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date: 23 October 2017

Social Geography, Space, and Place in Education

Summary and Keywords

Society is constituted by both historical and spatial elements; however, education research, policy, and practice often subordinates the spatial in preference for the temporal. In what is often referred to as the “spatial turn,” more recently education researchers have acknowledged spatial concepts to facilitate understandings and inform debates about identity, belonging, social justice, differentiation, policy, race, mobility, globalization, and even digital and new communication modes, amongst many others. Social geographers understand place as more than a dot on a map, instead focusing on the sociocultural and sociomaterial aspects of spaces. Space and place are core elements of social geography. Schools are comprised of architectural, material, performative, relational, social, or discursive spaces, all of which are socially constructed. Schools and education contexts, as social spaces and places, produce and reproduce modes of social interactions and social practices while also mediating the relational and pedagogical practices that operate within. Pedagogical spaces are also about the exercise of power—a spatial governmentality to regulate behavior. Yet pedagogy can focus on place-based and place-conscious practices that highlight the connectedness between people and their non-human world. A focus on the sociospatial in education research is able to foreground inequalities, differences, and power relations that are able to speak to policies and practices. As such, in this field there is often a focus is on spatial justice, where inequalities based on location, mobility, poverty, or indigeneity are analyzed using spatial understandings of socioeconomic or political characteristics. This brings together connections between place and space in a powerful combination around justice, equity, and critical thinking.

Keywords: social geography, place, space, spatiality, spatial justice, power relations, place-based education, poverty, indigenous, human geography


In this article, we discuss what has been described as the “spatial turn” (Lefebvre, 1991) in educational research (Gulson & Symes, 2007), incorporating insights and ways of thinking from social geography. The spatial turn refers to an explicit acknowledgement of the spatial in people’s lives, through a considered theorization of key geographical concepts such as space, place, scale, and mobility or flow. Although education researchers may have been slower than their social science colleagues to take on these spatial notions, many researchers have turned to working with these spatial concepts to facilitate understandings of the current contexts of education, health, urban geography, mobility, and globalization and to inform debates about identity and belonging, social justice, differentiation, policy, race, and even digital and new communication modes (see, e.g., Bright, Manchester, & Allendyke, 2013; Gulson, 2011; Gulson & Symes, 2007; Holloway & Pimlott-Wilson, 2016; Holloway & Valentine, 2001; Nixon & Comber, 2011; Shilling, 1991; Wainwright & Marandet, 2011).

Social geographers understand place as more that a dot on a map. They are concerned with the historical and changing characteristics of locales, including demographic, economic, political, cultural, linguistic, physical, and geological characteristics. They focus on sociocultural spaces defined in part by their “local histories and traditions, population features, economic characteristics (especially employment patterns), cultural/linguistic diversity, child and family well-being indices, and their adjoining territories” (Lawson, 2016, p. 2). As such, social geography “presents neighborhoods, hamlets, towns, suburbs, cities, counties, regions, provinces/states and nations as dynamic entities, ones that are endlessly socially constructed and constituted” (Lawson, 2016, p. 2). Importantly, these contexts are consequential in the ways in which social and educational policies play out in actual daily lives.

Together, space and place are at the core of social geography and central to sociology (see Urry, 2008), and as such, relevant to how education is conducted within communities. Regardless, teaching and learning are often identified as temporal processes. That is, they are “expected to take place and progress over and through time, even if sometimes in specific spaces and places” (Paechter, 2004, p. 449). However, Soja suggests “everything in society is spatially and historically constituted. There are no spheres, realms, systems, perspectives, rationalities, relations, ideologies, identities, etc. that are aspatial” (Soja, 2002, p. 116). As such, recognizing the spatial dimension of education tends towards an enhanced understanding of the interplay of materials, structures, and environments, both inside and outside school spaces. Keith and Pile (1993) provide a useful distinction suggesting that “space is constitutive of the social; spatiality is constitutive of the personal and the political” (p. 222). These perspectives adopt a “critical spatial thinking” that suggests, while everything exists in time, the spatial elements of socially produced spaces are equally significant to the historical and social dimensions.

