Imagine you take a group of fourth graders out into the neighborhood around their school. You begin to tell them about the animals that live in the neighborhood. At least three hawk species, four owl species, any number of migratory songbirds, and a world of trees just waiting to be identified. You tell the kids that if they followed the path of rain water that runs into the storm sewer, they would wind up in Lake Mendota.
It’s hilly, and kids are winded after walking up a big hill. Old red and white oaks reach out over ranch homes, dwarfing locusts and maples planted when the homes went in.
“Flying squirrels call those oaks home.” That gets them. The questions start popping. “Where do the squirrels sleep? How do they fly?”
“What do the hawks and owls eat? Why do they live here?”
“How can you tell the difference between a red and a white oak?”
You help them imagine this land before houses were built. For a hundred years, the land was farmed. Before that, oak savannah filled the space with high, swaying grasses and sprawling, sturdy oaks.
“Some of the oldest oaks are 150 years old,” you say, looking up. “They were here far before people ever dreamed of building houses on this land. In fact, they could have been saplings during the Civil War.” Another cascade of questions. New eyes on the places they live in and walk through every day.
Place-based education captures what is already in a place and helps students generate knowledge, rather than consume it. Teachers act as guides or co-learners, changing the dynamic of power among learner and educator. Students direct the inquiry, generating fodder for real-world problem-solving. Teachers who practice place-based education indicate that students feel valued. They come to a far deeper understanding of place and its importance in the life of the community. And evidence suggests it works.
For more about place-based education, see: