Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Developing World Citizens: Learning to Listen to the Voices of the Poor

Pedagogical Suggestions to Foster Student Learning and Engagement

The learning that took place in Cofradía, Guanabano and Nueva Suyapa was much more engaged and lively than learning in the classroom. Students were able to make instant connections regarding the import of what they were seeing and its impact on the people they were beginning to know and this resulted in their wanting to dive deeper into issues than what previous student had. Students also were more interested in talking about their own role as 1st world citizens in the search for solutions to these problems.

We tried to foster this sense of engagement by carving out times for discussion in the evenings or upon the students’ return from community experiences. This allowed for opportunities to process what they were seeing and to learn from each other.

The research projects served to solidify students’ learning in a number of different settings. We asked each student to pick one of the topics we studied in Cofradía to research more in-depth along with others who shared their interest. We repeated that process in Nueva Suyapa. Students wrote up their findings regarding both the content surrounding each issue and their own personal response to it in a final paper as well as in oral presentations for the whole group.


Pros and Cons to Place-Based Learning


  1. Students see fewer examples of projects, fewer communities.... less variety overall
  2. The professor must be open to less structure —discussions with local community leaders don’t come in organized outlines or powerpoints.... and sometimes community leaders may come across without hope or frustrated
  3.  You’re never quite sure what you will get—e.g. Cofradía has little gang activity,  although it’s a huge problem in the area,
  4. It can be difficult to find the balance between going deep on a particular issue, and getting repetitive. Students may get bored with a topic if they feel they’ve heard too much about it.
  5. It takes time—for student and professor, this type of learning, doesn’t fit nicely into 3 hours/week—repeated visits, weekends with families,.... conflicts with jobs



  1.  Real life—students get depth and complexity, not issues put into neat packages. Place-based learning puts people and issues together—they hear and see about real lives, not lectures.
  2.  Understand the inter-relatedness of so many issues—how a single mom working in maquila is connected to teens joining gangs, for example. 
  3. All sort of unexpected lessons and opportunities—our look at education in the neighborhood, was the impetus for students organizing to help finish the roof on a school that was meeting in deplorable conditions (see picture)
  4.  Students get an understanding that learning can always be like this—taking advantage of opportunities for learning and understanding that can last a lifetime.


Involving community leaders in the process was gratifyingly successful. All the leaders we contacted were pleased to be included in our learning and many of them spent hours trying to show our students the reality of their world. They were open and patient with our students as they questioned and learned.

We contracted a local person, familiar with the community, to set up visits prior to our arrival and to set up the housing for our students. Local families were overprotective, but extremely welcoming and open with students.


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