Additionally, Cresswell (2004), in his short introduction to “place” suggests a working definition of place as being “a meaningful location” (p. 7). Cresswell identifies how place has been understood from different theoretical and disciplinary perspectives—from various traditions in geography to ecology, planning, architecture, to newer formations informed by globalization. Massey (1994) adds that when the spatial is understood in the context of space–time and as formed through social interrelations, then place, and the uniqueness and meaningfulness of a place, can be viewed as “a particular articulation of those relations, a particular moment in those networks of social relations and understandings” (p. 5).

Space, place, and social geography are huge arenas for research; in this article, we take a “space and equality” perspective consider space and equity, postulating that for educational researchers one key insight in foregrounding the social nature of spaces and places is its integral relationship to justice. Hence, our review is informed by theorists who have uncovered the ways in which educational inequalities are produced in relation to the production of space (Harvey, 2009; Massey, 2005; Soja, 2010; Lefebvre, 1991). In our discussion, therefore, we foreground studies that help us to understand the nature of schools in particular places “serving” particular populations of students and their communities.

We start our discussion by providing a brief outline of social geographies, a field that connects the geographical concepts of space and place. This is followed by a discussion of the key theorists and scholars whose influential work has been instrumental in shaping the ways in which spaces and places are understood and operationalized in studies of education. We provide seminal examples of educational research that demonstrate the affordances of spatial approaches for studying educational problems in distinctive ways and define key concepts that underpin their analysis. We recognize that these fields are broad and here we are only able to provide an introduction to key concepts as a beginning point for readers in the field.

Social Geography

Social geography is not a new term although its more recent emergence across a diverse range of disciplines may provide the illusion of “newness.” Smith, Pain, Marston, and Jones (2010a) attribute the first use of the term to French geographer Élisée Reclus in 1895. As one strand of the more general study of human geography, social geography highlights the social elements of human experience and space. The term is conceptualized in a variety of ways across a diverse range of research disciplines and by calling on a diverse range of theoretical frameworks. Consequently, it is not a singular study. In its most general form, the term refers to the study of people and the environment in which they engage, with a focus on social factors. The field is interested in sociospatial life and its connections to power and access. By this we mean that social geographies are an area of study concerned with the ways that space mediates the (re)production of social disadvantage and advantage in society (Del Casino, Thomas, Cloke, & Panelli, 2011).

When utilizing a social geographies perspective, there are implications for social classifications such as class, gender, culture, sexuality, race, language, and socioeconomic status on the connection between social relations and space (Smith et al., 2010a). Social geography is always tuned to understanding the “socio-spatial differences, power relations, and inequalities that shape every person’s life” (Del Casino et al., 2011, p. 3). So, as Smith et al. (2010a, p. 3) have commented, “one of the key achievements of social geographies . . . has been to speak powerfully to the policies and practices that have made experiencing different kinds of spaces—at home, at work, in cities, in rural communities, in schools, hospitals and prisons—so divided and unequal,” to include some and not others. In this way, social geographies bring together connections between place and space in a powerful combination around justice, equity, and critical thinking.

It is not within the scope of this article to trace the connections between society, humans, and geography by situating social geography within its complete history. This task has been attempted in a variety of recent full handbooks and collections (see, e.g., Panelli, 2004; Smith, Pain, Marston, & Jones, 2010b; Del Casino et al., 2011). Instead we wish to briefly map several key debates—or turns of thought—that have occurred in the fields of geographies over recent decades and that we believe demonstrate the important role of social geographies. In many ways, these debates parallel similar debates in other social science disciplines such as sociology and education more generally.

We outline three “turns” (Del Casino et al., 2011): the cultural, relational, and material. To begin with, in what might be described as a cultural turn, the broader disciplinary field of human geography has struggled to balance recognition of cultural elements of human life and the visibility of the social. While this is recognized by many to have been difficult (see, e.g., Gregson, 2003; Panelli, 2004; Philo, 2000), it would be inaccurate to suggest that the social no longer matters. As such, social geography has had an important role to play in ensuring that a continued focus on the implications of social demarcations are possible as we aim to understand inequality in new 21st-century contexts. Additionally, the “critical” edge of work in the social geography field, for the most part, ensures that the political elements of how spaces limit and facilitate human experience is foregrounded. This, matched with a continued focus on the connection between people within spaces and places has come to be known as the relational turn. Here, the sociospatial connections are foregrounded. Finally, some (see, e.g., Philo, 2000), have also highlighted the importance of social geographies in ensuring that a focus on the material elements of social difference are visible. This mirrors what has come to be termed the material turn more generally and reminds us that while language and discourse are important elements of how society is stratified, social geographies can provide useful insight into the material effects of spaces of inequality being created.

