The thing is, the core idea itself is good. Getting out, learning in a new setting that leverages the power of place by organically and viscerally connecting it to the learning itself, also known as place-based learning.
The expression of that idea was, however, far from robust. Learners did not choose to go there and had to follow a schedule and design with none of their involvement. The chances that they were all into the idea were pretty slim, and any personal relevance of the learning was, let’s face it, purely coincidental.
What does place-based learning look like in practice?
This is technically an example of place-based learning, such as learning about ancient Egypt by taking a museum trip to see the sarcophagi, tools, and weapons they used. However, this is a mode of learning in which the learner is not at the centre. And therefore, it falls short of how it can and should be done.
And no, place-based learning is not a fancy new concept. Gregory Smith, as part of the campaign for place-based education, wrote:
“Place- (and community-) based education is nothing new. This approach, with its focus on the incorporation of local knowledge, skills and issues into the curriculum, involves an effort to restore learning experiences that were once the basis of children’s acculturation and socialization prior to the invention of formal schools. We tend to forget that schools as a society-wide institution are less than two centuries old.”
Before schools, place-based learning was THE way we learn
In other words, the overwhelming majority of us were already learning how to be ourselves in families and communities before schools arrived. And that it would be much better if they could line us up in neat rows, not ask too many questions, and get ready to be productive assets in an industrial economy. The schools became the sole “providers” of learning and the place we most strongly associate with learning.
In unlearning that particular fallacy, we are coming back to remember the power of place in learning. When we remember once more that learning happens anytime and anywhere, and that place has a critical role in the power of that learning experience, we open up to a whole new set of opportunities. We also reinforce the fact that learning does not stop when you leave formal education but is rather lifelong and life-wide. Place-based learning supports us in stopping to notice all our many opportunities to explore and grow.
Learning environments and place-based learning
So, where can learning actually take place? Urban, rural, formal, informal, family, workplace, community, city streets. By making space for learning in these environments (plus the reflection on and application of that learning afterward), we can construct our new knowledge and skills amidst the place which best supports our learning goals, and through the lens that a deep sense of connection and engagement can give us.
As Sam Lardner of Learnlife recently put it,
“We sometimes take the learners from the Nature Hub down to the beach because it is such a visually rich setting for learning. You can look at the sea and reflect on, for example, what a wave is because in there you find maths and physics. You can take deep learning from any environment if you really look for it”.
When learners interact with community activism groups, they broaden their communication skills, deepen their sense of agency at seeing the impact of their actions, and get a wider understanding of issues they care about.
When exploring issues around sustainability and ecology, they can do so in settings from forest floor to farm, the family dinner table to the factory that makes solar panels and everything in between.
This learning is interdisciplinary, as all learning should be. Connected, transversal, the way everything in this world actually is. Take a visit to see the learners at our Nature Hub, and you will see teamwork, global citizenship, multilingualism, and social emotional learning all bound together with a strong connection to the natural world and our responsibility to take care of it, of each other and of ourselves.
This is not to say we could not do this in our Urban Hub. But being surrounded by the natural world's rhythms undoubtedly makes the learning deeper, stronger, and more resonant.
The "formal" learning environment itself can be a powerful place of learning when the learner directs their inquiry. For example, in our Urban Hub, knowing there are resources at their disposal to create and build, cook and shape, is empowering, and we include our Learning Guides as another resource here. Learners knowing they can reach out for the things they need to sculpt their progress is liberating.
The lens of place-based learning can zoom in and out as the learner connects their own sense of self with their place and purpose in the community. They are not walled off, apart from the “reality” that awaits them at some distant time in the future, but constantly invited to be a part of the community by virtue of their contribution.
By visiting, co-creating and collaborating, the broader community itself is enriched by the connection. We grow together.
Place-based learning is one of many learning methodologies in the Learnlife toolkit, and we will be unpacking more of the personal learning paradigm in the weeks and months ahead.
Curious about different ways to engage learners? Read about the 25 learning methodologies.