‘Coming to a Place near You?’ The Politics and Possibilities of a Critical Pedagogy of Place-Based Education

Mar. 15, 2011

Source: Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, Volume 39, Issue 1, (2011) pages 3-16.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article explores the theoretical foundations of place-based education (PBE). The authors argue that there is a place for PBE in schools but contend that it must be informed by a far more critical reading of the notions of ‘place’, ‘identity’ and ‘community’.

The political and pedagogical strands of PBE

The adoption of PBE in schools has been rationalised on several grounds, chief among these being the importance of creating opportunities for young people to learn about and care for the ecological and social wellbeing of the communities they inhabit and the need to connect schools with communities as part of a concerted effort to improve student engagement and participation.

PBE in action: what does research tell us?
In many ways PBE has become a rallying point for school reformers in neoliberal times. It offers a progressive alternative to the high school curriculum that is particularly alienating for many students. It challenges the authenticity of mandated curriculum and authorises locally produced knowledge.
In the USA numerous case studies have documented how PBE can promote civic engagement whilst ensuring an intellectually challenging education that meets national standards (Gibbs & Howley, 2000; Smith, 2002a; Sobel, 2005; Wood, 1992). Much less has been written about the benefits of PBE in Australia although there has been a good deal of research into the related issues of school–community engagement and community capacity building (Hattam & Howard, 2003; Holdsworth, 2005; Smyth, Down, et al., 2008).

Whilst acknowledging certain limitations, these studies show how PBE can provide an authentic context for developing literacy practices, foster an ethic of care for the environment and create opportunities for students to participate in community improvement programs.
Further evidence to support the potential value of PBE emerged from the authors' research into the school and community related conditions promoting school retention and student engagement in disadvantaged schools (Smyth, Angus, Down, & McInerney, 2008).

The problematic aspects of PBE

Although a good deal of research supports the educational merits of PBE, there are a number of tensions and dilemmas associated with contemporary approaches. The authors discuss the lack of a critical perspective raised previously in the school-based study with reference to:
- prevailing assumptions about the notions of place, identity and difference;
- the pedagogical limitations of place-based curriculum;
- the limits to local activism when it comes to transforming communities.

The authors argue in this paper for an approach to PBE proposed by Gruenewald (2003a) that combines a concern for the ecological and social wellbeing of communities with critical pedagogies.

Teacher education and critical placed-based learning

If we are to promote a critical approach to place-based learning in schools it is appropriate to consider how teachers may be better prepared to develop curriculum that fosters a spirit of critical inquiry into communities and landscapes. We see this as a ‘pedagogy of responsibility’ (Reid, 2007, p. 122) that is grounded in a commitment to environmental sustainability and social justice.
The authors have chosen two teacher education programs in Australia that demonstrate what can be achieved.

Without detracting from the merits of PBE, the authors believe that it should be regarded as one of a number of pedagogies that have the potential to promote civic engagement, democratic practices, an ethic of care for others and the environment, and the fostering of values that are largely absent from individualistic and utilitarian approaches to schooling.

Gibbs, T., & Howley, A. (2000). “World-class standards” and local pedagogies: Can we do both ? Charleston, WV: Eric Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.
Gruenewald, D. (2003a). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3–12.
Hattam, R., & Howard, N. (2003). Engaging lifeworlds: Public curriculum and community building. In A. Reid & P. Thomson (Eds.), Rethinking public education: Towards a public curriculum (75–94). Flaxton, Queensland, Australia: Post Pressed.
Holdsworth, R. (2005). The tussle of community: Learning through community action. Education Links, 69, 6–11.
Reid, J. (2007). Literacy and environmental communications: Towards a “pedagogy of responsibility”. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 30(2), 118–133.
Smith, G. (2002a). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(8), 584–594.
Smyth, J., & McInerney, P. (2007). Teachers in the middle: Reclaiming the wasteland of the adolescent years of schooling. New York: Peter Lang.
Sobel, D. (2005). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms and communities. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society.
Wood, G. (1992). Schools that work: America’s most innovative public education programs. New York: Dutton.

Updated: Sep. 19, 2011