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Portland, Oregon (CBD)

In Favor of Place Based Education

Our family moved from Portland, Oregon to Rome, Italy in the 1960s. A lot of the airlines were on strike. We had to get over there through Canada. Mom reminds me she came separately. I still have some dim memories of those flights.

We ended up living in the EUR that first year. EUR was a model, planned city designed to help make Italy great again, by putting its sense of modernity on display.

Architecturally speaking, its UN building at the end of an artificial lake looked not unlike New York’s, but on a smaller scale. El Fungo, a rotating restaurant atop a concrete tower, provided a view. We’d eat there sometimes.

What fascinated me a lot in those days was pubic transportation, and especially anything on rails.

Growing up in Portland, I’d been exposed to model railroad culture, especially through my dad, who set up an HO scale layout in our finished basement. We had plenty of floor space in our suburban ranch style home with the two car garage.

The EUR, on the other hand, featured apartment living; we were on the fourth floor. My sister Julie and I would play with belts, pulling them along the floor in the hallways to represent subway trains.

EUR was and still is connected to Rome proper by subway. One of the stops is the Pyramid, just outside the ancient city wall gates to the south. A main hub is Termini, the main railroad terminal downtown, again close to ancient walls.

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from Rome on Rome (blog), Creative Commons

I’d memorize the subway maps and in later years ride the subway and buses all over town. Bus 26 was especially important as it turned around near our later digs on the top floor of another apartment building on Viale Parioli (#25).

I’d come home from the Overseas School of Rome (OSR) on the school bus (a fancy tour bus) and then maybe take the city bus to visit Mahlon downtown near the Tiber river, and maybe stay over. Probably not on a school night. Mahlon’s step dad, Desmond O’Grady, taught at our school.

To advocate for a “place based education” when in Rome is a no-brainer and my teachers already believed in that approach. We were educated through storytelling quite a bit. Mrs. Fabris was an acknowledged expert when it came to sharing Greek and Roman history. I’d get the big picture looking back and then go home to dad’s copy of The Futurist magazine, and think forward. The Club of Rome was first publishing its computer model results and making the front cover (“Are We Living in the Golden Age?”). I’d find it hard to imagine a headier (more educational) childhood than mine.

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Vilnius, TV Tower

But suppose one grows up in the middle of North America in some old railroad town: is “place based education” a way to go then? A lot depends on the infrastructure available. Do the students have access to Google Earth or something similar? Is global data available? If so, then pretty quickly the “here” we’re talking about grows beyond some radius, of a few clicks, to become the planet itself, in a solar system no less.

Geography becomes Astronomy quite seamlessly in the present era, with lunar and Mars landings behind us already. The Japanese have recently landed small probes on an asteroid.

However, jumping to a planetary context need not be at the expense of bleeping over the local context.

Geology inevitably enters the picture, along with the fossil record. Evidence of human cultures, up through the advent of eastern hemisphere people, in large numbers, feeds into some epic saga.

We have no reason to make history anything less than absorbingly interesting, no matter where our tale begins. Start with any mountain range, any desert, any coast line, and let the story unfurl. When enough people teach their kids in this way, we can then follow the place based curricula of others, to reconnect with a global narrative from many angles. Lets start in Peshawar, or maybe Cape Town.

Derek was just over, a neighbor. We talked about changes to the Trimet bus system here in Portland. My boyhood in Rome was a long time ago by now, yet I’m still interested in infrastructure. Do students learn about where Portland gets its water and what the controversies have been? Do they understand about the port, the grain elevators, the relationship between the Willamette and Columbia Rivers? Lets journey up the Columbia, known by many names, and access history that way. Sam Hill. The invention of scenic photography. Crown Point and the Bonneville Dam. Data centers. She Who Watches.

The longest route in the Trimet system has been broken into two. The bus 4 line still serves St. John’s from downtown, but the Division bus is now the 2. I saw a 2 coming towards me on Division a few days ago and realized changes were afoot. Derek, sitting on my couch, sipping coffee, checked his mobile phone and got the story.

Portland also features a light rail system named MAX, which runs above ground but for the lengthy and deep tunnel under the West Hills.

Our Max station at the Oregon Zoo is one of the deepest on any commuter rail system. I doubt the Metro station at DuPont Circle in Washington DC is any deeper.

The education system I started planning, just for the heck of it, mirrored some of the delights of my childhood. Your school assignments encourage you to get out and about using public transportation. Various venues have been set aside to serve educational purposes.

Instead of every kid in the same grade piling onto a bus for a field trip, you get a check list and visit on your own time, in smaller numbers. Not every weekday must you go to a school building. The option to work from home is baked in.

The choice between home schooling and spending time in classrooms is not either / or, and the classrooms are more scattered. Your computer science projects might happen in some kind of “maker space” like at OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

Indeed, one of my crazy ideas was to use Measure 97 monies to turn a local castle-like community center into an OMSI outpost, complete with a microwave tower connecting the two facilities. Students would come through our interactive exhibits to learn more about cryptocurrencies, and to play SimCity-inspired computer games.

The project would have cost millions. Measure 97 didn’t pass. The community center continues to limp along, under the care of various charities.

The plan was premature for other reasons as well. We don’t have an established practice of letting older kids roam around town for academic credit. Skyscrapers do not have whole floors devoted to place based learning. OMSI is not a major hub for computer science projects. These were science fiction ideas.

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Speaking of “hubs for computer science”, another computer intensive institution in our local ecosystem is the gambling casino. Indeed, some of OMSI’s funding has come from Spirit Mountain.

Games of chance may also involve some skill.

“Gamification” is another buzzword in education, and relates to “simulation”. My Digital Mathematics curriculum devotes an entire quarter of its pie chart to what I call Casino Math.

That’s a “nickname” in some ways in that one might choose other monikers. Dealing with probability, prediction, anticipation, risk, is all part of it. Life itself has so many of the same elements.

How does one keep track of student progress through the system when it’s so checklist based? How do we know whether a student took the Max out to Expo to see the exhibit about the internment camps?

Oregonians responded to Pearl Harbor by focusing a lot of resentment on farmers of Japanese heritage doing good business in the Pacific Northwest. Rounding them up and taking over their land became the patriotic duty of many non-Japanese Americans.

This important chapter in world history should not be overlooked.

Another museum downtown, near the American-Japanese Friendship Park, shares more exhibits. Visit it for academic credit, it’s on the checklist.

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Memorial: Expo Center (MAX station)

The answer is of course computer systems, phone apps, swipe cards, other gizmos. Students have a way to build up a resume / profile by populating a timeline with achievements and accomplishments.

They have this now, in the form of Facebook for example, but my plan would continue innovating and integrating in this direction. Schools would have their own servers, for accumulating memories.

Teachers would have access to various portions of the timelines and would thereby understand their students better.

That’s where GST is taking us in the Global U context, but how might that work in Portland in particular?

I’m not suggesting every city needs to “carbon copy” every other. Our communal bicycle program maybe works a little differently, ditto our shared electric scooters. Experimentation is the name of the game, and learning from our mistakes.

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