By. Gregory A. Smith, Professor Emeritus, Lewis & Clark College
One of the difficulties faced by all educational innovators is the issue of dissemination and the challenge of bringing new ideas and approaches to scale. Without some breadth of practice, it can become almost impossible to attract the research dollars needed to demonstrate viability and effectiveness, often a necessity for gaining the attention of foundations or state decision makers who hold the keys to resources linked to program adoption. This has been the situation encountered by place-based educators over the past two decades as its advocates have attempted to enter the educational mainstream.
In the late 1990s, Jack Chin, then a program officer at the Tides Foundation, organized a year-long introduction to place-based education with its focus on local and regional learning and action for funders associated with the San Francisco Foundation. One of his contacts during this time was Marshall (Mike) Smith, a former Under Secretary of Education during the Clinton administration and at that point the program director for education at the Hewlett Foundation. Smith thought that place-based education had some merit but saw no way to bring it to scale; his support for Chin’s work was therefore minimal.
This hasn’t meant that investments in place-based education have been absent altogether or that efforts in some regions of the country have not resulted in more widespread implementation of these approaches. After all, place-based education first began to enter the consciousness of school teachers and administrators thanks to the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a $50 million project that between 1996 – 2001 sought to improve the educational practices and outcomes of the country’s rural schools by encouraging teachers to link instruction and curriculum to the places where students lived. And in the early 2000s, David Sobel at Antioch University New England was able to attract funds to support the CO-SEED (Community-based School Environmental Education) project that resulted in the adoption of place-based educational practices in roughly a dozen schools in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine. Regrettably, after the funding associated with these initiatives faded, programs supported by these external dollars tended to fade as well. More recently, the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative has for the past decade been implementing environmentally-focused, place-based education across Michigan thanks to a $10.6 million grant from the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust.
While all of this was happening, I was attempting to encourage educators in my home state of Oregon to experiment with place-based approaches. One of the Annenberg sites had been in Tillamook, Oregon, and there was nascent interest in exploring these possibilities elsewhere. I was not, however, able to gain access to funding to make this happen in the way that Sobel had in New England. A tentative level of institutional support did allow me to incorporate this work into my own job description. In 2005, I also received a small grant that allowed me to hold a two-day conference at Lewis & Clark College about place-based education, bringing in colleagues from Eastern Washington and Massachusetts to share their experiences and insights. One of the suggestions from this gathering was to begin holding regular meetings at which people interested in pursuing more localized educational experiences could get together and learn from one another. We created a small network called Place-Based Education Northwest (PBENW) that has for over a decade been holding meetings twice a year to showcase the work of local innovators as well as present new films about place-based education in other parts of the country.
For several years, members of the PBENW steering committee also took it upon themselves to “crash” conferences in the state where we would make presentations about place-based education for colleagues unaware of these possibilities. We spoke at events like the 4-H Extension Fall Conference, a meeting of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, at the Oregon Department of Education’s Closing the Achievement Gap Conference, annual meetings of the Science Teachers Association of Oregon and the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators, and presented at national gatherings located in Portland like the National Association for Interpretation and the Coalition for Community Schools. We organized a day-long conference in central Oregon that attracted 70 people, held a week-long workshop at the Northwest Educational Service District in Hillsboro for over 20 educators, and gained funding from the Gray Family Foundation to support four iterations of a course on place-based education and sustainability for 75 teachers in the West Linn-Wilsonville District south of Portland.
Although not flashy, expensive, or well-publicized, these efforts have steadily increased the number of Oregon schools that have made place-based education central to their missions. Realizing this in 2015, I decided to hold a meeting the next fall to bring as many of these people together as possible. Last October, 65 educators from nine schools turned up to have conversations with like-minded educators at a two-day meeting held outside of Salem. Another ten schools have also made place-based education a focus of their work with students.
What struck me after the fall gathering is that bringing an innovation to scale does not necessarily require significant external funding or even a more formal organizational structure. Desired changes may not happen quickly, as they do when big bucks accompany new ideas, but they might be more long-lasting. None of the programs in Oregon have required extensive grants, although administrators and teachers in many of the schools invest significant energy in pursuing whatever grants they can. All the programs have essentially arisen from the interests and commitments of principals, teachers, parents, and community members who want to move schools in this direction.
By doing nothing more than keeping a conversation going among people who might have otherwise felt isolated and uncertain about their own passion for an education grounded in place and community, more and more people around the state began experimenting with what it means to take students beyond the classroom into the natural and social worlds that surround them and invite them to became participants in efforts to make those places better for themselves, their neighbors, and the more-than-human communities that support us. I encourage others to try to do something similar: create informal networks, provide occasional support, take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself to share your ideas and practice, and then see what takes off. You may find yourself as surprised and pleased as I have been.
Greg Smith worked for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He became a Professor Emeritus in 2016. Greg continues to serve as a fellow of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder and as a member of the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools. He is the author or editor of a number of books and articles, the most recent of which are Place-Based Education in the Global Age: Local Diversity (with David Greenwood) and Place- and Community–Based Education in Schools (with David Sobel).