Place-Based Education

Despite the busy-ness that comes with the end of the school year, I have still been working my way through my reading list. I haven’t given much though to the order in which I read the books, but the pairing of the last two that I read was just perfect.

I had read Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch earlier in the year and recently read her very famous and influential work — The Death and of the American School System. This book details the many problematic components of school reform in the United States, including standardized testing, an increased emphasis on accountability, vouchers and school choice, and the influence of wealthy private sector managers into schools. As we discussed in my teacher leadership course last year, Ravitch also bravely details how she was seduced by some of the components of school reform — which do sound promising in theory — and what caused her to change her mind. I really appreciated reading a book on education written by someone who could admit to being human and to having opinions that change over time in response to evidence and contemporary situations.

I sometimes find that reading about the current state of school reform in the United States makes it feel like resisting and fighting back is becoming more challenging by the day, as policies become more entrenched and accepted as “the way things have to be.” So, it was wonderfully refreshing that I followed up Life and Death with Place-Based Education by David Sobel. This brief book got me so excited because I could feel the lightbulbs going off in my head on each page. I had heard a little about place-based education before, but reading more about the approach whetted my appetite to learn much more and to think about how I could apply place-based education in my own classroom. Essentially, place-based education is about providing students with meaningful, authentic activities that help them actively practice being citizens. The projects usually have an environmental emphasis that helps students consider how the place where they live shapes them and to cultivate a sense of responsibility for caring about the place in which they live.

It was really the emphasis on citizenship that made so much sense to me — I have been trying so hard to cultivate a sense of good citizenship in my students this year, but it really can’t be something that they just passively absorb from a few read-alouds and discussions. Just like any other subject, if we want students to acquire a skill, we need to teach it and give them authentic opportunities to practice that skill.

The book discusses a “pedagogy of place” where there is a “necessary interpenetration of school, community, and environment.” I find this concept so beautiful and so directly in contrast to the school-reform approaches currently proliferating in the US. Those who read my blog regularly know that I am also deeply interested in community engagement, which is an essential component of the place-based approach.

Needless to say, I will be learning more (and probably writing more) about this approach in the future. It gave me hope after reading about the failure of many school reform tactics. As I was reading about place-based education, I kept thinking, “This is how education ought to be.”


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