Place-based education motivates students by connecting learning to community

Black heaps of illegally dumped tires pockmark the landscape around Hope of Detroit Academy. They are unsightly, attract pests, and make the community less safe. But teachers and students at the K-8 charter school are turning these symbols of blight and disinvestment into an opportunity for students to make a difference in the community while also learning core curriculum content.

Hope of Detroit Academy participates in a program called the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, a program funded through a 10-year, $10.9 million commitment by the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. The GLSI was launched in 2007 to champion "place-based education," a teaching method that seeks to motivate students to learn by leveraging and strengthening their connection to the places they know: their own communities.

The program does this by funding and supporting nine local hubs across Michigan, each of which coordinates with schools and community organizations to facilitate partnerships for place-based education. Altogether, the GLSI has engaged over 50,000 students and 938 teachers in 215 schools through nine local hubs since its inception. 

Through the tire program, students at HODA learned mapping by charting the location of tire dumps in their communities, research through conducting interviews with local business owners to better understand the problem, and social studies by observing abandoned tires being turned into mud mats through a nonprofit program that employs the community's homeless population.

"Place-based education provides a meaningful context for students that recognizes the strength of their communities," says Ethan Lowenstein, director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, the local hub that worked with Hope of Detroit Academy. "It recognizes the strength and knowledge of their families."

Such a comprehensive approach is unique in the nation, according to Greg Smith, professor of Teacher Education at the Lewis & Clark School of Education and Counseling in Portland, Oregon. Smith, who has written extensively about place-based education, serves as an advisor to the GLSI.

"What I see happening with place-based education nationally is that there will be teachers, occasionally schools, sometimes districts, that are focusing on these kind of issues, but it's rare for an entire state to have taken it on," says Smith. "That's what is particularly encouraging about what's happening in Michigan."

Overall, Michigan schools perform poorly relative to other states, ranking 40th out of 50 states according to a recent report by the personal finance website WalletHub, which looked at 12 performance metrics. And this is despite outspending most states; Michigan spends 125 percent of the national average on K-12 public education, according to the National Education Association. Meanwhile, the United States as a whole ranks below average or close to average compared with other highly developed countries, according to NPR.

School Performance Ranking by State

Source: WalletHub

Place-based education offers one solution to reaching those students who otherwise may not be motivated to learn, according to Lowenstein.

"Typically in areas where families and students have not had on-average better school experiences, there needs to be a really powerful teaching approach that makes learning meaningful for students," says Lowenstein. "If you don’t engage students, game over."

The stable and long-term funding relationship with the GLFT has enabled the program to develop deep and long-lasting relationships with schools and teachers, Lowenstein says. In addition to funding, the GLSI provides each local hub with ongoing professional development opportunities, technical assistance, and an annual conference.

"The funding has allowed very diverse teachers and students to develop very strong relationships with each other," says Lowenstein. "They’re actually building each other’s communities, and they’re learning about each other’s communities.

Evidence points to the efficacy of this approach. According to a 2004 study in the Journal of Interpretation Research, environment-based education has a positive and measurable effect on student motivation. Another study demonstrated improved performance on standardized test scores, increased engagement and reduced discipline problems. Such evidence is important when advocating for programs in a tight funding environment that places a heavy emphasis on outcomes and metrics.

"It's a chaotic time right now," says Mary Whitmore, GLSI Coordinator. "Schools are under a lot of pressure, and we don't have good structures in place that bind the school and community together. We're making a huge ask of schools and yet, in most places, there's just not enough hands at the table."

Whitmore transitioned to place-based education from a scientific research career. While serving as resident ecologist at the University of Michigan's Biological Station in Pellston, she began to reach out to area schools and saw a big gap, but also a big opportunity to help teachers and students learn more effectively by learning about their own environment and the places where they live.

"I didn’t see a lot of environmental education going on," Whitmore recalls. "There were some really hardworking people who were trying to make it happen, but it tended to get marginalized because people thought of it as a distinct subject, rather than a way to teach lots of different subjects effectively. So the programs generally tended to be underfunded."

Smith points out that place-based education is not synonymous with environmental education.