Social geographers have contributed to education particularly through the strands of children’s geographies and geographies of education. A continuing debate in the field has been to consider the focus of study as either inward- or outward-looking (see as one example Hanson Thiem’s 2009 rearticulation of Bradford’s original conceptualization of the field). According to this way of thinking, inward-looking studies provide insight into the local configurations of education places and how these might be related to everyday lives, while outward-looking studies are more interested in broader social, economic, and political processes and the impact of education spaces on these. Configuring the field in this binary has been called to task by other leading social geographers. For example, Holloway and colleagues make a case for including children, young people, and families in research to blur boundaries between “inward and outward” looking research in geography (Holloway, Hubbard, Jons, & Pimlott-Wilson, 2010). This plays out in research led by Holloway on the digitization of curriculum and use of information technology in Britain’s schools (Holloway & Valentine, 2000, 2001). A key feature of this research has been to uncover the global influences on national policy decisions and to follow how these play out for different children in different ways within local interactions. What is innovative in this theorization, informed by understandings of space and place, is that the reciprocal push and pull of global influence and local uptake is highlighted in a “nondichotomist” approach to local and global scales. As Holloway and Valentine (2000) remind us, “children’s worlds of meaning are at one and the same time global and local, made through ‘local’ cultures which are in part shaped by their interconnections with the wider world” (p. 769).

We now elaborate on the domain of social geography by turning our discussion to space, followed by place. We provide an initial discussion of the key theorists and scholars. Some works are selected amongst the diverse range available as we believe that they provide interesting intersections between scholarship of social geographies, space, and place. We recognize that such selections are themselves situated or placed in that, what we have nominated to feature here is shaped by our own experiences and academic histories.


Educational spaces, including architectural, material, performative, relational, social, or discursive spaces, are socially constructed (Gulson & Symes, 2007; Soja, 1996). Lefebvre (1991) suggests every society “produces a space, its own space” (p. 31). Additionally, socially produced space has a relational component; that is:

Space is not . . . a reflection of society but one of society’s fundamental material dimensions and to consider it independently from social relationships, even with the intention of studying their interaction, is to separate nature from culture.

(Castells, 1983, p. 311)

However, with relational practices, educational spaces can also be gendered and raced (Farrare & Apple, 2010). Educational spaces such as classrooms are social spaces that “produce” and “reproduce” modes of social interactions and social practices (Lefebvre, 1991; Massey, 2005) while also mediating the relational and pedagogical practices that operate within. This perspective is far removed from the typical understandings of school spaces characterized as “containers” or “backdrops” where education occurs (Green & Letts, 2007; McGregor, 2004a).

Lefebvre conceptualized a multidimensional notion of space as the perceived–conceived–lived triad of social practice, representations of space, and representational spaces (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 33). Soja elaborated on Lefebvre’s work identifying a trialectic of firstspace, secondspace, and thirdspace that loosely aligned with Lefebvre’s triad (Soja, 1996, 2000). A brief integrated discussion of these perspectives outlines the main ideas.

First, perceived space or the social practices of a society can be understood by deciphering the formal and informal spaces of that society (Lefebvre, 1991). That is, “the spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 38). For example, the everyday act of schooling children in purpose-built box-like physical spaces produces and reproduces social formations, and ensures a continuity of this mode of education. Such regulated disciplinary spaces are organized through actual and symbolic practices and material forms. These include timetables, bells, rules, and rows of individual desks that subordinate children while also maintaining and reproducing existing power relations (Foucault, 1995). Perceived space aligns with Soja’s notion of firstspace, focusing on the “measurable and mappable” spatial practices associated with materials (Soja, 2000). It is in interpreting these physical forms of space or the “things in space” (Soja, 2000) that the spatial practices of a society can be identified.

