Summary and Keywords
Place-based education is an approach to curriculum development and instruction that directs students’ attention to local culture, phenomena, and issues as the basis for at least some of the learning they encounter in school. It is also referred to as place- and community-based education or place-conscious learning. In addition to preparing students academically, teachers who adopt this approach present learning as intimately tied to environmental stewardship and community development, two central concerns of Education for Sustainability. They aim to cultivate in the young the desire and ability to become involved citizens committed to enhancing the welfare of both the human and more-than-human communities of which they are a part. At the heart of place-based education is the belief that children of any age are capable of making significant contributions to the lives of others, and that as they do so, their desire to learn and belief in their own capacity to be change agents increase. When place-based education is effectively implemented, both students and communities benefit, and their teachers often encounter a renewed sense of professional and civic satisfaction.
In most respects, there is nothing new about place-based education. It is an attempt to reclaim elements of the learning processes most children encountered before the invention of schools. Throughout most of humanity’s tenancy on this planet, children learned directly from their own experience in the places and communities where they lived. They explored their world with peers, imitated the activities of adults, participated in cultural and religious ceremonies, and listened to the conversations and stories of their families and neighbors. Most of this learning was informal, although at important transition points such as puberty, initiation rites provided them with more direct forms of instruction about community understandings regarding the world and adult responsibilities. In this way, children grew into competent and contributing members of their society, able to care for themselves and for others in ways that sustained the community of which they were a part. This outcome with its focus on both individual and social sustainability is also the goal of place-based education.
It is important to acknowledge that a range of educational innovations over the past decades have anticipated or included elements of place-based education: outdoor education, civic education, community education, environmental education, and education for sustainability. What differentiates place-based education from many of these is its explicit focus on both human and natural environments and its concern about equity and social justice issues as well as environmental. Not all programs that call themselves place-based incorporate these elements, nor do all include opportunities for students to participate in projects that benefit others and the natural world. This, however, is the aspirational goal of place-based education and what sets it apart from similar approaches.
One of the early national sponsors of place-based education in the United States was the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a $50 million program that supported initiatives aimed at strengthening the relationship between schools and communities at over 30 sites in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, the Rural Challenge morphed into the Rural School and Community Trust, an organization that sought to sustain and extend the work that began with the Rural Challenge. The Trust defines place- and community-based education,
as teaching and learning that is rooted in what is local—the unique history, environment, culture, and economy of a particular place. The community provides the context for inquiry-based learning; student work focuses on problem solving around community needs and interests; and, community members and organizations serve as resources and partners in every aspect of teaching and learning.1
David Sobel, one of the early advocates for this approach through his work at Antioch University New England has defined it as “the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum.”2 Finally, a collection of place-based educators charged by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether this approach had ever positively impacted environmental quality (it had), developed the following definition for what they called place-based learning or PBL. For them, place-based learning,
is a holistic approach to education, conservation, and community development that uses the local community as an integrating context for learning at all ages. It fosters vibrant partnerships between schools and communities both to boost student achievement and to improve community health and vitality—environmental, social, and economic. PBL has emerged over the past decade through building on the best practices of environmental education, retaining a project-focused approach, and opening programs to be tailored by local people to local realities and opportunities.3
Four themes emerge from these definitions that will recur throughout the following pages. First, education is not seen as something achieved for individual students alone; it instead is viewed as a critical element in the maintenance of healthy communities and environments. Schools exist in part to prepare the young for future personal, political, and economic opportunities, but they also exist to support the long-term well-being of surrounding communities—both social and natural. The second central characteristic of place-based education is that it works best when students have an opportunity to become immersed in the natural and social worlds outside the classroom. This involves spending at least some instructional time on the school grounds; in neighboring communities and parks; at local governmental meetings or businesses; and as students get older and can range further afield, through explorations of their surrounding region. The third theme is that learning associated with place-based units can often serve as a vehicle for integrating and applying school subjects. The community problem-solving that students often engage in can provide them with opportunities to practice the literacy, inquiry, mathematical, scientific, and artistic skills they are acquiring within the context of their classes. Finally, place-based education cannot generally be accomplished by teachers on their own; it requires the participation of individuals, agencies, and organizations outside the school. This can involve the willingness of people to work with teachers to share content and skills both within and outside the classroom. Such partnerships can also provide students with the chance to participate in projects beyond the school that involve inquiry, research, and action.