"I think environment education is a part of place-based education, but only a part," says Smith. "Place-based education involves local history, local culture, local economics, and local governance issues. If you include everything in your definition of the environment, and not only natural resources, then that's place-based education."

Mike Posthumus, Assistant Director at the Center for Educational Partnerships at Grand Valley State University and coordinator of the Groundswell hub in Grand Rapids, sees place-based education as an important part of fighting Michigan's "brain drain."

"The value of connecting students to their place pays dividends back to the state, and pays dividends to the communities," says Posthumus. "If we don't connect students to place and they don't understand what's going on, whether it's the environment, politics or economics, they don't help make good decisions and they leave. They go to other places. We're really getting kids to understand how cool or interesting or important their community is and how they can be involved in it for the long-term."

Integrating the separate spheres of school and community is at the heart of what makes place-based education so unique and impactful, according to Lowenstein.

"Somehow we have created this distinction between schools and community," says Lowenstein. "It’s a very artificial and it is a very harmful distinction. The question is, how do you start to erase those walls between schools and communities? There are teachers in schools who are school-based educators, but there are community organizations and individuals and family members who can take an active role in educating young people as well."

This piece was made possible through a partnership with the Great Lakes Fishery Trust and Public Sector Consultants. Stay tuned in upcoming weeks for additional stories about place-based education in local hubs across Michigan.
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Mary Whitmore
Mary Whitmore
Mary Whitmore is Coordinator of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, which implements place-based education across Michigan.

IMG: What is your role in the GLSI?

Whitmore: I provide technical assistance and support to the GLSI hubs as they do their work in their regions, and I ensure that place-based education gets a high profile in the state.

IMG: Who are some of the partners you work with?

Whitmore: The GLSI has formed partnerships with a number of state organizations including the DNR, the DEQ and the MDE. We are working with the Michigan Mathematics and Science Centers Network, helping its members understand what place-based education is about and how it aligns with their mission as mathematics and science centers funded by the state of Michigan.

Our hubs partner with all kinds of people: governmental entities, regional offices of the DNR and the DEQ, and local drain commissioners. They also partner with private businesses and with groups like watershed councils, land trusts, and conservation districts across the state. 

IMG: How does place-based education integrate with curriculum standards?

Whitmore: Place-based education can be rooted in any subject, including the STEM subjects. One of the real powers of place-based education is its ability to make learning seem relevant for kids. It's one thing to learn an important scientific principle by reading about it or by watching a film about it or by hearing a lecture, and there certainly is a place for all of those things. 

But, if you can go out and study important ideas and phenomena, whether in history, social studies, science, or math, in a way that actively engages you as a learner, we know that doing so improves learning. We know that kids become more engaged and retain more of what they are taught.

We have a huge engagement crisis. We have a huge dropout crisis. We have kids that are finding school to be not as interesting as it might be and we know that. You can look at the data to see that. So the more that we can make learning hands-on and relevant for kids, the greater chance we have to teach that Common Core. 

IMG: What are the main challenges that you see trying to implement and advance place-based education as part of the learning experience in Michigan?

Whitmore: Schools are pretty isolated right now, and they're under a huge amount of pressure. We have good intentions in trying to understand through standardized testing what students are learning, but I think we have a ways to go to define what it is that we want students to learn as whole individuals, and what our goal for education really is. So I feel badly for schools right now, that while they have a lot of pressure on them; they're isolated, and I think there are huge opportunities to strengthen that bond between communities and schools. At GLSI, we work with our schools to develop those connections, and it's been amazing to see how community organizations have come on board.

IMG: What are some of the successes that you're most proud of?

Whitmore: I think one success is the level of engagement of community partners. A second success is the commitment that I have seen by the people who are really putting the work on the ground, including people in our hubs and our participating teachers, community partners, and school administrators. Those are really the people who are making it happen. This is not easy stuff to do. Place-based education asks something of teachers that sometimes they aren’t being prepared to offer to kids, based on their pre-service education. So it makes an ask of teachers, it's extra work. Almost every teacher will tell you that it's extra work. But also, after they’ve used place-based education, almost every teacher will say, "It was so worth doing."