College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Place-Based Education: Think Globally, Teach Locally

By Sarah Anderson — July 10, 2018 8 min read
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Editor’s Note: Sarah Anderson is Fieldwork and Place-Based Education Coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon, and author of Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education Across the Curriculum. The school incorporates a local approach while also linking students to global issues.

Globalization and technology have changed the world of education. Teachers must prepare their students for “global citizenship” by exposing them to current events and issues taking place around the world. At the same time, place-based education (PBE) is on the rise. Students learn content and skills through local issues relating to environment, history, culture, and current events. PBE is a way to infuse school with civic engagement and student-driven inquiry while also connecting young people to the place where they live. This process intends to create strong advocates, both now and in the future, for the sustainable health of local communities.

But is the mission of PBE at odds with the effort to raise global citizens? If students are only learning about their local area, won’t they grow up ignorant about the world at large and how they connect to it? Will we encourage children to care only about their own experience with little concern about people and places in other states, countries, and continents? Is PBE a form of isolationism?

There is no reason to fear. The aim of PBE is not to insulate children from global topics, but instead to contextualize larger themes. PBE projects give students hands-on experience with investigation and problem solving, honing skills such as interviewing, surveying, map-making, and public speaking. In the process, they clearly see how curricular topics relate to their lives. Part of that process is considering how the local relates to the global. PBE is an answer to the charge: “Think globally, teach locally.”

What Does Local-Global Education Look Like?

The Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon, is a public, tuition-free charter school with a place-based mission. We have created a curriculum map that honors our local ecology, history, and culture. We incorporate the place-based approach outlined by PBE scholar David Sobel to make sure our scope is in-line with students’ developmental stages. For example, in primary grades, students focus on the hyperlocal, such as home, family, school, and neighborhood. Once they are in upper-elementary grades, the scope extends to state and region, while also reaching back further in time. Once our students have more developmental capability for abstract thought in middle school, the curricular scope really widens to encompass a worldwide view. This is also when students have more opportunities for service and change-making.

Below are a few examples of class projects at our school that tap students into both the local and the global contexts, primarily from the middle school level.

Globalization and Trade

Our seventh and eighth graders explore the concept of globalization by learning about the history of worldwide trade (Silk Road, slave trade, etc.) and the impacts of colonization that set the stage for present-day world economies. They study the difference between free trade and fair trade and make maps that show the origin of everyday items from their homes. The classes make several field trips: to a local chocolate factory, a grocery store, and Nike headquarters, where they interview a trade lawyer.

As a culminating project, students work in pairs to identify local businesses or products that have global reach. They conduct interviews with business owners and work with a trade journalist to write articles and create podcasts. Examples include a local record store owner who has curated a collection of international music, an author whose books are being translated into different languages and sold worldwide, and a company that is creating sustainable lab-made “diamonds” as an alternative to “blood diamonds” mined in some African countries.


Seventh and eighth grade students tackle the topic of immigration by learning more about the history of the Latino community in Portland. This involves not only visits to local history museums, but also guest speakers on current events, such as an immigration lawyer. Students all read the non-fiction novel Enrique’s Journey to learn more about the national and continental issue of migration from Latin America to the United States and make maps of Central America.

Locally, the classes partner with an organization whose mission it is to foster Latino-owned small business, called the Portland Mercado. As part of the Mercado’s three-year anniversary celebration this year, the managers asked if we could create an exhibit that clearly explains current government policies around immigration. Students worked in small groups to create text-based displays, maps, guidebooks, and art, inspiring them to learn in order to teach to an authentic audience.

Water unit

As part of a science-based unit, middle school students investigate the questions: “Where does our drinking water come from? Where does it go?” In addition to learning about earth systems and the water cycle, students tour the reservoir that serves as the source of water for our city, visit the Water Bureau to see how they test and prepare water for consumption, and a waste water treatment plant. Congruently, students ask questions about water around the world: “Why don’t some people have access to clean drinking water?” “How does the protest at Standing Rock connect to water?” “What are water rights? And does everyone have them?” This leads students to conduct mini-research and action projects based on self-selected topics. Many of the topics have to do with a national or global issue, but the understanding is grounded in local experience and study.


In fourth and fifth grade, students learn about climate and biomes. Before they split off to investigate different biomes around the world in small groups, the entire class spends a good deal of time learning about our local biome. Through observation, prior knowledge, and some research, students piece together how climate forms our local environment and how our environments create habitats for plants and animals. Using this as a platform to create meaning, students then go on to investigate how different climates form diverse environments and habitats. Throughout the study, teachers refer back to the local study to help students draw parallels and develop a deeper understanding of biomes in general.

Tips for how to make the global local, and the local global

  1. Think about how a global issue is playing out in your town, city, or state. Like the globalization and immigration units outlined above, this is where students see how the smaller, local story is connected to a larger narrative. How can your students learn more by visiting relevant locations or inviting experts into the classroom? During the study, make a point of constantly zooming in and out to make the local-national-global connections explicit. Once students see that an issue in their area fits into a larger pattern, they may have more appreciation for its significance.

  2. Ask yourself how a local study can act as a launching pad for establishing a deeper understanding of a global issue. In this approach, similar to the water and biomes units mentioned above, students use the local study as scaffolding for concepts that may be more abstract. Through hands-on experience, students gain both vocabulary and comprehension that can then be applied to other, perhaps more complex, content. For example, students gained a rich vocabulary on the topic of water and water quality by studying Portland’s water system; they then applied that knowledge to more complicated stories around water rights and access taking place in other parts of the world. What can your students learn about locally that will help them to better understand a global problem or issue?

  3. Look for parallels and commonalities between local and global topics. Amy Demarest, author of Place-based Curriculum Design: Exceeding Standards through Local Investigations, writes that, “subject-based local studies can build global understanding when students learn about local parts to a global whole.” She advises: “A basic curricular construct for a local study is ‘my place, your place, all places.’ In order to better understand a concept or an idea, a student can begin locally with ‘my place.’ Then the investigation of a place far away&mdash’your place'—is better understood, and the student can come to understand how things work in ‘all places’ with new eyes.” For example, students learning about forests can compare a local forest with the rain forests of South America. What commonalities are there? What conclusions might we draw about the similarities of all forests? Do they all need the same things to thrive? Do all forests also face the same threats? How can we extend this model to social studies, as well, by looking at topics such as government, religion, or culture?

It’s true, we are raising kids who need to know how they fit into a super-connected, global society. But our young people also need to learn how their decisions and actions impact the areas where they live. By becoming inquisitive, informed members of their own communities, students develop deeper connections with their place on earth, something they can then extend to other places. Educating for a better, more sustainable future needs to start at home.

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo. Photo taken by and used with the permission of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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