Secondly, while perceived space identifies material forms, conceived space or secondspace is a conceptual or symbolic space. It identifies a representation of space or an “imagined” space that emphasizes the “mental or ideational representations” of those material forms (Soja, 2002, p. 113). That is, a society’s “thoughts about space” (Soja, 2000). These spaces are dominant spaces in a society and are linked to “the relations of production and to the “order” which those relations impose, and hence to knowledge” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 33). For example, when schooling children, the spaces of knowledge accumulation and production are often derived from our thinking and ideas about children. If children are perceived as competent and capable agents in their own lives who have something meaningful to say (Danby & Farrell, 2004) it stands to reason that they are more likely to be consulted about their education and that the spaces of learning would be less regulated.

Finally, the lived space or representational space, “the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’” that is experienced through “coherent systems of non-verbal symbols and signs” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 39). It is “a fully lived space, a simultaneously real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual, locus of structured individual and collective experience and agency” (Soja, 2000, p. 11). Soja explains:

Everything comes together in Thirdspace: subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history.

(Soja, 2002, pp. 56–57)

This is a constructed social space that seeks to address the inequalities and injustices of a society. There is a rejection of the values and perceptions that these spaces were constituted by, instead the target is to seek to develop new values based on equality and justice. For example, spaces that redress schooling practices of exclusion or disengagement from learning or spaces that foster a sense of identity and belonging.

As well as drawing on Lefebvre’s (1991) concept of “lived space,” Soja’s (1996) notion of “thirdspace” also draws on Foucault’s (1986) observation of “heterotopias.” Unlike “utopias,” which represent a “perfected form” of society, “heterotopias” are “real places” in society (Foucault, 1986, p. 24). These heterotopic spaces are:

. . . something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.

(Foucault, 1986, p. 24)

Heterotopias function to “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space . . . their role is to create a space that is other” (Foucault, 1986, p. 27).

Schooling Spaces

Perhaps the most common understanding of schooling spaces relates to the architectural and material elements of schools (Oblinger, 2006). The built environment, such as the architecture of the buildings and classrooms as well as the objects and technologies of learning, all mediate pedagogic practices. McGregor (2004b) suggests that “teachers and students are mutually constituted with the materiality of schooling” (p. 348). Despite this, it is often suggested that conceptually, little has changed in the educational architecture of the indoor spaces such as classrooms nor is spatiality foregrounded in the decision-making processes unless it relates to student behavior and surveillance (Fisher, 2004; McGregor, 2004b). Additionally, while the need for spatial variety in schools is acknowledged, the tendency is to make these accommodations in outdoor spaces such as playgrounds for children in the early years of schooling (Dixon, 2004). Benade (2017) questions outmoded education practices and spaces, while stopping short of identifying classrooms as obsolete; instead advocating for flexible and mobile learning spaces that are innovative and technology-rich. This signals an increasing pedagogical and research focus on cyberspaces in education (Livingstone & Sefton-Green, 2016; McGregor, 2004b).

Another example of schooling spaces refers to the curriculum taught within a school. Alison Lee’s (1996) work in the area of gender and geography demonstrates how space is constructed through the curriculum. Her early research applied feminist critiques to the geography curriculum suggesting there was no interrogation of gender within the discipline. Lee (1996) suggests that typically, space is constructed through binary oppositions such as masculine/feminine, skills/content, process/product, speaking/writing, or public/private (pp. 405–406). Lee (1996) states, “binary linearities were merely initial points of structural intelligibility around which and against which the specificity of this local classroom micro-space could be configured” (p. 419). Often, these binary typographies privilege the masculine—and, we would say, normative cultural and racial—perspectives maintaining and reproducing these perspectives through the curriculum and practices.

Space, Power, and Relationality

Foucault (1984) identifies a relationship between knowledge, power, and space; suggesting that “space is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power” (p. 252). Space, particularly political and pedagogical spaces, are about the exercise of power (Edwards & Usher, 2008, p. 136). Take, for example, the concept of a national curricula, the composition of the curricula and the topics selected, and the links with dominant power relations. Whose interests are being served within such practices and selections? Is there a notable investment in a religious or ethical perspective or perhaps a civic or economic focus within curricula? (Edwards & Usher, 2003). Within these curricula spaces, power relations circulate “within and against the play of dislocation and difference,” forming various identities (Edwards & Usher, 2003, p. 136).

Foucault (1995) suggests that “discipline proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space” (p. 141). Schools, through a type of spatial governmentality, utilize “disciplinary technologies” to control space and time and govern the subject (Foucault, 1995). For example, school rules are inherently spatial as they control bodies, movement, talk, noise, learning, space, and time (Gordon, Holland, & Lahelma, 2000). School rules are governed by a push for the uniformity and standardization of time, space, materiality, and bodies in schools and can lead to the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others (Jones et al., 2016).

