Community-based learning refers to a wide variety of instructional methods and programs that educators use to connect what is being taught in schools to their surrounding communities, including local institutions, history, literature, cultural heritage, and natural environments. Community-based learning is also motivated by the belief that all communities have intrinsic educational assets and resources that educators can use to enhance learning experiences for students. Synonyms include community-based education, place-based learning, and place-based education, among other terms.
Proponents of community-based generally argue that students will be more interested in the subjects and concepts being taught, and they will be more inspired to learn, if academic study is connected to concepts, issues, and contexts that are more familiar, understandable, accessible, or personally relevant to them. By using the “community as a classroom,” advocates would argue, teachers can improve knowledge retention, skill acquisition, and preparation for adult life because students can be given more opportunities apply learning in practical, real-life settings—by researching a local ecosystem, for example, or by volunteering at a nonprofit organization that is working to improve the world in some meaningful way.
While the methods and forms of community-based learning are both sophisticated and numerous, the concept is perhaps most readily described in terms of four general approaches (all of which might be pursued independently or combined with other approaches):
- Instructional connections: In this form of community-based learning, teachers would make explicit and purposeful connections between the material being taught in the classroom and local issues, contexts, and concepts. For example, the workings of a democratic political system may be described in terms of a local political process; statistics and probability may be taught using stats from a local sports team; a scientific concept may be explained using an example taken from a local habitat or ecosystem; or the Civil War may be taught using examples and stories drawn from local history. In this scenario, students may still be educated within the school walls, but community-related connections are being used to enhance student understanding or engagement in the learning process.
- Community integration: In this approach, educators might take advantage of local experts by inviting them into the school to give presentations, participate in panel discussions, or mentor students who are working on a long-term research project. The school may also partner with a local organization or group to provide additional learning experiences in the school—e.g., a local engineering firm or scientific institution may help the school develop a robotics program or judge science-fair projects. In this scenario, students are still being educated within the school walls, but community resources and authorities are being used to enhance the learning experience.
- Community participation: In this approach, students would learn, at least in part, by actively participating in their community. For example, students may undertake a research project on a local environmental problem in collaboration with a scientist or nonprofit organization; participate in an internship or job-shadowing program at a local business for which they can earn academic credit or recognition; volunteer at a local nonprofit or advocacy campaign during which they conduct related research, write a paper, or produce a documentary on what they learned; or they may interview doctors, urgent-care professionals, health-insurance executives, and individuals in the community without health insurance to learn about the practical challenges faced when attempting to expand health-care coverage. In this scenario, students are learning both within and outside of the school walls, and participatory community-based-learning experiences would be connected in some way to the school’s academic program.
- Citizen action: This approach would be considered by some experts and educators to be the fullest or most “authentic” realization of community-based learning—students not only learn from and in their community, but they also use what they are learning to influence, change, or give back to the community in some meaningful way. For example, students may write a regular column for the local newspaper (rather than simply turning in their writing to a teacher); research an environmental or social problem and then create an online petition or deliver a presentation to the city council with the goal of influencing local policy; or volunteer for a local nonprofit and create an multimedia presentation, citizen-action campaign, or short documentary intended to raise awareness in their community about a particular cause. In this scenario, the audience for and potential beneficiaries of a student’s learning products would extend beyond teachers, mentors, and other students to include community organizations and the general public.
Community-based learning is considered a way for educators to enhance the concepts being taught by connecting them to personal, first-hand experiences and familiar, accessible examples. In this way, community-based learning is often positioned as an alternative to more traditional forms of learning in which students may read about people, places, or events they have never experienced or to concepts that can only be understood abstractly. War is a common concept taught in history class, for example, but it’s not something that is commonly experienced by most American students—and, consequently, the effects and implications of war may not be fully felt or grasped. A community-based approach to teaching students about war might entail visiting a war memorial that lists the names of local soldiers who died in combat, interviewing local veterans about their experiences, researching how a particular war affected their local community, or hosting discussions with a veteran’s group or a recently arrived refugee who relocated to the community from a war-torn area.
Community-based learning is also promoted as a way to develop stronger relationships between the school and its community, while also increasing the community’s investment in, understanding of, and support for the school and the learning experiences it provides. For example, school-reform proposals may be met with skepticism, criticism, or resistance from the local community, particularly if they are misunderstood or misinterpreted. Yet if a significant percentage of community members are meaningfully involved in the school’s new approach to educating students, participating community members would not only have a stronger understanding of the strategies being implemented, and of why the new teaching approaches are being adopted, but they would also be able to help other community members better understand the reforms.
Like any school-reform strategy that necessitates significant changes in the ways that schools operate and students are taught, community-based learning can become the object of debates or controversy. Some people, including educators, may express concern that community-based approaches will “water down” courses, that students will fail to acquire fundamental academic knowledge, and that test scores may drop. Parents and community members may express unease because the new approach looks significantly different than the more familiar concept of school they are accustomed to. Logistical issues and complications, as well as safety concerns, may also arise, since students may leave the school grounds for certain activities, they may have to use public transportation, and they may be supervised or taught by adults who are not teachers.
Educators may also express skepticism or resistance because community-based learning can complicate school schedules and require more planning and creativity, thereby increasing teacher workloads, or because they are not being given the planning time, training, or resources they need to learn and use community-based approaches effectively. In its more developed forms, community-based learning can also require a lot of coordination between the school and outside organizations and individuals, which can have both financial and human-resource implications. In some cases, schools recruit parents or community volunteers to coordinate programs to reduce costs or burdens on school personnel.
Advocates would argue that community-based learning needs to be skillfully designed and deployed in schools—doing too much, too quickly, without a strong plan and sufficient training for teachers can greatly increase the likelihood that problems will arise. They may also argue that even though community-based learning can require more from schools and teachers—more funding, more planning, more work, more professional development—the benefits are well worth the investment: students will be more excited about learning, they will learn more, and they will be more able to apply what they have learned in real-life settings.