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Place-Based Education: Principles, Benefits, and Examples

Place-based education is helping educators redefine and reimagine student learning. In this post, we'll review the principles that guide this philosophy, the top benefits, as well as examples of a place-based approach.


What is place-based education?

Place-based education is an approach to curriculum development and instruction that uses the local community and environment as a starting point. Local culture, history, art, and other resources serve as the basis for at least some of the learning that students encounter in school.


For example, at CaST Private School in Toronto, we use the city's many spaces as our classroom, learning experientially from the institutions that make Toronto home. Art museums, university lecture halls, libraries, community centers, and parks serve as a foundation for our lessons, which are firmly anchored in the Ontario Ministry of Education grades 9-12 curriculum.


An important element of place-based education is the emphasis on environmental stewardship and community involvement. Students often play a role in helping the community solve social or ecological issues, which helps them develop a sense of civic responsibility and concern for the natural world.


Principles of place-based education

Place-based education involves several different learning design principles. While the approach differs from school to school, below are six pillars that most successful place-based programs share.


A place-based approach uses the community as a classroom

Communities serve as learning ecosystems for schools. Non-classroom activities aid students' development of critical thinking skills and enrich learning.


Local learning serves as a foundation for understanding global issues

In a place-based approach to education, students are encouraged to learn about their surrounding environments instead of focusing too quickly or exclusively on national or global issues. That is not to say that national or global issues are not a part of the curriculum, just that students must first develop a "sense of place" before moving on to broader subjects.


This "sense of place" is critical because it becomes the lens through which students make meaning of the world on a global scale. Through first-hand, personal experiences, students have a better foundation to interpret and interact with broader topics.


Place-based education is learner-centered

Place-based education is learner-centered in that curriculum is based on children's interests. Instead of viewing learners as blank slates on which instructors must impart all the relevant information, they are viewed as active agents. Educators are encouraged to consider each student’s past experiences to understand how they will take on new information.


Lessons are inquiry-based

Place-based learning is inquiry-based in that it emphasizes students' questions, ideas, and observations. Students engage with an idea or topic in an active way, rather than simply sitting and listening to a teacher. Students discover knowledge by exploring, experiencing, and making meaning as they go.


Students use design thinking to make an impact on the community

Students take a systematic approach to solve problems and confront issues in their local communities that align with the curriculum. This requires students to get creative and think critically about how they can make an impact.


Place-based learning is holistic and interdisciplinary

Place-based learning takes a holistic approach to disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Real-world issues are integrated into the curriculum, which often includes thematic units and project-based lessons. This highlights the relationship of knowledge across academic disciplines and everyday life.


Benefits of place-based education

Some of the key benefits of place-based education include:

  1. Higher student engagement

  2. A deeper understanding of concepts

  3. Increased student agency

  4. Higher academic outcomes

  5. Stronger connections between students and their communities

  6. Increased environmental consciousness

  7. Reduced anxiety and fear in students that previously inhibited their ability to engage

  8. Heightened sense of civic responsibility and philanthropy

  9. Increased curiosity

  10. Deeper levels of design-thinking and problem solving

Examples of place-based education

Place-based education can take many forms ranging from classroom visitors to inside-out schools (where the community becomes the school). Common approaches include incorporating field trips, community service, internships with local businesses, and other non-classroom activities.


For example, at CaST School, we've found that High Park is an excellent classroom for our ecology lessons. In the fall, our students tested the water quality and overall health of Grenadier Pond as part of a lesson in limnology. This hands-on experience added important context to the curriculum, and our students really enjoyed it.

An example of the inside-out approach might include students doing real work to make the community better, like helping to run a local business. The learning outcomes are the same, but the curriculum is transformed to take place entirely outside of the classroom.


Because we work in tandem with our affiliates (CaST Public Arts, CaST Earth, and CaST Center for Bioinformatics Research), we are able to create a wide range of expeditionary opportunities and experiment with many place-based learning models. The use of our local community is central to our philosophy at CaST School, so much so that our name is actually an acronym that stands for City-as-School-Toronto.


Is place-based education right for everyone?

All students can benefit from an education that is meaningful and culturally relevant to them. However, place-based education can be particularly advantageous for students that find traditional classrooms either too challenging or not challenging enough.


For example, gifted children need plenty of intellectual stimulation, and might appear inattentive in settings that don't meet those needs. Similarly, children that struggle with test anxiety or depression might flounder in high-performing schools that rely heavily on test-taking.


In short, students learn best in an environment that can tap into their interests or strengths. The learner-centered, inquiry-based approach that place-based education offers helps do just that.


Looking for place-based education in Toronto? Learn more about what CaST School has to offer by registering for our next Open House.


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