Historical Antecedents and Seminal Contemporary Contributors
In a number of respects, one of the functions of the new institution of public education in the 19th century was to diminish children’s and young people’s affiliation with particular communities and places in order to better prepare them to participate as citizens of nation-states and mobile workers in emerging industrial economies. The ties that bound people to particular ethnic or religious groups could and often did become a source of conflict and tension, and too deep of an allegiance to specific locales could diminish the willingness of individuals to move to areas where they were needed to extract natural resources like coal or timber or work in textile or steel mills. It is not surprising that schools in the 19th century attended so little to aspects of children’s lives outside the classroom.
John Dewey. In the late 1890s, John Dewey acknowledged this characteristic of public schools as a weakness rather than strength when he wrote,
From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his [sic] inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school—its isolation from life. When the child gets into the schoolroom he has to put out of his mind a large part of the ideas, interests, and activities that predominate in his home and neighborhood. So the school being unable to utilize this everyday experience, sets painfully to work, on another tack and by a variety of means, to arouse in the child an interest in school studies.4
During the years that he was involved with the Lab School at the University of Chicago, Dewey sought to correct this situation by giving children the opportunity to participate in an “embryonic community” where they could practice the skills of democratic decision-making and encounter through their own lived experiences the forms of human endeavor that gave birth to the academic disciplines.5 Students could encounter mathematics as they engaged in the building of the school’s clubhouse and chemistry as they cooked meals. For Dewey, grounding learning in these fundamental aspects of human life would hopefully help keep children from getting lost in the mass society that was then emerging in the United States.
William Heard Kilpatrick and the project method. A couple of decades later, William Heard Kilpatrick, a colleague of Dewey’s at Teachers College-Columbia University, promulgated an approach to teaching and learning he called the project method. For Kilpatrick such projects needed to consist of “wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment.”6 Projects ideally would grow out of children’s lives, be chosen by students themselves, and provide an opportunity to engage in activities worthy of their time and attention. He asserted that schools that adopted lessons like these would be likely to engage students and tap their natural abilities and interests. In rural settings, the project method proved to be very popular for a time, although Dewey and others were concerned about the limited degree to which these activities were tied to the academic disciplines.7 But when implemented thoughtfully, the project method offered a way to overcome the division between children’s lives and the classroom in a way that still has relevance to schools in the United States and elsewhere, especially when these projects seek to address important community needs.
Foxfire--cultural journalism and civic engagement. In the late 1960s, Eliot Wigginton, an English teacher in a rural Georgia community, out of necessity stumbled upon another way to incorporate elements of students’ lives into their school experiences.8 Mid-year, he found himself frustrated with students’ lack of involvement in his courses, and he asked them what kinds of learning activities would be more interesting for them. Their discussion focused on things like bringing in speakers from the community, going on field trips, and writing for a broader audience. From this emerged a class on cultural journalism that allowed students to explore in depth the lifeways and survival skills of their southern Appalachian neighbors. Students began publishing a regional magazine called Foxfire filled with stories about preserving vegetables, hunting, planting by the signs, making soap, and building chimneys or cabins. The magazine came to the attention of editors at Doubleday Press in New York and quickly became a publishing phenomenon. In the coming years, it also inspired a national movement to incorporate cultural journalism into schools. From West Virginia (Mantrap) to Oregon (Coastal Geographic) to Alaska (Kamai) students across the country began investigating their own communities and sharing what they learned in print.
In addition to cultural journalism, the Foxfire organization encouraged teachers to find ways to engage students in community processes. Before he came to lead Foxfire’s professional development activities, Hilton Smith had been a high school social studies teacher in the rural South. After learning about a proposal to build a nuclear waste storage site just across the state line from his own community, he introduced students in a 12th grade civics class to these plans.9 Their interest was quickly sparked, and they began investigating the issue, discovering that wastes from nuclear power facilities throughout the South would be transported there. With this knowledge in hand, they began to attend public meetings, raising questions public officials were not anxious to answer. After witnessing the impact this kind of democratic participation had on his students, Smith became a strong advocate for not only investigations of local cultural practices but also issues of local concern. In this instance, what students learned could be shared in public meetings as well as in print. Activities like these became a central inspiration for the work of place-based educators in later decades.
