Connected to Place News, November 2019

E M A I  L E M A I L

Education in the 21st Century:
A Place-Based Approach

My work cuts across sectors, including education and transportation, in supporting social change and the health of communities. I've updated my consulting services webpage with my capabilities and project experience in these areas.

In this post, I'm focusing on education and its nexus with healthy, sustainable communities, and the importance of that connection for both student learning and shaping society.

From Global and Digital to Place-Based

As our society has gone increasingly global and digital, so has our educational system. Smart, thoughtful uses of technology can engage learners, enhance learning and boost academic achievement. Likewise, learning and thinking about global issues and learning from other cultures can broaden student perspectives and promote critical thinking and analytical skills. When education focuses too much on the global and the digital, however, opportunities for connection, direct knowledge about and understanding of the places in which students live can be lost. In a world where we are becoming more and more disconnected from our communities and nature, this can have profound and negative consequences for students and our society. Students need to be in and learn from the real, tangible world, learning how to live in balance with nature and engage in their communities.

Place-Based Education

This place-based approach to education and learning takes place in many settings connected to schools: on school grounds, in the nearby community and through local field trips. Students can also connect to where they live everyday by walking, biking and/or taking transit to school. My two children have been privileged and fortunate to attend a school in which they can do all these things. Below are pictures from some of these experiences (clockwise from L to R): field trip to local park, walking school bus to school, school garden, and overnight camping in nearby state park. During these occasions, they learned about science, building community, careful observation, teamwork, problem solving and so much more. Education in the 21st Century needs to be place-based and act as a strong counterweight to the forces that are pulling our children (and all of us) away from connecting with our communities and nature.
All kids need and deserve these kinds of opportunities to learn and connect to where they live. Fortunately, a great number of organizations and collaboratives are working towards this goal and progress is being made.

Food and Gardens in Schools

The Center for Ecoliteracy is one of these organizations. Through their work with school districts and other partners, they are advancing education for sustainable living in K-12 schools particularly through changing food systems and related learning in schools. It has been a pleasure for me this year to support their strategic planning process. They support schools in connecting the classroom, cafeteria and garden through a variety of programs and networks including California Food for California Kids- a network of 89 school districts in California. Connecting children and youth to where their food comes from and supporting them in making healthy, local food choices is vital for shaping a society that wastes less food, pollutes less and is more in balance with nature. Students engage deeply in activities related to growing food and learning about the food system, enhancing their learning and health at the same time. 

Environmental Literacy and Learning Outside

Andra Yeghoian, Environmental Literacy Coordinator at the San Mateo County of Education (SMCOE), is a leader in advancing environmental literacy that involves learning experiences in which students connect to their local communities (and nature) to learn and take action to improve them. In an interview of her in Green Technology Magazine, entitled Status Quo is not an Option: Environmental Literacy and Classrooms that can Save the World, she makes a strong case for why this type of learning and student engagement is so important right now and how the school system is integrating this approach into education. In it, she articulates how teaching kids outside can engage all students, particularly those struggling in school: "When you bring a kid outside and you ask them to just make observations, like 'Draw pictures. What do you see? What do you wonder?' it invites students who otherwise would have just been handed a text in a classroom and struggled through that text to really engage. Making observations is something that anybody can do, regardless of language acquisition or reading level. We’re finding that students really do respond differently to this kind of teaching and we’re seeing major academic gains for populations that have otherwise struggled." I've been fortunate to support the Environmental Literacy program at SMCOE this past year through the Campus and Community as a Learning Laboratory collective impact project and SMCOE overall in their leadership training and strategic planning efforts.

Learning outside on school grounds, in the community and in parks and connecting to nature is no longer in the margins of our educational system. A recent article, The Irrefutable Case for Taking Class Outside was recently featured in Education Week, a widely read source of news and analysis in K-12 education. In this article, teacher and author Kate Ehrenfeld Gardoqui lays out the importance of learning outside as a means to pursuing equity in education, citing the "expanding body of research establishing that a connection to nature is essential for young people, and that opportunities to thrive are diminished as childhoods are spent increasingly indoors and in front of screens." She concludes by stating, "let’s bring teaching outside the box that is the classroom and into the natural world. Outdoor learning is so much more than fun; it is one of the richest pathways to inquiry, communication, and problem-solving. Every child deserves the opportunity to see where that path takes them." 

Connecting the Issues and the Role of Place-Based Education

Indeed, Rethink Outside , a new campaign launch by the Blue Sky Funders' Forum, provides a shared narrative for establishing that "everyone has the right to live in and feel connected to a healthy community" and that  "communities thrive when the people within them have opportunities for meaningful experiences outdoors." This narrative is a call to action that includes education and connects it to "conservation, health and wellness, social justice and civic engagement, and youth development". Rethink Outside is helping us see how all these critical issues intersect, how connecting to our communities and nature is an important remedy to a variety of problems, and how education can play an important part in leading this necessary change.

Students learning in their communities and in nature can provide a direct pathway to living more sustainably within the limits of our planetary systems. We know this is urgent. The world’s leading scientists tell us that greenhouse gas emissions must peak by next year and then decline rapidly in order to prevent climate catastrophe. As Andra Yeghoian stated in her interview, "Status quo is not an option. Status quo will lead us to our extinction. We have to make a change, and educators are a part of that change." In an NPR article on education this year, three place-based education strategies- do citizen science, do a service project and start or work in a school garden- are included in ways to teach about climate change which can be integrated into existing subjects and activities such as through the work that Ten Strands is catalyzing in California. Place-based education is an important part of our path forward in addressing the root causes of climate change and building resilience for climate change while also strengthening education for students and supporting healthy, sustainable communities in which we can thrive.

In hope and partnership,

Upcoming Events (supported by Connected to Place)

December 3
Leadership Seminar
San Mateo County Office of Education

December 10, 19
Strategy Meetings
Pisces Foundation- Environmental Education Program

December 11-12
Principal Feedback Project
Menlo Park City School District

December 17-18
Annual Review and Planning Meetings
Common Bonds, a Collective Impact initiative in Oklahoma

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