One of the defining movements of the early 21st century
involves a re-focusing on our local communities. In terms of food, the word
used is “locavore.” A locavore tries to eat food that is locally produced,
which is often defined as being grown either in one’s own garden or purchased
from a farmer operating within one hundred miles of its point of purchase
or consumption. The benefits include knowing the origin of one’s food, that
it’s grown without any or excessive amounts of chemicals, and is super fresh;
environmental benefits such as avoiding the pollution involved with transporting
food long distances; and support for local economies. Locavorism is part
of a larger trend toward shopping locally, from small, neighborhood businesses
rather than large, multinational chains – indie booksellers versus Amazon,
the corner coffee roaster versus Starbucks, and so on.
There is also a movement in education that focuses
locally. “Place-based education” (sometimes called experiential education
or community-based education) is a philosophy that was developed by Massachusetts-based
nonprofit The Orion Society in the 1990s. But it’s a term that could also
be used to describe how unschoolers learn. In fact, life learning could
be seen as the ultimate in place-based education, which is still the exception
rather than the rule in school classrooms.
Through place-based education, students use their local
communities as resources for learning by doing. Young people and adults
work together, often with local agencies, to solve community problems and
develop what is known as a “sense of place.” Many philosophers believe that
knowledge of the history, culture, and ecology of one’s immediate surroundings
is a stepping stone to understanding broader international issues.
Gregory A. Smith – associate professor in the Graduate
School of Education, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon – notes
in a 2002 article in the Phi Delta Kappan magazine that one of
the primary strengths of place-based education is that, through its adaptation
to the unique characteristics of particular places, it can “help overcome
the disjuncture between school and children’s lives that is often a characteristic
of school.” He describes it as putting learners in charge of their own learning
agendas, with adults as “experienced guides, co-learners, and brokers of
community resources and learning possibilities.” Smith also points out that
place-based education allows students to “become the creators of knowledge
rather than the consumers of knowledge created by others,” in much the same
way that graduate schools do.
Although place-based education theory, along with Smith’s
commentary, refers to school environments, it all sounds very much like
life learning to me!
Place-based education is usually hands-on, project-based,
and always related to something in the real world. It involves kids in solving
real-world problems. And that’s perfectly suited to life learners, who populate
their communities during the day when others are in school. If they’re old
enough, in many communities they can volunteer at local institutions such
as libraries, hospitals, or nursing homes. Or they can assist entrepreneurs
and researchers in their real-life work. Or they can create their own projects,
often with an environmental or social aspect – helping monitor the health
of a local body of water, cleaning up a park and figuring out how to keep
it that way, documenting local flora and fauna as citizen scientists, or
exploring local history by interviewing local residents, for instance. One
well-known place-based project is the Appalachian Foxfire movement of the
1970s, where young people documented their parents’ and grandparents’ life
experiences working in the coal mines and living a hardscrabble life on
small, rural properties.
Because such projects connect kids to the economic,
civic, and social lives of their communities, they can lead to entrepreneurship
opportunities and internships/apprenticeships with local businesses as they
begin to pursue career ideas.
One of the criticisms of home-based education in general,
and unschooling in particular, is that families whose kids aren’t in school
have scorned their civic duty, resulting in their kids becoming self-centered
and unable to participate in a democracy. I have always argued that the
opposite is true; life learners, with their place-based education, have
plenty of opportunities to become aware of their status and responsibilities
as residents of their neighborhoods and communities. And that leads to a
stronger commitment to recognize and solve problems as they arise.
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's founder and editor. She is
also a journalist with over 40 years of experience, a former broadcaster, the
author of 13, and a changemaker by nature. Her two adult daughters learned
without schooling in the 1970s and '80s. You can learn more about Wendy and read some of her writing
on her personal website.