Environmental education. In the 1970s, as well, environmental educators both within and outside of schools pointed to the value of introducing students not only to local cultural practices but also surrounding natural phenomena. Attentive to the environmental consequences of unbridled industrial growth in the developed world like water and air pollution, educators began focusing on finding ways to cultivate an ethic of stewardship and preservation among public school students. In part because of the guiding hand of William Stapp, a professor of resource planning and conservation in the University of Michigan’s School of Nature Resources and Environment, the vision of the field’s founding documents like the Belgrade Charter and Tbilisi Declaration included not only attention to environmental knowledge but also political action and lifestyle changes.10 International policy makers encouraged teachers to engage students in local investigations and projects aimed at improving nearby environmental conditions. Although the tendency of public school educators to avoid controversial topics and activities constrained the widespread adoption of these practices,11 many environmental educators at least began making much more extensive use of field studies as well as simple field trips to the natural world as part of children’s school experiences.
One of the strongest advocates for the adoption of these approaches was Clifford Knapp at the University of Northern Illinois. In 1996, he published Just Beyond the Classroom: Community Adventures for Interdisciplinary Learning that presented teachers with a variety of strategies aimed at introducing children to inquiry activities they could pursue outside school walls.12 And in 2000, he and his wife Jan Woodhouse published an article that in addition to suggesting possible sources of place-based curriculum articulated five characteristics of this approach: (1) its emergence from specific places, (2) its multidisciplinary nature, (3) its reliance upon lived experience, (4) its assertion that learning involves more than preparation for work, and (5) its attention to connecting self and community to place and the way that doing so is inevitably multigenerational and multicultural.13
In the early 1990s, as well, political scientist and environmental activist David Orr highlighted the importance of place in his volume Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World.14 To justify and explain this approach, he drew on Dewey’s insight about using the community and its functions as a basis for a reformulation of the curriculum as well as Lewis Mumford’s suggestion that school learning use as its model the regional survey, gradually introducing children to more and more of the world around them, starting with their own backyards and neighborhoods, then moving further afield.15 Orr argued that linking schooling more firmly to place could potentially reverse the experience of uprootedness so characteristic of life in modern societies and lead children to become inhabitants rather than temporary residents of whatever town or city they called home. As inhabitants, they would be more likely to assume responsibility for their places and then become participating citizens and active stewards.
In 1990s, Orr became involved with the Center for Ecoliteracy, a Bay Area project initiated by physicist and science writer Fritjof Capra. The Center became the locus of a variety of environmentally focused place-based activities, many of which are described in Michael Stone and Zenobia Barlow’s book Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World.16 It played an instrumental role in the creation of a school-garden project at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California, which became the model for similar efforts throughout the state and nation in ensuing years. Along with San Francisco’s Bay Institute, the Center also provided significant support for many years to the Marin County STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) Project. Responding to a student question about what their class could do about species extinction, a fourth grade teacher began a collaborative project with local ranchers to reverse the decline of a species of California freshwater shrimp. She involved her students in planting willows and then a variety of native species in an effort to restore streams long degraded by cattle and sheep. In the first two decades of the project’s existence, more than 20 miles of riparian areas were replanted, lowering the temperature and rates of stream flow and supporting the return of native birds as well as shrimp.17
Rural education. Orr also became one of the initial board members of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, the first national project to use and name place-based education as a central element in its approach to school innovation and change. The Rural Challenge itself grew out of the actions of a collection of educators unhappy with Ambassador Walter Annenberg’s decision to distribute 500 million dollars associated with his 1993 “Challenge to the Nation” to only urban schools. They successfully argued that rural schools were in as much need of financial support and innovation as those in the nation’s largest cities. They were successful in their advocacy and received one-tenth the sum allocated to urban schools for projects in places like Edcouch-Elsa, Texas, and Tillamook, Oregon.
One of the advocates for the Rural Challenge, Jack Shelton, had been engaged in place-based educational work in rural schools in Alabama since the 1970s. Schools, according to Shelton, needed to be seen as critical vehicles for the development of impoverished rural communities. Working through a program initially supported by the University of Alabama called PACERS (Program for Academic and Cultural Excellence in Rural Schools), he was able to encourage teachers in rural communities throughout his state to create programs that engaged students in the construction of low-cost housing, greenhouses, or gardens; the writing and publishing of community newspapers; and the development of student-run businesses. His book, Consequential Learning: A Public Approach to Better Schools, which recounts much of the history of PACERS, argued that the most effective learning takes place when the classroom is conjoined with community needs and issues.18 When this happens, the work that students become involved with assumes an authenticity that is difficult to achieve otherwise.
