Place-based Education Linking Culture, Landscape and Ecology
An anthology of wikis, concept maps and place-based pedogogies
The North American Ndee are the Western Apache people of the mountainous semi-arid Transition Zone of west-central Arizona. They are notable in linking important allegorical stories to the places where they are said to have occurred, and regularly recount these stories for teaching and counselling. For example, descriptive place names such as 'Coarse-Textured Rocks Lie Above in a Compact Cluster' and 'Line of White Rocks Extends Up and Out', have long since become shorthand for the lessons they exemplify, and are central to Ndee cultural literacy. The late Dudley Patterson, an Ndee Elder, explains his people's approach to place-based education as follows. "Wisdom sits in places. It's like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don't you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep thinking about it".

Place-based education seeks to overcome the divide between narrow academic subjects and reality that is blocked out by classroom walls. It achieves this through grounding learning in lived experiences of how local culture tackles real-world problems in the environment and influences decision-making by communities. Education based on place has its roots in John Dewey's idea of progressive education. According to Dewey, the traditional subject-based bench-marked linear learning pathways of books undermine the integration of students' experience outside the classroom and makes it difficult to apply what they learn to their daily life. We have to turn to computers to produce Dewey's flexible educational frameworks of conceptual mind-maps and place-based pedagogies to bridge this gap (Table 1).

Table 1 Information arrays for learning

The world of books
  • Separate subject-based benchmarked pathways;

The world of computers
  • Integrated conceptual mind maps
  • Comparative place-based pedagogies

An ideal progresssive pedagogy contextualises knowledge in students' lives. History is taught through researching the stories of places and people, perhaps interviewing elders in the community. Learning about language and arts involves documenting people and events in their places. Concepts in social studies emerge from discovering how local governments operate and how government decisions impact on local communities and families. Science projects monitor local environmental conditions; etc.

In a place-based model, the goal is to collect and compare information geographically. The aim is to create opportunities for learners to think independently (inquiry), collect, analyze, synthesize, and critique information (data), address community opportunities and concerns (values), and create knowledge and innovative ideas (actions). Another major goal that Place-Based Education addresses is communication skills by reporting research findings through publications (written and electronic) and making presentations to peers and the community. If environmental and social data students collect in their communities is standardized and organised in a suitable array, it can be uploaded across the nation into a cultural network on the web. This global networking can be coordinated through school libraries and their information services. The next step is to do research on social and environmental concerns within a large geographic area and make community comparisons.

There is also an important practical outcome from place-based studies. Meanings of places (i.e., sense of place) define and infuse content and pedagogy when students regularly work in the local outdoor environment or in the community. The emphasis on hands-on, real-world learning experiences increases academic achievement by helping students develop stronger ties to their homeland. It enhances students' appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serve as active, contributing citizens. Community resilience and environmental quality are improved through the active engagement of local citizens, community organizations, and environmental resources in the life of the school. Teaching that deliberately enriches a local sense of place can potentially stimulate the interest of all students in the cultual attributes of where they live, and the social ways of interpreting them. Where the physiography or cultural geography known by aboriginal inhabitants has been obliterated by urbanization or other changes, visualization technologies can be used to recreate them.

Place-based (also called place-centred or place-conscious) teaching has long been practiced in the United States at elementary and secondary school levels in diverse regions. But an important question is 'Can teaching based on sense of place suit natives and newcomers equally well?' It is known that tourists and other visitors can develop strong attachments to places far from their homes. In this connection Williams and Stewart (1998) remarked that "it is not the possessors of meanings that are local, but the meanings themselves."

Therefore, whoever defines a place through a process of self-education about its meanings, whoever speaks to and for its people, and whoever imagines its destiny with the practical hope of determining its future can be said to be part of that place. This raises the important question of how local is 'local'? The answer is that the size of 'place' as a learning resource should be defined so it can expand the students' world as their mental horizon expands. A child's interest in the world naturally increases in accordance with their cognitive and emotional development. At first there is a natural interest in what is close at hand, 5th grade students have the ability to think at the state or bioregional level, high school students expand their interests to national and global levels. At each level students are grounding their study of large-scale issues, which are geographically based on a solid and personal understanding of how things work in their immediate locality. This means that place must be small enough to handle neighbourhood issues and large enough to set their nationhood in a global context.

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