Space is dynamic and relational. Relationality can be spatially articulated in that space is “performed,” “enacted,” or “practiced” as relations of power (Rose, 1999). Drawing on the work of Judith Butler, Rose (1999) observes “relationalities as performed, as constituted through iteration rather than through essence” (pp. 247–248). By this, she suggests that space is not preexisting, but rather “a doing” that is an “articulation of relational performances” (Rose, 1999, p. 248). That is not to say that certain forms of space do not reoccur; rather the repetition is a demonstration of the exercise of power (Rose, 1999). Given this, particular performances produce particular spaces and other performances of relationality will produce different kinds of spaces (Rose, 1999).

Spatial Justice and Education

In calling on social geography to help consider social justice, the key connection is between space, place, and location and how these relate to access and advantage or disadvantage. Geographical thought in this area puts under the spotlight the arbitrariness of our starting social group and how this is connected to place and space. In studying this, the critical elements of social geography come to the fore as the unevenness of the distribution of material and social resources across spaces and places is studied (Waterstone, 2010), and notions of recognition and power are illuminated. However, social justice is always more than a push for more equitable distribution of goods. The production and reproduction of relational spaces such as schooling reinforce the interests and power of the dominant group, and in this way such power differences are likely to contribute to injustices.

Spatial justice (Soja, 2002, 2010) is not a new form of justice as such, rather, a spatial focus on familiar ideas can enable new insights to be foregrounded. That is, social injustices take place within societal spaces. These societal spaces tend to:

. . . express and perform the interests of the dominant class according to a given mode of production and to a specific mode of development. They will express and implement the power relationships of the state in a historically defined society. They will be realized and shaped by gender domination and by state-enforced family life. At the same time, spatial forms will also be marked by resistance from exploited classes, oppressed subjects, and abused women.

(Castells, 1983, pp. 311–312)

It is in understanding the sociospatial interactions of a society that better enables that society to reduce, and potentially eliminate, practices that support and legitimate inequality. Here, it is important to note that spatiality and temporality are intertwined in that spatial relations and identities develop across and within time (Massey, 1994). Societal spaces, including schools, can be where participants are confronted by, experience, and must learn to navigate a multitude of social, economic, political, and material inequalities. For example, a study by Karlsson (2004) shows how school spaces in South Africa were one place where children learnt to position themselves within the hierarchy or apartheid, while Shilling (1991) studied how school space was used as a resource in the production of unequal gender relations.

Harvey (1989) noted the economic element of space and how this was used to produce and reproduce distributions of social power (p. 227). Therefore, injustice can include the effects of “poverty, income inequality, racism, xenophobia, sexism, misogyny, and heterosexism” (Jones et al., 2016, p. 1153) or “patriarchy, homophobia and violence” (Mains, 2006). Other injustices associated more specifically with schooling spaces include the locality of the school, whether urban, rural, or remote (Green & Letts, 2007) and how geographies amplify social exclusion (Symaco, 2013); school density associated with locality (Maxwell, 2003); migration and other forms of mobility (Urry, 2007), some of which are externally imposed such as exclusion from school based on behavior (Thomson, 2007). These practices are often institutionalized through government policies relating to economic investment or social infrastructure and the representation of place and culture through media images. However, as these spaces are socially constructed, “they are not immutable or naturally given. This means that they can be changed, made into something better than they were through collective action” (Soja, 2011). That is, the members of a society can exercise their agency in choosing to either comply or resist (Thomson, 2007), reproduce or subvert (Mains, 2006) the practices of injustice.

In the final section of the article, we elaborate on the domain of social geography by turning our discussion to place. Following an initial discussion of the key concepts, we identify selected works we believe provide interesting intersections between scholarship of social geographies, space, and place.


There are a number of ways in which “place” in educational research, policy, and practice matters and variations in terms of how it is conceptualized. Most obviously, place has been the subject of knowledge in the geography curriculum and its derivatives, such as social studies. For example, a review of journals in education quickly indicates “place-related” titles, either in abstract formulations, such as Urban education or the Journal of Research in Rural Education. Others name the location of the journal in the title, such as the London Review of Education or the Australian Journal of Environmental Education. These place-related naming practices are a taken-for-granted part of the way scholars come to know the world of education, modifying our orientations and interpretations. However, here we are more concerned with the ways in which “place” as a concept has been generative in studies of education.