Paul Theobald, who also sat on the board of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, brought to this national effort a deep perspective about the need to question the highly individualistic nature of American education and life and find ways to revive the more communal traditions that had once been central to the rural experience. His 1997 volume, Teaching the Commons: Place, Pride, and the Renewal of Community, articulates the value of seeing schools—more than the economy—as a central force in the revitalization of rural America,19 something that was played out in many Annenberg Challenge sites where schools and communities entered into relationships characterized by reciprocity as students engaged in learning activities aimed at giving back to and strengthening their community.
Similar goals, especially with regard to the surfacing and preservation of local culture and history, were being played out at roughly the same time in Montana under the auspices of the Montana Heritage Project. This project was run in conjunction with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and supported by the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation. Students throughout the state were invited to engage in community or regional studies as well the collection of oral histories. Each year their work was celebrated in the state capitol and on occasion published on the website of the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/folklife/edresources/ed-heritage.html). In some instances, students facilitated important community conversations based on what they learned. The community of Libby, for example, was faced with serious economic and environmental challenges related to the closing of a plywood mill and the long-standing effect of asbestos contamination tied to the mining of vermiculite. As reported by Mike Umphrey in his volume The Power of Community-Centered Education,20 after conducting a community study, students were able to engage their families and neighbors in conversations about the future of their community in ways that helped adults transcend anger and despair. For Umphrey, one of the most important benefits of this project was the way that investigations of local communities led students to begin to see their identities as linked to others, both in the present and the past. Their personal stories became infused with the stories of their community.
Indigenous education. During this time, place-based educational approaches also became of interest to Native American communities in the United States. One of the recipients of a Rural Challenge grant was the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. Under the leadership of Ray Barnhardt and Oscar Kawagley at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, this effort was aimed at integrating cultural understandings and practices of Indigenous communities into public schools in the nation’s largest state.21
The ANKN was linked to a National Science Foundation grant; together, both projects supported the development of curriculum materials and teaching practices that addressed academic subjects in the humanities as well as science and math. Prior to these efforts, it was not uncommon in Alaskan classrooms for Indigenous students to encounter little about their own traditions or the demands of life in an arctic environment. The Alaska Native Knowledge Network changed this by explicitly making subsistence practices and local culture part of the content of lessons across the curriculum. It demonstrated the way that an attention to place and community could explicitly be directed at long-standing forms of injustice and marginalization.
Urban place-based education. At the same time that environmental education was gaining a foothold in the United States in the 1970s, an architect and town planner named Colin Ward became an advocate for similar approaches in Great Britain. What distinguished him from many environmental educators in other countries was his effort to give environmental education an urban and strongly activist face. His writings about these issues in Streetwork: The Exploding School in time led to his becoming an education officer for the Town and County Planning Association, an English charity that sought to help communities move in the direction of sustainability.22 Ward encouraged educators to engage their students in inquiry projects investigating controversial local issues, an aim that closely matches the aims of contemporary place-based educators.
If streetwork outside the school is undertaken where I would argue it most often should be—that is in the district and community in which the pupil lives and learns—then it can form the very bridge between ‘school life’ and ‘real life’ for which teachers and parents alike are constantly searching. Fieldwork will no longer mean an occasional visit to the countryside, but constant involvement in the problems of the locality.23
Ward embarked on this process in part because of his commitment to democratic forms of urban planning that give common citizens the opportunity to participate in the shaping of their own communities and a voice in the solution of shared problems.
