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Address global problems locally with place-based learning

By Jennifer Snelling
August 8, 2018
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Most of us have heard of the movement to think globally and act locally, but what about using the power of place to personalize learning?

Place-based learning allows student to solve community problems while being immersed in local heritage, cultures and environments to study language arts, math, social studies and science.

It’s more natural for kids to feel the impact of problems in their own backyard, says Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart. And it’s never been easier to see the way local issues connect to broader, global issues.

He believes such connections are key to creating engaged citizens and should be part of every classroom.

Educators eager to implement place-based learning in their classrooms can get started by presenting students with the United Nation’s list of 17 Global Goals, which are part of the U.N. General Assembly’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

The Global Goals represent problems that young people should grapple with as core learning experiences, says Vander Ark, and he suggests using the list below to get students thinking about how these problems manifest in their own communities and come up with ways to solve them.

  • Poverty. By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty.
  • Hunger. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
  • Health and wellbeing. Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all ages.
  • Quality education. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  • Gender equity. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  • Clean water and sanitation. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  • Affordable clean energy. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable clean energy for all.
  • Decent work and economic growth. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  • Industry, innovation and infrastructure. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
  • Reduce inequality. Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  • Sustainable cities and habitats. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  • Climate action. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  • Life below water. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  • Life on land. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss.
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  • Smart and safe technology. Diminish the economic risks associated with cybersecurity breaches in public data systems, transportation routing systems and power grids.
  • Partnerships for the goals. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

“I think instead of organizing learning in historic disciplines, which are meaningless to kids, we ought to introduce them to the biggest problems of our time,” Vander Ark says. “For a teenager to really tackle a global problem and create those real, authentic, community-connected challenges is the only way we can equip kids for what’s headed in their direction.”

For many educators, it can be overwhelming to figure out how to get started. These resources can help you on your way:

World’s Largest Lesson. This website is dedicated to helping educators teach with the U.N.’s Global Goals. Educators like Fran Siracusa and Jennifer Williams, founders of Calliope Global Education Initiatives, use the site to inspire educators to lead meaningful change through the use of innovative teaching practices and digital tools.  

DigCitUtah. This site offers 30 inspiring stories of kids and teens using technology for social good. These examples might inspire you and your students to take up a cause with the help of technology and a global network of other justice-oriented digital citizens.

Teaching Tolerance Project. This site, supported by the Southern Poverty Law Center,  provides free resources to educators — teachers, administrators, counselors and other practitioners — who work with K-12 students. The resources are designed to help create civil and inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued and welcome participants.

Getting Smart. In addition to the 17 Global Gals, Getting Smart added eight goals inspired by the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges and the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges, and another eight (#1-6, #8, #27) that help make the world better for others.

Many of the issues on these lists have plagued the human race for as long as it’s been around. But just because they are difficult and complex, doesn’t mean students can’t come up with solutions or make a significant impact.

Take, for example, Mia and Owen, two wheelchair-bound elementary students from Yellow Springs, Ohio, who spearheaded a project to make their village more accessible. After they were stymied by a school crosswalk that abutted a curb, they set out to map the accessibility of their entire village. They presented their data to the village council, which authorized fixes to curbs all over town.
A project like this has an impact not just on kids and the community,” said Yellow Springs Superintendent Mario Basora. “It also impacts the teachers. … With project-based learning, teachers get to tap into their creativity.”

Yellow Springs high school students took on a place-based project of their own. They participated in a project called, “Is it too late to save the planet?”

After studying the disappearance of honeybees, the10th grade students decided to install beehives on campus. The students didn’t think the school would let them do it, but as soon as they got approval, they drove to Cleveland on a Sunday, put the beehive in the back of a truck and drove the three hours home to Yellow Springs. The students fenced in the hive, tended it and cared for the bees.

 “Focus resources where you can change practice,” Basora says. “Celebrate the small victories.” They will grow.

Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon, and mom to two digital natives. 

Learn more about using technology for social good in the ISTE U course “Digital Citizenship in Action.” Graduate credit is available.