A Guide to Community-Based Learning

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Community-based learning refers to various teaching methods and programs that educators utilize to connect what is being taught in schools to their surrounding communities, including local institutions, history, literature, cultural heritage, and organic environments. It is also motivated by the belief that all communities have intrinsic educational assets and resources that educators can utilize to enhance learners’ learning experiences.

Proponents of community-based learning generally argue that learners will be more interested in the subjects and ideas being taught. They will be inspired to learn if educational study is connected to ideas, issues, and contexts that are more familiar, understandable, accessible, or personally relevant to them. By utilizing the “community as a class,” advocates argue, educators can improve knowledge retention, skill acquisition, and preparation for adult life because learners can be given more opportunities to 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:

Curriculum connections: In this type of community-based learning, educators would make explicit and purposeful connections between the content being taught in the class and local issues, contexts, and ideas. For instance, the workings of a democratic political system may be described in terms of a local political process, statistics and probability may be taught utilizing stats from a local sports team, a scientific concept may be explained utilizing an example taken from a local habitat or ecosystem, or the Civil War may be taught utilizing examples and stories drawn from local history. In this scenario, learners may still be educated within the school walls, but community-related connections are being used to enhance learner understanding or engagement in the learning process.

Community amalgamation: In this approach, educators take advantage of local experts by inviting them into the school to give presentations, participate in panel discussions, or mentor learners working on a research project. The school may also collaborate with a local organization or group to provide learning experiences in the school—e.g., a local engineering firm or scientific institution may help the school create a robotics program or judge science-fair projects. In this scenario, learners are still being educated within the school walls, but community resources and authorities are being used to enhance the learning experience.

Community involvement: In this approach, learners would learn, at least in part, by actively participating in their community. For instance, learners 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 educational credit or identification; volunteer at a local nonprofit or advocacy campaign during which they conduct related research, or they may interview doctors, urgent-care professionals, health-insurance executives, and people in the community without health insurance to learn about the practical challenges faced when attempting to expand health-care coverage. In this scenario, learners 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 educational program.

Citizen activity: Some experts and educators would consider this approach to be the fullest or most “authentic” realization of community-based learning—learners not only learn from and in their community, but they also utilize what they are learning to influence, change, or give back to the community in some meaningful way. For instance, learners may write a regular column for the local newspaper; research an environmental or social problem, and then create an online petition or deliver a presentation to the city council to influence local policy, or volunteer for a local nonprofit and create a multimedia presentation, or short documentary intended to raise awareness in their community about a particular cause. In this scenario, the audience for and beneficiaries of a learner’s learning products would extend beyond educators, mentors, and other learners to include community organizations and the general public.

How to Implement Community-Based Learning In Your Class

Community-based learning is thought of as a way for educators to enhance their ideas by connecting them to individual, first-hand experiences and accessible examples. Community-based learning is typically positioned as an alternative to traditional forms of learning. Learners may read about people, places, or events they have never experienced or ideas that can only be understood abstractly.

Although community-based learning seems to work just fine, some educators are calling for it to be reformed. In this article, we will discuss why.

War is a common idea taught in history class. However, it is not something that most American learners commonly experience—and, consequently, the effects and implications of war may not be fully felt or grasped. A community-based approach to teaching learners about war might entail visiting a war memorial that lists the names of soldiers who died in combat, 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 to develop stronger relationships between the school and its community while also increasing the community’s investment in, understanding, and supporting the school and the learning experiences it provides. For instance, school-reform proposals may be met with skepticism, criticism, or resistance from the local community, particularly if they are misunderstood or misinterpreted.

If a large percentage of community members are involved in the school’s new approach to educating learners, 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 community members better understand its potential.

Debating the Pros and Cons of Community-Based Learning

Like any school-reform strategy that necessitates major changes in how schools operate and learners are taught, community-based learning can become the object of debates. Many people, including educators, may express concern that community-based approaches will “water down” courses, that learners will fail to acquire foundational educational knowledge, and that test scores may drop.

Parents and community members might express unease because the approach looks different from the more familiar school concept they are accustomed to. Logistical issues and complications, and safety concerns, may also arise since learners may leave the school grounds for certain activities. They may have to utilize public transportation. They may be taught by adults who are not educators.

Educators may express skepticism or resistance because community-based learning can complicate school schedules and mandate more planning and creativity, increasing educator workloads or resulting in teachers not being given the planning time and training or resources they need to learn and utilize community-based approaches efficiently.

In its more advanced forms, community-based learning can also mandate coordination between the school and outside organizations and people, which can have both financial and human-resource implications. In many cases, schools recruit parents or community volunteers to coordinate programs to reduce school personnel costs or burdens.

Advocates argue that community-based learning needs to be skillfully designed in schools—doing too much, too quickly, without a strong plan and sufficient training for educators can greatly increase the likelihood that problems will arise.

They also argue that even though community-based learning can mandate more from schools and educators—more funding, more planning, more work, more professional development—the benefits are well worth the investment: learners 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.

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