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The power of place-based education

Read how place-based education for students and staff has benefited Crista Anderson’s school.

4 min read

Voice of the Educator


Dixon, Mont. / Isaac Rockwell

Principal and superintendent Crista Anderson commutes an hour — over a mountain — to her school, a drive with a view, she says, that keeps several of her colleagues coming back to work.

Place plays an important role in life, and Anderson has incorporated this idea into her work as an educational leader by implementing place-based professional development and instruction. 

In her blog post, “For place-based instruction, start with place-based professional development,” Anderson describes her experience with place-based instruction at her public K-8 school, which is located on a Native American reservation in rural Montana.

The article won SmartBrief Education’s Editor’s Choice Content Award. Anderson elaborated further on the idea of place-based instruction during a recent Education Talk Radio interview with Larry Jacobs.

Anderson values place-based instruction, and her article offers advice on how other educators can establish their own programs. Her school is in a town called Dixon, and most of the students do not often travel outside of town. Place-based instruction, Anderson writes, lets students appreciate the importance of their place and its context in the world.

Sixty percent of the students at Anderson’s school are related to the Salish, a northwest plains tribe that exists throughout the area of Dixon and in Canada. The school’s location has a rich tribal history, sits along an historic railroad track and is near historic mining and homesteading sites, all of which prompt meaningful lessons and discussions at the school.

Dixon offers a wealth of place-based education opportunities. The area’s history includes cultural conflicts, which Anderson describes as “things that a lot of us are nervous about touching as educators.”

In her interview, Anderson said that approaching these place-based topics from an academic, rather than from a personal perspective can mitigate some of the sensitivity around the site. For example, teachers might tell their students about the science behind setting up a mine or the innovation represented by the railroad.

Nevertheless, her place-based programs take full advantage of local residents like the school’s clerk, who regularly speaks to students about her experiences growing up in the area. Anderson has also coordinated with the reservation’s tribal education department to educate the school’s staff and students about the area’s Native American history.


Place-based professional development

Anderson noted that successful place-based instruction should be preceded by place-based professional development. Many of the teachers at Anderson’s school commute a far distance to work, so the staff as a whole lacked a sense of community in Dixon.

An important starting point for Anderson was to get the teachers learning about Dixon and its community. “You teach best the things you’re most comfortable with,” she explained during her interview. “When you’re learning those together as a staff first, then it’s so much easier to offer that information and offer those same experiences to our students.”


Place-based instruction

Place-based instruction is a way of connecting students to society, Anderson said: “As leaders, we need to support teachers in developing an instructional program that engages all learners in contributing to the world around them.”

When asked how students respond to the instruction, she described their curiosity. “[P]art of the power of place-based learning comes from … when the kids start asking questions and then the teachers have permission to … leave their lesson plan … to follow that curiosity,” Anderson said.

“Then the kids’ questions are honored, and they learn a little bit more about our area. So every time they walk down the street, they see something, and they see a whole other layer to it.” She continued, “I really think that it just opens up the eyes for the students to start asking more and more questions.”

The effects of place-based instruction are not only eye-opening, said Anderson, but may also improve students’ recall. “They [students] have more context for understanding. And so they remember what they’re learning more, because they’ve visited those places; they’ve seen them, or they’ve brought it up on the projector through google earth or what have you.”

Perhaps most importantly, Anderson added that fostering this style of education may cement students’ roles in civics as they grow older, encouraging them to take seriously the responsibility of being stewards of their land.

Crista Anderson is a recent winner of the monthly Editor’s Choice Content Award. Follow her on Twitter. Want to hear more? Listen to the full Education Talk Radio interview.

Teresa Donnellan is an editorial assistant for SmartBrief.


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