A recent article by the University of Virginia’s Amy Azano in the Journal of Research in Rural Education explores the benefits and drawbacks of one teacher’s use of that instructional approach in a rural high school.
Simply put, place-based education is when teachers use students’ surroundings as a vehicle for instruction with the hope of increasing students’ participation. Advocates say rural students have strong ties to their communities, and placed-based education builds on those relationships to give lessons more relevance.
Although Azano used pseudonyms for the school and teacher featured in the study, she said the school served about 750 students in grades 8-12 from two rural communities near the base of the Appalachian Mountains. About 40 percent were low-income, and less than 20 students were minorities.
The teacher was “Ed Schaffer,” who Azano said she met doing research for another study. He’d taught in the community for 21 years, lived there his entire life, and loved it. He often incorporated place into his teaching because it’s a reference point for students and because it’s integral to his self-concept: “He is proud of his place, and tells students that they, too, should be proud of where they’re from,” according to the study.
Schaffer chose an 8th-grade honors class to participate in the study because those students had the least need to adhere to a standard curriculum, and Azano collected data through classroom observations, formal and informal interviews, and related documents.
Azano found that using a sense of place in English curriculum may increase curricular relevance for rural students and create opportunities for them to think more critically about literacy. But she found that Schaffer didn’t encourage those critical-thinking skills that would’ve challenged students to have a more nuanced understanding of place. That could hamper students’ ability to identify and analyze challenges facing their communities that result in inequities, according to the study.
For example, Schaffer framed one class discussion around community membership based on his love for the area, so students mostly were positive in their reflections. A more critical approach would’ve enabled students to identify the region’s positive and negative attributes of life in a rural community, according to the study.
Azano concluded that allowing students to use their personal sense of place is an effective first step to create connections to the material, but those practices can be limiting without a critical frame.
“This study indicates that, even in a brief experience of place-based instruction, this notion of literacy has the potential to deepen student understanding of place and its importance in their lives. If researchers continue to investigate the extent to which place can be a relevant vehicle for promoting ‘critical’ literacy ... then rural teachers and their students will have the means to transform education in a way that more fully actualizes the possibility of place,” according to the study.
I would expect Azano’s findings to be true for many rural educators nationally. Teacher recruitment and retention is a huge issue for rural schools, and it makes sense that rural teachers often love and feel connected to their communities. So to ask those educators to take a critical perspective when using a place-based instructional approach likely will be a challenge and potential disadvantage to that educational strategy.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.