Place-Based Learning Offers Opportunities for High-Poverty Rural Schools

Last Updated: September 28, 2011

This article appeared in the September 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Place-Based Learning (PBL) can be a powerful tool to improve student achievement and strengthen the local community, but what exactly is it?

“Place based learning takes the real world around the school — the community — and turns it into a 21st century learning laboratory,” explains Margaret Maclean, Project Coordinator/Trainer for the Rural Trust. “Students learn skills and concepts while learning about and contributing to their place. By working on things like oral histories, water quality studies, community gardens, or student-led community tax centers, students are active learners, engaged and making a difference.”

For high-poverty rural schools with few “traditional” school resources, PBL can help fill some of the gaps left by low tax bases and curriculum that does little to acknowledge the life circumstances of rural students.

“Place-based learning is a way for students, teachers, and community residents to look at their communities in new ways,” says Jereann King Johnson, Project Coordinator/Trainer for the Rural Trust. Participants reflect on their histories and cultures and identify strengths and needs in the place.”

By doing so, participants can begin to identify unconventional resources and opportunities that hold academic potential. Those opportunities then become the basis for curricular approaches that tie required content to activities that engage students in learning about their own communities.

Unlike add-on school projects, high-quality PBL is integrated into the curriculum. And unlike typical curriculum, PBL offers students academic approaches that develops and demonstrates their capabilities through work that makes a meaningful difference to themselves and to other people.

For communities facing serious economic and social challenges, this kind of involvement from young people can dramatically improve the quality of life of local residents and the viability of the community itself.

Further, there is evidence that students in classrooms and schools that employ place-based learning make academic gains that exceed those of students in more traditional classrooms. For example, elementary student test scores in science rose significantly after schools in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana implemented a place-based science program. You can read about that program here.

High-poverty rural schools and PBL

Place-based learning is well suited to the unique challenges of high-poverty rural schools because it acknowledges realities  isolation from amenities like shopping and entertainment and necessities like health care and living wage jobs  and it also affirms cultural richness and resilience in ways that can impact community need and possibility.

Similarly, by making the community a learning lab, PBL can provide students with essential hands-on learning experiences that help compensate for a lack of adequate equipment and supplies in underfunded low-wealth schools.

PBL can be especially important for high-poverty rural schools in places with long histories of racial or economic exploitation and oppression, where powerful interests are often hostile to public education. 

Against this context, place-based learning can offer students experiences that access and affirm their cultures and communities, and it can offer communities a way to engage with the school, problem-solve and take actions that support students.

Challenges to implementation

Despite the potential of PBL, there are implementation challenges, especially in high poverty schools. Many of those challenges result from failed or misguided public policy.

For example, chronic underfunding leads to teacher recruitment and retention problems in many high-poverty rural districts. School turnaround policies can create administrative instability and prohibit the development of a sustained and coherent academic approach.

Pay-for-performance programs that peg teacher salaries or evaluations to student test scores deter teachers from working in schools with few resources and high percentages of students living in poverty. Teachers who do work in high-poverty schools are often forced to follow prescribed lesson plans that leave little room for teacher or student initiative.

And, laws that weaken tenure protections can dissuade teachers from standing up to harmful administrative or board directives, an especially relevant concern in communities where powerful local interests are hostile to public education.

Nevertheless, these very factors reveal a need for programs, like PBL, that help strengthen community leadership in order to provide continuity and support for school staff and serve as a bridge for teachers to learn about and connect to the community.

Trainings in place-based learning

The Rural Trust offers a three-day training that introduces PBL to teachers and administrators and helps teachers to begin developing place-based curriculum and approaches.

The workshop begins with a conversation about what participants know about their community.

“Because we want teachers to take a fresh look at the community’s history, economy and culture,” says Johnson, “so we ask them to look at the community through fresh lenses.

After this initial conversation participants take a tour to important community places like the courthouse and historic sites, businesses and industries, and to meet people who influence the community. The tour also goes to different neighborhoods where participants are asked to note what they see, including communities where young families and children live and the presence or absence of amenities.

“We ask participants to look for evidence of power during the tour,” says Johnson. “We ask them ‘where do you see power?’ and ‘where do you see — or not see — economic activity?’ and ‘how is history impacting the present? Where do you see that?’ ”

Participants de-brief the tour together and make a chart of what they’ve seen, placing their observations into categories.

After reflecting on their own experiences and observations, participants discuss a text on place-based learning that describes real examples from around the country.

“At this point teachers begin to think about how to translate the richness of their community into grade level curriculum,” explains Maclean. “We ask them what they do that is like what they’ve read in the text and how they might connect what they teach to what’s on the chart they just made.”

On the second day of the training participants work in teams and begin to develop curriculum.

“Teachers think about content they are required to teach,” explains Johnson. “And, they begin to map out plans for lessons that could incorporate place-based learning. The goal is to think through the concepts and create new approaches to content.”

This stage of the training can be both motivating and challenging for teachers, especially teachers who work in schools where the district or state takes a very top-down role. “In some districts almost everything teachers do is dictated by someone else,” says Maclean. “That leaves very little room for teachers to influence what they do in their classrooms.”

Johnson adds that in many high-poverty schools teachers have very little power and few opportunities to assert their own thinking. “In these kinds of schools PBL can be a morale boost for teachers who yearn to apply their intellects to their teaching practice and to community building.”

The second day of training also includes opportunities for teachers to think about how to incorporate technology and literacy skills into their PBL work.

On the third day, participants share their lesson plans with each other and fine tune their work together.

“At this stage there’s a lot of emphasis on making sure the plans are meeting state content standards and on practical actionable ideas.” says Maclean.

By the end of the training teachers have worked with each other and with community residents to begin re-thinking the school’s role in the community and the community’s role in the education of its children and youth.

“The PBL approach is one that is filled with opportunities to provide children with a good solid education and at the same time engage community members and young people in research and problem solving around community issues and concerns. It is a powerful way to teach and build community,” concludes Maclean.

You can read about successful place-based in rural communities in this issue of RPM and at the websites of the Vermont Rural Partnership and the Missouri Schools Partnership.

Read more from the September 2011 Rural Policy Matters.