Jan Nespor’s seminal ethnography of an elementary school (Nespor, 1997) demonstrates that schools need to be considered in relation to what connects them beyond the school into neighborhoods and beyond. He explores the politics of the neighborhood, class, racial, ethnic, and gender affiliations and the impacts on everyday lives of children and parents. Importantly he shows the dynamic ways in which children need to negotiate being together in the various spaces of the school and neighborhood and the limits of their mobility. Nespor argues that (1997, p. 195) that

the problem of inquiry is not to find patterns of intersection that generalize across settings but to trace flows of practice that organize widespread social relations, to expand maps of these networks, and to show how the intersections we begin our research with are connected with other intersections across time and space.

Nespor’s work problematizes the notion of the school as a neutral container.

We now move to explore how “place” has been operationalized and foregrounded in research, policy, and practice, exploring four main areas: place-based education, rural education, poverty and education, and Indigenous education. While there are distinctive overlaps across these areas, we argue these remain central due to their considerable implications for policy and practice.

Place-Based Education

Place-based education has a long tradition of scholarship and action concerned with environmental and social justice (Gruenewald & Smith, 2008). Gruenewald and Smith (2008) recognized the potential of bringing together educational research on cultural diversity and environmental decay and abuse, as ultimately it is actual communities who stand to lose when multinational businesses exploit the resources of people and places for their own gain, without concern for the long-term effects on life and livelihoods of residents and ecologies. Their edited volume includes many of the seminal contributors to place-based education. In summary, they write:

Just as the new localism can be understood as diverse acts of resistance against the ravages of globalization and rootlessness, place-based education can be understood as a community-based effort to reconnect the process of education, enculturation, and human development to the well-being of community life.

(Gruenewald & Smith, 2008, p. xvi)

Authors describe how young people investigate problems such as diminishing fish stocks and poor air quality, along with the cultural meanings and histories of local places, and in the process become key knowledge workers, activists, innovators, and artists in the local area. Starting with local knowledge and issues does not mean restricting students to the locale or to traditions that require change; it does mean starting with place- and community-based knowledges in the quest for understanding, sustaining, and improving knowledge of the human and more-than-human worlds we inhabit (Smith & Sobel, 2010).

Place-based education does not ignore the standard authorized curriculum of public schooling. However, it does argue that all curriculum goals of subject areas can be met through the study of place. Rather than concepts, skills, and disciplines being taught in an abstracted and isolated fashion, deep knowledge and understandings can be accomplished through researching real-world problems and phenomena (Smith & Sobel, 2010). At the same time as students become knowledgeable in particular domains, they become a resource for the local community, which they argue provides “a way to foster the sets of understanding and patterns of behavior essential to create a society that is both socially just and ecologically sustainable” (Smith & Sobel, 2010, p. 22). As Dewey noted, a disconnect between school and society serves no-one. Indeed, for students who are not privileged, due to their language, ethnicity, location, religion, and other social and cultural differences, a curriculum totally removed from their experiences results in unequal access to education.

Brooke (2003) credits the emergence of the term, “place-conscious education” to Paul Theobald. Theobald (1997) argued that: “Beginning at the elementary level, students must be socialized into the practice and habit of researching and deliberating answers that vex their communities at the moment” (p. 137, italics in original). Brooke (2003, p. 13) identifies three guiding principles:

  1. 1. Place-conscious education requires active students, and hence builds on pedagogical movements for student engagement and community inquiry;

  2. 2. [P]lace-conscious education centers schooling in a deep understanding of local place, spiralling out to include more distant knowledge in all areas of the curriculum; and

  3. 3. Place-conscious citizens should be people who know enough about their natural and cultural region to fashion lives that enhance the communities located there.

Theobald stresses the importance of students learning about intradependence—that is the connectedness between people and also between people and the more than human world (also see Nespor, 2008). The three guiding principles emerge from this position of intradependence.

