studio, for those in their school and community. Through this process they were able to see how a recording studio worked and the different resources that were available to them in their area. They also wrote a letter to Sandra Cisneros, telling her how they were affected by her story and asking her to come to their community to have a discussion with them about the book. They were successful in doing so. In this example, place-based education occurred not only at the local community level but also at a wider level through reaching out to an individual from outside of their immediate community.
John Dewey, widely known as the father of progressive education, writes that in traditional education, “facts are torn away from their original place in experience and rearranged with reference to some general principle” (3). Without engaging in the community where the students live, Dewey writes that “the lack of any organic connection with what the child has already seen and felt and loved makes the material purely formal and symbolic.” All relevancy is lost. But in place-based education, situating education in the “real world” bridges the gap between the classroom and the community to make material relevant to students’ lives.
Although place-based education strives to connect students with their immediate surroundings, it doesn’t stop there. Geographer Doreen Massey states that what we need is “a global sense of the local, a global sense of place,” which can be achieved by “linking that place to places beyond” (29). One of the theories behind place-based education states that “as the child’s world expands, so should the curriculum” (Clark). Perhaps we can use history education as a model: in elementary school, students focus on their local community, in middle school they learn about their state’s history, and in high school they learn about the United States and global current events. Place-based education can build upon students’ understanding of a particular locale, so when they learn about global events they can link it back to something more tangible in their own community, hopefully giving it more significance to their own lives.