Place-Based Learning: Exploring and Unpacking the World from Anywhere

This post was written by teacher coach and consultant James Fester.


“When will this decade of a month be over?” 

I recently stumbled across this deeply resonant tweet as I struggle to make online learning work. As the pandemic drags on and more states release their complicated back-to-school plans, I find myself immobilized with worry and stress, longing for simpler times when travel, collaboration, and connecting were far less complicated. 

Students and teachers suddenly have more freedom and independence in their work, which can be both exciting and daunting. I see potential for teachers to use this time to shift their way of thinking around inquiry-based, explorative assignments. While our instinct might be that more structure and more control are the keys to effective online learning, I find there are advantages to a less structured and more open-ended approach to instruction.

One such instructional strategy is place-based learning. Place-based learning is a student-centered approach to instruction that immerses students in a non-classroom environment—such as a park, museum, or outdoor landscape—and uses the experience as the foundation for lessons. Even in pre-pandemic times, place-based learning had its logistical challenges, and now we find ourselves contending with additional layers around health, social distancing, equity, and access, which can make the endeavor feel too daunting for distance learning. 

But to me, the benefits—especially in the long term—make this a worthwhile endeavor. By engaging students in a virtual or distance model of place-based learning, we can teach them important skills around inquiry and problem solving, help them to think critically, and perhaps most importantly, remind them that the world outside of their own still exists.

My recommendation is to start small. You can try bite-sized ways to explore the world from home one image, video, podcast, webcam, or game at a time. One silver lining of the pandemic has been that places that were traditionally only accessible through in-person exploration are now available virtually. Over these last few months, I have been heartened to see new webcams go live, virtual tours pop up, and experts such as park rangers willing to video chat into classes. Now parks, experts, monuments, and art can be brought to a virtual or in-person classroom like never before, and students can experience everything from their local neighborhood to faraway places with the click of a button.

When you are ready to bite off more, virtual field trips can engage students in deep learning about a place. Before diving into a virtual field trip, I recommend working with students to list questions as a guide to their explorations. For example, each of America’s National Parks have been designated as such because it has a unique natural or cultural resource. Have your students ask themselves, “Why was this place made a National Park?” and see where they go. What can they learn about earth science at the Grand Canyon? What can they learn about equality and struggle at the home of Martin Luther King Jr.? If walls could talk, what would Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace tell us? 

As we explore place-based learning—including monuments, parks, memorials, and statues—we inevitably stumble into questions about what purpose these sites serve and their relevance today. In the past few months, society has grappled openly with issues of social justice and race in a way that arguably hasn’t been seen since the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these conversations center around Confederate iconography and historical figures who participated in the genocide and exploitation of native peoples. While these are complex and heavy topics, they open the door for students’ meaningful conversations as open-minded members of our communities and the future stewards of our world. 

Photo of The Liberty Monument by James Fester to tie into the concept of place-based learning

“The Liberty Monument, a massive bronze sculpture located in the town of Ticonderoga near the border of New York and Vermont, offers opportunities to connect to the culture and history of the region,” shares James Fester. Photo by James Fester

Educators, historians, the government, and people all share equal responsibility in ensuring places that physically denote and commemorate our history matter to the public and represent its wishes and shared vision for our nation. For teachers, there are ample opportunities to rethink how landmarks and public art can be reimagined, revised, or removed, and in the process, teach the public about their significance, both now and then. To put it into a classroom context, your students are coming back to school with LOTS of questions about why this statue was toppled or why this protest is happening, and you’re going to need a way of discussing with and answering them.    

When exploring any place, I like to start with questions. Depending on the location you and your students are visiting, here are four possible lines of inquiry that could be the cornerstone of an engaging lesson, unit, project, or debate:

  1. What happens if a monument commemorates more than one thing? In the case of statues of Christopher Columbus, is it meant to commemorate just the man? His deeds? And do all statues of Columbus have the exact same meaning? 
  2. How can we help students understand the full story of the monument before pronouncing what it represents? Are we helping students learn about how complex these issues are?
  3. Is removing or destroying a statue the best way to deal with objections to what it enshrines? Are there ways to alter the design to update or flip the narrative proposed by the statue?
  4. If a statue is controversial to some and an essential representation of history to others, who gets to decide what happens to it? How is that decision best made? While the case to remove some monuments is clear-cut, what about others that are less clear?

These questions provide authentic opportunities for students to think critically and develop their ability to make persuasive arguments about the nature of how this country articulates history through public art.

As we plan for a back-to-school that will be unlike any we have experienced before, I hope you and your students find inspiration through exploring the wonders of our world from home, in a classroom, outside, or whatever your teaching setting looks like this year. While we move through a year that brings more questions than answers, I believe we can foster a sense of wonder, curiosity, and problem solving in young people—and make sense of our world as a community—through place-based learning and inquiry.

Feature image by Rebecca Hale