Place Based Learning, Poverty and Brain-Based School

Place Based Learning (PBL) accesses the tenets of constructivist learning theory. New learning should be connected to the prior knowledge of individual students. In an online setting, students may come from a wide range of regions. Where they consider their home region to be impacts the learner’s way of knowing. “Sense of place is not simply an attachment to a place, but it also contains a cognitive aspect” Sumrall, Clary, & Watson, 2015, p. 37). It is important to note that where I teach, the people have ways of looking at the world that often does not match with the worldview that teachers bring and the books provided to the school. Here is a quote I found at “While western science and education tend to emphasize compartmentalized knowledge which is often de-contextualized and taught in a detached setting of a classroom or laboratory, indigenous people that traditionally acquired their knowledge through direct experience in the natural world” (Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2005, Our students participate in a dual language program in the elementary school. They are taught in the Yup’ik language, through locally created curriculum, in the areas of science and social studies by teachers who grew up in the same area.
There is common ground among students in our school and students in schools in other parts of the United States. As students enter specialized areas of study, there is common knowledge. For example, students who entered a master’s degree program, many of whom were Earth science teachers at the time, had basic knowledge in common from prior learning and K-12 teaching experiences. But when questioned on a presurvey about meteorology and geology, the students showed how their knowledge was tied to the region they had marked as their home region (Sumrall, Clary, & Watson, 2015). In order to make connections to earth science, for example, in other regions, students need to first apply new earth science concepts to what is familiar to they already. When students begin the inquiry and research process, they begin with place-based education experiences “where local settings become the integrating element in students’ education” (Blatt, 2013, p. 100). One example is from Erica Blatt’s (2013) example of implementing a local tree mapping project to learn many concepts, across the curriculum. By learning to use geographical information systems (GIS); such as global positioning system (GPS) to find longitude/latitude data, draw charts by hand or by inputting data into excel, and measuring/plotting distance; students are combining science, math, and geography. They divide into groups to collect different types of data, like the circumference of different trees to use for finding the age of the tree on a growth rate chart and finding the percentage of each type of tree. Then they collaborate to share data toward a goal.
Additionally, students can use mobile devices to collect information away from school, since learning does not stop at the school doors. “For today’s students, learning is a 24/7 enterprise. . . The traditional school experience is but a fraction of their overall learning day, and for too many students, it’s the least productive and most restrictive component” (12). It is amazing how our students have access to cell phones with internet here in their pockets. Overall, the students in the community where I teach are living in poverty. The expense of an internet plan includes very limited data. Adults are commenting to that they prefer texting to talking even to avoid using up their data before the end of the month. So students may use their phones to take pictures out in the field, and could come back to school to upload these directly to computers rather than trying to send them through their internet service. I am not sure how much they can send and receive within the school without it affecting their own service. The school uses GCI. Most people here use UUI at home.
When it comes to the need to activate learning, such as using the knowledge of how the brain works, teachers need to understand that when students have grown up using the computer, they have often learned to scan a website by noticing visual icons. When people who were not as computer-savvy researched on Google, often taught traditionally to read books from left to right, they did not rely on “the frontal cortex known as the dorsolateral prefrontal area. . . the brains of the inexperienced users changed, and in five days newbies were using the same networks” (Sprenger, 2010, p. 12). Further, computer-savvy students have relied so much on interpreting through visual images, that “their visual systems are much more reflexive and intuitive about what they see . . . They simply learn better with visuals” (Sprenger, p. 101).
Connections I noticed while reading from Jensen’s 2009 book about poverty were many common known factors in our village that are listed is overcrowding in the home is frequently an issue, access to a very small and often dysfunctional/expensive Laundromat is limited, students tend to stay outside without adult supervision for many hours per week, and in the cold months, video gaming inside is a primary activity. During the long, dark and cold winter months, students often present with signs of chronic stress. The stress hormone, cortisol, affects the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus—these are “crucial for learning, cognition, and working memory” (Jensen, 2009, p. 25). One way to calm students is to note that there are four distinct brain states. To bring students to relaxed alertness, accessing the alpha wave through mood music, classical from the Baroque composers to “balance the body and mind by regulating heart rate, respiration, and brain waves” (Sprenger, 2010, p. 94); something to think about during this testing time of year.
In reading, I have found that moving throughout the day is crucial for students. In fact, Sprenger (2010) notes that one school has even “developed a Zero Hour P.E. class, so named because it occurs in the morning before the school day begins. I am all for waking sleepy students up in the morning! Try the introduction to go noodle to view GoNoodle 101: An Intro for Students:


Barnhardt, R. & Kawagley, A. O. (2005). Indigenous knowledge systems and alaska native ways of knowing. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), pp. 8-23. Retreived on 3-11-16, at:

Evans, J. (2015). A vision for mobile learning: More verbs, fewer nouns. Educational Leadership.

Gonoodle Retrieved on 3-11-16 at:

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd Ed.). Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). ProQuest Web. 7 March, 2016.

Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it. .). Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). ProQuest Web. 7 March, 2016.

Sprenger, M. (2010). Brain-based teaching in the digital age. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). ProQuest Web. 7 March, 2016.

Sumrall, J. L., Clary, R. M., & Watson, J. C. (2015). Geographic affiliation and sense of place: Influences on incoming online students’ geological meteorological content knowledge. Journal of College Science Teaching, 45(1).

3 thoughts on “Place Based Learning, Poverty and Brain-Based School

  1. tessiesim

    I like how you talked about how the worldview of indigenous people is different from that presented in textbooks and even by educators who are not from that region. Your idea, also, about students collecting pictures of data outside to bring back in to the classroom is a good one. I’m amazed at how much instant access and opportunities for learning we have at our fingertips with technology and remember having to pull out the encyclopedia back in the day to research a topic. I agree with you that physical movement is hugely motivating for learning and find it disheartening that many schools are reducing physical education and recess time.

  2. aletakmay Post author


    Thank you for your feedback! I also remember that encyclopedia. My mom had a WorldBook Encyclopedia set and was gradually upgrading to a new set. When I was in 6th grade, the social studies teacher wanted us to come up with pictures for our weekly reports about different countries. Mom let me cut pictures from the old set! I was so amazed. Now, the “newer” set is nothing more than a set of history books. Now we have information that is updated continuously.

  3. teresareflects

    You make some very interesting points about place based learning where students tap into their knowledge of their local areas. No matter where students are they can study their own local area and that can mean going out to take photos and to use GIS. When students study their own area, they can then relate it to areas elsewhere.
    I lived in a village with high poverty for a few years and, while there, read Jensen’s book on poverty. I came to understand the stresses that students experienced, such as you outlined, I gained insight into how to support them better in my classroom. For instance, if a student arrived sleepy and told me he was too tired, I allowed him to sleep at the back of the classroom for awhile. Then he’d be fine for the rest of the day. If I were to send him home, he wouldn’t have come back and that’s losing an entire day of instruction.
    Thanks for pointing out some of the ways PBL, differentiation, and poverty are interconnected.


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