Place-Based Education: Experiential Learning in our Communities

Place-Based Education: Experiential Learning in our Communities

“Place-based education” (sometimes called experiential or community-based education) involves using a local community as a resource for learning-by-doing.

By Wendy Priesnitz

One of the defining movements of the early 21st century involves a re-focusing on our local communities. In terms of food, the word used is “locavore.” A locavore tries to eat food that is locally produced, which is often defined as being grown either in one’s own garden or purchased from a farmer operating within one hundred miles of its point of purchase or consumption. The benefits include knowing the origin of one’s food, that it’s grown without any or excessive amounts of chemicals, and is super fresh; environmental benefits such as avoiding the pollution involved with transporting food long distances; and support for local economies. Locavorism is part of a larger trend toward shopping locally, from small, neighborhood businesses rather than large, multinational chains – indie booksellers versus Amazon, the corner coffee roaster versus Starbucks, and so on.

There is also a movement in education that focuses locally. “Place-based education” (sometimes called experiential education or community-based education) is a philosophy that was developed by Massachusetts-based nonprofit The Orion Society in the 1990s. But it’s a term that could also be used to describe how unschoolers learn. In fact, life learning could be seen as the ultimate in place-based education, which is still the exception rather than the rule in school classrooms.

Place-Based Education is Learning-by-Doing

Through place-based education, learners use their local communities as resources for learning-by-doing. Young people and adults work together, often with local agencies, to solve community problems and develop what is known as a “sense of place.” Many philosophers believe that knowledge of the history, culture, and ecology of one’s immediate surroundings is a stepping stone to understanding broader international issues.

Gregory A. Smith – associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon – notes in a 2002 article in the Phi Delta Kappan magazine that one of the primary strengths of place-based education is that, through its adaptation to the unique characteristics of particular places, it can “help overcome the disjuncture between school and children’s lives that is often a characteristic of school.” He describes it as putting learners in charge of their own learning agendas. Adults act as “experienced guides, co-learners, and brokers of community resources and learning possibilities.” Smith also points out that place-based education allows students to “become the creators of knowledge rather than the consumers of knowledge created by others,” in much the same way that graduate schools do.

Although place-based education theory, along with Smith’s commentary, refers to school environments, it all sounds very much like life learning/unschooling to me!

Place-based education is usually hands-on, project-based, and always related to something in the real world. It involves kids in solving real-world problems. And that’s perfectly suited to life learners, who populate their communities during the day when others are in school. If they’re old enough, in many communities they can volunteer at local institutions such as libraries, hospitals, or nursing homes. Or they can assist entrepreneurs and researchers in their real-life work. Or they can create their own projects, often with an environmental or social aspect. They might be helping monitor the health of a local body of water, cleaning up a park and figuring out how to keep it that way, documenting local flora and fauna as citizen scientists, or exploring local history by interviewing local residents, for instance.

One well-known place-based project is the Appalachian Foxfire movement of the 1970s, where young people documented their parents’ and grandparents’ life experiences working in the coal mines and living a hardscrabble life on small, rural properties.

Because such projects connect kids to the economic, civic, and social lives of their communities, they can lead to entrepreneurship opportunities and internships/apprenticeships with local businesses as they begin to pursue career ideas.

One of the criticisms of home-based education in general, and unschooling in particular, is that families whose kids aren’t in school have scorned their civic duty, resulting in their kids becoming self-centered and unable to participate in a democracy. I have always argued that the opposite is true; life learners, with their place-based education, have plenty of opportunities to become aware of their status and responsibilities as residents of their neighborhoods and communities. And that leads to a stronger commitment to recognize and solve problems as they arise.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine and Life Learning Magazine, where this article first appeared. She is also a journalist with forty years of experience, a former broadcaster, the author of thirteen books, and a change-maker by nature. Her two adult daughters learned without schooling. You can learn more about Wendy and read some of her writing on her personal website.

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