Place-based education, sometimes called pedagogy of place, place-based learning, experiential education, community-based education, education for sustainability, environmental education or more rarely, service learning, is an educational philosophy. The term was coined in the early 1990s by Laurie Lane-Zucker of The Orion Society and Dr. John Elder of Middlebury College. Orion's early work in the area of place-based education was funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Although educators have used its principles for some time, the approach was developed initially by The Orion Society, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization, as well as Professor David Sobel, Project Director at Antioch University New England. Place-based education is often interdisciplinary. It aligns with several popular pedagogies, including thematic, hands-on, or project-based learning. Place-based curriculum begins with topics or issues from the local community.
Place-based education seeks to help communities through employing students and school staff in solving community problems. Place-based education differs from conventional text and classroom-based education in that it understands students' local community as one of the primary resources for learning. Thus, place-based education promotes learning that is rooted in what is local—the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place--that is, in students' own "place" or immediate schoolyard, neighborhood, town or community. According to this pedagogy, grade school students often lose what place-based educators call their sense of place through focusing too quickly or exclusively on national or global issues. This is not to say that international and domestic issues are peripheral to place-based education, but that students should first have a grounding in the history, culture and ecology of their surrounding environment before moving on to broader subjects.
“The results [of modern education] are comparable to eating the menu instead of the meal” (Orr, 1992)
The transformational potential of place-based education is multilayered from a global, societal and personal perspective. The transformation from an anthropocentric to ecocentric worldview will be needed to achieve a sustainable future (Orr, 1992). There is a transformational potential for schools to become more integrated, inclusive, democratic and student-centered places of learning rather than bounded, bureaucratic institutions (Sobel, 2006; Theobald, 2000). Place-based approaches to education are progressive and in the spirit of Dewey, engage students in authentic inquiry in their own neighborhoods which has transformational potential for communities (Dewey, 1944).
In addition to the outer work of sustainability and educational reform, place-based education offers possibilities for the inner work of personal transformation and growth (Tooth & Renshaw, 2009). Local neighborhoods, environments and naturalized areas are a context for direct experiences that engage head, heart and hands for the inner work of discovering one’s place and identity in relationship to the immediate world that surrounds young people (Orr, 1992; Sipos, Battisti, & Grimm, 2008). The framework of head, heart and hands moves students from knowing to caring to doing. Through deep engagement, reflection and relational understandings, students expand their perception and values and find that learning enriches their lives beyond the classroom. These value-laden educational experiences can be transformative by bringing a new perspective of relationship and responsibility to self and community with an improved attitude toward the personal growth that can result from learning.
There can be magic in a special place, a vital rainforest, an ancient tree, or wildlife encounter that inspires a sudden sense of awe. Being in a special or unique place shifts us out of our normal day-to-day routine and sensory habits, overriding the narrow gating of our neural processes.
One feels something from the place, the experience. Some powerful living force-despite the years of schooled reductionism- touches a person when they have such an experience. They are held in the embrace of what world’s touch taken out of the mechanical world in which they have been submerged since their schooling began, experiencing, as our ancestors once did, the living reality of the world. Stephen Harrod Buhner