Rural Education

Rural educators have been some of the most active in developing models of place-based and place-conscious education. Some of the early work in the United States emerged in connection with the national writing project, for example the Rural Voices Country Schools Program (Brooke, 2003). This program fostered teacher research and student writing that positively represented their knowledge of, and sense of, place and community. Despite such programs, Donehower and colleagues (2007) have observed that often “rurality” is constituted as a deficit when it comes to education. Or alternatively, the rural is constituted nostalgically as reflecting an idealized unchanging world. However, taking literacy as a key capability, they demonstrate how rural students both in schools and in further education are frequently positioned as lacking. Such depictions of rural people as illiterate also predominate in fiction and media and come to circulate in the public common sense. Donehower and colleagues (2007) have no wish to protect local practices as sacred and indeed they exemplify the ways in which they both interrogate and celebrate different aspects of rural communities’ ways with words.

A major issue associated with the portrayal of rurality as deficit and rural communities as backward is that education becomes a key element in what Corbett (2007) has described as “learning to leave.” Corbett explains that the abstract and disconnected standardized curriculum actually prepares young people for further outwards migration as success at school leads to further study elsewhere and ultimately taking their educational capital away from the local community. Such processes are often associated with the changing nature of work and limited opportunities to earn a living in rural and/or coastal fishing communities.

A recent transnational collection addresses some of the challenges (Green & Corbett, 2013) in the relationships between “rurality” and education, particularly with respect to literacy by drawing on theories and studies of place-conscious education, New Literacy Studies and eco-social justice. Importantly, the editors note that a recent policy study in the United States confirms that rural districts have the highest incidence of student poverty. A recent study in Australia identifies a similar correlation (Vinson & Rawsthorne, 2015). The challenge is to contest the reproduction of deficit discourses about rural education, whilst addressing in policy and practices material experiences of economic insecurity and related educational disadvantages. The writers in this collection work with and against a “place of deep discomfort” (Green & Corbett, 2013, p. 8) as they trouble the stereotypes of the “rural” and offer counter-stories of the complex work and literate practices that are accomplished in many communities.

Poverty and Education

The relationship between poverty, place, and education is not restricted to rural places. Indeed, in many nations the city, the urban, and the urban edge are also key sites of poverty as populations are drawn closer to the “center” in search of work, economic opportunities, and the provision of services. Yet, in affluent nations, the location of pockets of poverty frequently remains unchanged over time, suggesting the need for long-term policy and resource investments and changes to make any significant difference (Vinson & Rawsthorne, 2015). There are also statistically predictable relationships between social disadvantage and educational achievement.

Significantly, in nations such as the United States a child’s well-being, school quality, postsecondary education access and completion, and life course trajectory can be predicted in part by the delivery codes used by the nation’s postal system.

(Lawson, 2016, p. 2)

While these patterns do vary across nations, they are similar in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, to name just a few of the countries where strong correlations have been identified with socioeconomic status and educational results (OECD, 2015).

Recent research conducted in England suggests that “area-based initiatives” (Kerr, Dyson, & Raffo, 2014, p. 131) are needed, where interventions to redress poverty are designed based on “an ecological understanding of place,” and underpinned by a multidisciplinary approach. “[S]patial differences in educational provision” (Kerr et al., 2014, p. 133) mean that the solutions are not wholly resolvable within schools, but need to involve families, the wider community, and government services over extended periods of time. As social geographer Massey (2005) observed “place demands negotiation and invention” (p. 141). The histories of people “thrown together,” as Massey puts it, in particular places that requires ongoing analysis and consideration. Nowhere is this clearer than in Indigenous education, where schooling itself is part of the broader colonizing project which has “displaced” and dismissed the “land rights” of whole populations.

Indigenous Education

As many place-conscious educational researchers have observed place is also very much about race (Green & Corbett, 2013; Gruenewald, 2008; Somerville, 2013). Indeed, Indigenous educators have identified one of the greatest barriers in Western education is its imbrication in the history of colonization of their place. In other words, having taken over their country, white Western educators then proceed to set up schools to civilize the original inhabitants through education, assuming empty lands, lack of knowledge, and lack of language (Nakata, 2007a). Such assumptions allowed for Western colonizers to appropriate the territory and its resources. Similar forms of standardized education have obliterated Indigenous people’s relationship with country, their stories, and their meaning-making practices. Indigenous scholars argue how different ways of making meaning of places and people, and of places and times, are crucial to proper education (Nakata, 2007a; Somerville & Perkins, 2010) and, to environmental policy-making (Bignall, Hemming, & Rigney, 2016). Similarly, Smith (2014) advocates for Indigenous methodologies to be used in research communities and the need for developing ethical research spaces that are culturally appropriate and establish deep engagement opportunities with Indigenous communities. In such a worldview, the relationships between education, environment, and places are inseparable. At this cultural interface (Nakata, 2007a), the contested space between two knowledge systems such as Western and Indigenous it may be that Western education and social and economic policy more broadly have much to learn from Indigenous ways of “thinking through country” (Somerville, 2013).

