Place-Based Learning as a Vehicle for Higher-Level Learning Skills

For centuries, museums have been seen as content deliverers in the eyes of teachers and curriculum developers. However, that is simply the beginning of the journey of place-based learning. When educators realize that museums and other cultural spaces can be used with a focus on skills, it makes them more accessible to a wider range of age groups and disciplines. It also gives educators the ability to utilize a wider range of collections than ever before. Breaking through the old model of the “field trip” as a content delivery event allows students to have more authentic experiences in museums, parks, theaters, and all parts of the community. The Humanities Team at Presbyterian School Houston has broken down higher-level thinking skills into manageable thematic-based units reinforced by informal learning experiences. This article will outline their approach and explain how it can be modified to fit any classroom.

Why Skills over Content?

Although it is necessary for 21st century students to have base knowledge and content understanding, most facts are less than a minute away with a quick search from a “smart” device. Understanding that paradigm, educators must examine what will benefit these modern students the most in the years to come. Major corporations such as Google are looking for curious, collaborative, flexible-minded, and innovative thinkers — people who can not only memorize information but manipulate it to create some new understanding.1 Are traditional environments focusing on content giving students these necessary tools? The time for the culture of rote memorization is past, and as the world around changes, so must education.

What Are Higher-Level Learning Skills?

According to the Center for Advancement of Learning and Assessment,

Higher order thinking skills include critical, logical, reflective, metacognitive, and creative thinking. They are activated when individuals encounter unfamiliar problems, uncertainties, questions, or dilemmas. Successful applications of the skills result in explanations, decisions, performances, and products that are valid within the context of available knowledge and experience and that promote continued growth in these and other intellectual skills.2

There are many different ways to develop these higher-level thinking skills that are necessary to the 21st century student. Place-based learning is an invaluable opportunity for students to practice these skills in an authentic way. Cultural spaces provide diverse, varied, and previously unknown sites for exploration and analysis.

Learning to Look: A Museum Curriculum

The Humanities Team members, recognizing that they were teaching the same higher-level thinking skills in each of their classes, decided to integrate curricula through skill-based thematic units, each class reinforcing each other and informal learning reinforcing all. The team started with English, Social Studies, and Advanced Language Arts and Skills but is in the process of incorporating Math and Science as well. When skills are used as the unifying factor, integration becomes more organic, and the classes become more meaningful for the students. This curriculum has added more depth to each class and the learning process as a whole. Chart 1 displays the initial planning document.

Chart 1: Sixth-Grade Thematic Unit


Learning to Look: The Aesthetic Experience

Learning to Look: Details vs. Opinions and Inferences

Learning to Look: Conducting a visual (or an object) study

Making Inferences supported by evidence. Part I

Making inferences supported by evidence. Part II

Integrating and synthesizing themes from two works of art. Part I

Integrating and synthesizing themes from two works of art. Part II

Point of view. Part I

Point of view. Part II

Sensory experience... Visualization Art for the blind

Chart 1 outlines the thematic integration across disciplines in sixth grade. The Humanities Team decided that observation and recording form the foundation that all students need in order to be able to move on to higher-level skills. In this age of instant gratification, teaching students the necessary skills of slowing down and looking closely is crucial to enabling them to gain deeper insights. The following is an expanded case study of the first theme in the curriculum outlined in Chart 1. It will be followed by a brief explanation of implementing the development of the higher-level learning skills throughout the rest of the year.

Learning to Look Phase 1: In-Class Preparation

Teaching through the lens of “learning to look,” each integrated classroom prepared students to apply this skill in an authentic learning environment. For example, in Social Studies, the students conducted visual object studies of both three-dimensional objects (See Student Artifact 2) and one-dimensional pieces of art, such as sentimental objects brought from home, garbage explorations, or everyday things that allow students to investigate the broader context of a family’s home. The key to visual studies is having students observe and notate concrete details. At no point in this exercise are students to guess the purpose of the object. This is challenging for them, especially if they can easily identify an object. However, it is an essential skill to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion. It also develops a student’s eye for detail when analyzing unknown pieces.

In the English classroom, the “learning to look” theme emerges naturally as students are asked to pay particular attention to the natural habits of proficient writers and readers. Before the field trip to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, students discuss effective reading strategies and common behaviors of good writers. Annotation is introduced, leading to the question, “Why is it important to revisit the text and take notes?” In writing, it is noted that good writers observe, collect, record, and share, all of which are related to the theme of “learning to look.” Once this is established, students annotate short stories and begin writing stream of consciousness pieces based on close reading observations of mentor texts.

These practices set them up for the field trip to the museum that will require them to use the same skills when they are asked to carefully observe the art and record their observations. Students spend about 10 minutes at each artwork, gathering concrete details and then writing a five-minute stream of consciousness piece inspired by that particular work. After the field trip, students return to the English classroom and share their favorite stream of consciousness writing piece that will eventually become a first draft to be revised and edited for a final copy portfolio submission.

Throughout the process, the educators are using the same language with the students to reinforce skills and allow them to make connections across disciplines. For example, the term “evidence” is consistently used in every class to refer to concrete details, whether they are found in text (English) or in an object study (Social Studies), Through this integration, a wider variety of students (with affinities for different subjects) are able to develop this skill.

Phase II: Out of the Classroom, Into the World

The Presbyterian School Houston is fortunate to be located in the heart of the Houston Museum District. However, informal learning experiences can happen anywhere (“reading” a local building; examining public art or street art, local historical statues, or memorials; and even observing nature itself). For the “learning to look” cultural experience, the Humanities Team selected four pieces of art from different cultures at Museum of Fine Arts Houston (see Picture 1 for an example). Choosing objects from different cultures was a purposeful choice to force students to see each object with clear eyes. Three-dimensional objects are a great way to start as they provide a number of concrete details to observe and record and often allow for a 360- degree view. See Picture 2 for one way to organize student thought on a trip.

Picture 1: Sample of Museum of Fine Arts Houston Art Navigation Chart

Picture 2: Object Study Form

Students utilized the form depicted above to notate their findings in Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Notice how students are not yet asked to make inferences and connections. That will be the next step, and it is essential that students get this foundation first. One common error in visual studies and placed-based learning is that educators skip the foundational step of close observation. Without this, students may make flimsy inferences that lack depth and breadth of thought. Once students have had practice with three-dimensional objects, they can branch out and conduct visual studies of anything. One such study students carried out was of a building (See Student Artifact 1).

Moving Through the Skills-Based Curriculum

After the first theme, students build on their skill foundation much like growth outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Each piece of the curriculum must have an in-class and out-of-class element to maximize its effectiveness. It is also recommended that educators prepare follow-up lessons for each experience, so that the trips are just one piece of the larger curriculum rather than a special event. For example, students “learning to look” will extend on their experiences after the trip with a wrap-up activity (such as a writing piece), reflection, and discussion.

This type of curriculum knows no boundaries as technology and multiple disciplines could help shape and take this in many different directions. The important part is that educators are working collaboratively to teach higher-level learning skills through a thematic lens.

Student Artifact 1: Observations and Inferences for Houston Holocaust Museum Visit


Student Artifact 2: In-class visual study of student personal objects


Moira Burgy

Moira Burgy ( is a part of the sixth-grade Humanities Team at Presbyterian School (Texas).

Kate Stoessel

Kate Stoessel ( is a part of the sixth-grade Humanities Team at Presbyterian School (Texas).

Lesli Dabney

Lesli Dabney ( is a part of the sixth-grade Humanities Team at Presbyterian School (Texas).