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How Place-Based Education Brings the Joy Factor

Educators – Looking for ways to deepen your learning this summer? Don’t miss these virtual professional learning opportunities!

Virtual Introduction to Place-Based Education

Virtual Book Study: Pace-Based Education Deep Dive 

The Case for Joyful Classrooms

Pop quiz: Does happiness help students learn?

If you answered yes, you’re in agreement with the latest neuroscience research. According to Dr. David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, “There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more nonlinear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall.” In other words, happy students are engaged students. Read more about how happiness and learning are connected here

But our lived experience tells us that learning (and teaching) can often fall flat for both students and educators. Feelings of fear can bar new knowledge from entering students’ minds. Cognitive tasks or texts that feel overwhelming can push students into survival mode and make hard work unproductive.

So how do we create more joyful learning environments? How do we ensure that every student who enters our classrooms feels like they belong? Place-based education (PBE) offers powerful tools for increasing the J-factor in learning, thus engaging students in a culture of deep, sticky, and happy learning.

Joy – Strategy or End Goal? 

In Doug Lemov’s highly regarded guide for teaching, Teach Like a Champion, Technique 46 is the J-Factor or bringing joy into the learning process. Strategies include incorporating movement or song to reinforce both learning and a sense of belonging, games that draw on our innate love of play and friendly competition and adding elements of humor and surprise to keep learning fresh and memorable.                                  

By Lemov’s definition, joy factor moments are not ends in themselves; they function as a strategy to raise achievement. But is joy in our classrooms better understood as a tool for achieving learning objectives or as an overarching goal? What if we viewed prioritizing joy as a foundational part of building successful learning communities?

PBE and the J-Factor

When we take a closer look at some of place-based education’s guiding principles, intention and potential for joyful learning abound.

  • Centering the learning experience around students and their interests grants agency and autonomy that makes learning meaningful and fulfilling. This new way of looking at education through the student’s eyes acknowledges the need to adapt learning to meet the needs of all learners.

    Building on earlier explorations of the importance of play in learning, students in grades 3-5 at Mountain River School, a Place Network partner, were challenged to design an outdoor play space where younger members of the school community could play, explore and construct with natural materials. Read the full story here.
  • Social-emotional learning is a priority, contributing to a welcoming and inclusive classroom, where assumptions can be challenged and empathy muscles strengthened. In the words of Dr. Jennifer Pieratt, a leading expert in project-based learning, a cousin of PBE, “[S]tudents began to see that their assumptions were often incorrect and, more importantly, they began to question those assumptions — where they came from and how they came to be. The takeaway to these interactions was always the same: students realized that we humans have more in common than we don’t.”

    Allie Cunningham of University Charter School, pictured with her kindergarten class
    Kindergarten students at University Charter School learned positive ways to process adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) through art. Learn more about their project here.
  • Deeper learning is a focus, which goes hand in hand with students experiencing higher levels of motivation and challenge and looking forward to what’s next. Students can see connections between what they are learning and the real world, and recognize the value of the skills they are developing.

    Bari Bucholz, Bland Hoke, and Chris Colligan stand next to one of the elk silhouettes they helped students install.
    Mountain Academy 4th & 5th-grade students learned that a nearby highway was a local hotspot for wildlife-vehicle collisions and wanted to do something about it. The ensuing project culminated in the installation of two reflective elk silhouettes on their Jackson, WY campus. Learn more here.
  • By experiencing the community as classroom, students develop authentic awareness and appreciation of the needs, possibilities, and gifts of their unique region. Interacting with local experts, having immersive experiences in local places, and participating in service learning all serve to strengthen that bond.

    Fifth through seventh-grade students traveled to Boise, Idaho, and presented their highway sign proposal to State Senator Mark Harris and advocated for avian health in the Snake River Watershed. Learn about their project here.
  • Relationships are central to place-based learning. Developing an intentional culture within a learning community is a common practice for creating shared values that shape group experiences and ensure that everyone in the group has a voice.

    When fourth-grade students learned about the usage and environmental impact of plastic water bottles, they raised funds to build water-refill stations at their school. Learn more here.
  • Learning is inquiry-based, tapping into students’ innate curiosity and providing them with a rich structure for observing and making sense of their world. They believe that their questions matter, they understand how to look for answers, and they learn that sometimes the answer might be a new question.

    kindergarten students making bird feeders
    A kindergarten class wondered how birds survived in winter, so they began researching and learned how humans can support their feathered friends with homemade bird feeders. Read about their project here.
Educators, join one of our virtual courses this summer to start bringing more place-based joy to your learning and teaching!

Virtual Introduction to Place-Based Education 

Virtual Book Study: Pace-Based Education Deep Dive 

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