Colonization therefore relates to the usurpation of Indigenous lands. Tuck and McKenzie (2015) refer to this as “settler colonialism” as “a form of colonialism in which outsiders come to make a new home on the land that is already inhabited by other humans” (p. 635). Settler colonialism does not consider land or place, and is characterized by an “ongoing displacement and dispossession of people in relation to land” and an “ignorance toward land, water, environment, and sustainability” (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015, p. 635). Similar histories have been experienced by Indigenous peoples around the world. The intellectual contributions of Indigenous scholars engage with issues of land and place through “conceptualizations of tribal identity, sovereignty, and treaty rights” (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015, p. 633). Drawing on the work of Patrick Wolfe, Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernandez (2013) argue that settler colonialism seeks to “destroy” in order to “replace,” disavowing the Indigenous people’s histories of their lands.

Concluding Comments

Educational research on space and place has properly gained new momentum in the face of climate change, overpopulation, and the wanton destruction of ecologies that sustain life (Bowers, 2005; Gruenewald, 2008), as well as in the face of emerging flows of people across boaders and new forms of citizenship or noncitizenship. Bowers has noted that critical and sociocultural theorists of education frequently ignore the importance of local knowledge and relational cultural ecological practices in imagining school reform for social justice and equity. He argues that the metaphors which underpin many models of school change are rooted in Western epistemological assumptions concerning concepts such as “freedom” and the “individual.” Bowers, along with others (see, e.g., Houston, 2013), posits the need to move towards “eco-justice” in designing curriculum and pedagogy.

The theories and approach in social geography, space, and place are significant for the field of education. Similarly, educational institutions and contexts are of considerable interest to social geographers due to their centrality in town planning and the organization of the everyday lives of families. Education as a social institution plays a central role in the production and reproduction of social boundaries, categories, and both economic and cultural capital. Education spaces are a major feature in everyday life. “They are one of the few institutions that can be found in almost every urban and suburban neighbourhood” (Collins & Coleman, 2008). As such education is an important geographical concern. Understandings from social geography, space, and place can also have considerable impact on educational policy and resourcing. For example, as population mobility (Urry, 2007) increases and the work of education is partly done in “virtual” learning spaces, nothing can be taken for granted about the students, the classrooms, or the technologies and media brought together in places of education. It is the relationships between people, places, and spaces and justice that have significance for educators and educational scholars. However, these relationships are shifting in significant ways as global flows of masses of people result in new patterns of inclusion and exclusion. Resultant new forms of citizenship and noncitizenship exclude some from basic human rights such as education, rights that others not only take for granted but also now have new control to apportion to some and not others. As such, education must have a new interest in how space and place are understood to define equity and inequity in the communities in which we live.

Despite continued pontification by politicians, the disparities between privileged and disadvantaged communities remain significant. While liberal democracies deny local circumstance should impact on a child’s life chances, there is evidence to suggest that what schools can do in helping overcome reproduction of different educational trajectories has been overestimated (Lawson, 2016, p. 1). Lawson (2016) argues that globalization challenges “assumptions about a placeless school system” (p. 2). That is, when life course trajectories can be predicted by childhood postcodes, social geography, space, and place do matter. Hence it follows that policy-makers, curriculum designers, teacher educators, and educational researchers—indeed all those who contribute to decisions about which educational practices are authorized, resourced, and implemented—need an educational imagination informed by spatial understandings of the work required to achieve a quality and equitable education system.

Further Reading

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Gulson, K. N. (2011). Education policy, space and the city: Markets and the (in)visibility of race. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Gulson, K. N., & Symes, C. (2007). Spatial theories of education: Policy and geography matters. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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Thomson, P. & Hall, C. (2017). Place-based methods for researching schools. London: Bloomsbury.Find this resource:


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