In the United States, urban place-based education, although not initially called this, was also being encouraged by activists associated with the American civil rights movement for many of the same reasons. Writing as early as 1970, legendary civil rights leader Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit articulated an educational vision that spoke to the importance of situating learning where students live. Highly critical of the impact of American schools on Black children and youth, she argued that
The subject matter of the schools, beginning with the information about the policeman and the fireman given to first and second graders, is alien to the lives of the children. And, most important, students succeed only to the degree that they set their sights toward upgrading themselves as individuals out of the community, so that the schools are in fact an organized instrument for a brain drain out of the community.24
Instead of serving as a vehicle for the urban version of the brain drain that was eroding the strength of rural communities as well, Boggs proposed an alternative educational approach in which
the community itself with its needs and problems must become the curriculum of the schools [italics in original]. More specifically, the educational program or curriculum should not consist of subjects like English or algebra or geography. Instead the school must be structured into groups of youngsters meeting in workshops and working as teams. These teams are then encouraged (1) to identify the needs or problems of the community; (2) to choose a certain need or problem as a focus of activity; (3) to plan a program for its solution; and (4) to carry out the steps involved in the plan.25
In the 1990s, Stephen Haymes in his volume Race, Culture, and the City: A Pedagogy for Black Urban Struggle reiterated many of the themes Boggs had raised in her essay a quarter century earlier. He argued that a “pedagogy of place” aimed at uncovering sources of discrimination and oppression in Black communities needed to serve as the foundation for alternative patterns of development that would be more favorable to their residents. He wrote at the time that a pedagogy of place must “establish . . . pedagogical conditions that enable Blacks in the city to critically interpret how dominant definitions and uses of urban space regulate and control how they organize their identity around territory, and the consequences of this for urban Black resistance.”26
Ward’s, Boggs’s, and Haymes’s vision of an education located in specific urban places takes on a more politicized and oppositional stance when compared to that taken by many environmental or rural educators, but its aim to preserve and extend the health of communities is very similar; for them, though, the environment in need of preservation and health is social as well as natural. Their writings and efforts anticipate the later work of ecojustice educators that will be discussed below.
All of a Place Institute. By the beginning of the 21st century, place-based education was thus being theorized or practiced in a variety of settings, although few if any people outside the Annenberg Rural Challenge had yet given it this name. This began to change after a meeting at the Wilder Forest in Minnesota underwritten by the Bay Area Tides Foundation in 1998. This meeting brought together leaders in environmental education across the United States to discuss how to integrate their concerns into teacher preparation programs. During conversations there, Jack Chin, a program officer at the Funders Forum for Environmental Education, learned about place-based education from participants Gregory Smith and Neil Maine (a retired science teacher and Rural Challenge board member) from Oregon. During the next two years, Chin began a sustained effort under the auspices of the San Francisco Foundation to acquaint 40 program officers from a variety of foundations with the potentialities of place-based education. Part of this effort included an institute that brought together advocates of place-based educational approaches as well as site visits to schools in the Bay Area engaged in this work. Chin’s 2001 report about the institute, “All of a Place: Connecting Schools, Youth, and Community,” offers what is still a comprehensive overview of this emerging field.27 A presentation Smith gave to this group became the basis for a cover article, “Place-Based Education: Learning to Be Where We Are,” published in the April 2002 issue of Kappan that broadcast the possibilities of place-based education to a national audience.28 In this article, Smith argued that students could investigate and/or act upon their home places through cultural and nature studies, real-world problem-solving, the creation of microenterprises, and involvement in community studies and governance activities.
Using the Environment as Integrating Context. Another presenter during Chin’s All of a Place Institute was Gerald Lieberman, the founder and director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable, an organization supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts that included among its members nine state departments of education and three state environmental education councils. Although the work of his organization was primarily focused on issues tied to the natural world, Lieberman has spent much of his professional life advocating for an approach to instruction and curriculum called using the Environment as an Integrating Context (EIC). He included in his definition both natural and social settings, making his approach very similar to the work of educators associated with the Annenberg Rural Challenge. Of particular note is his and Linda Hoody’s effort to assess the impact of EIC in 40 schools, looking in particular at student engagement and academic achievement. Published in 1998, Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context in Learning posited that
students exposed to programs using EIC approaches often become enthusiastic, self-motivated learners. In addition to traditional subject-matter knowledge and basic life skills, EIC students gain a wealth of added educational benefits, including a comprehensive understanding of the world, advanced thinking skills, the opportunity to engage in real-world problem-solving, and awareness and appreciation of the diversity of viewpoints within a democratic society.29
Data available in 14 of the schools also allowed for a comparison of student academic performance using scores on comprehensive and subject-specific standardized tests, grade point averages (GPAs), disciplinary actions, attendance, and student attitude measures. In all of the schools, “quantitative measures of achievement affirm[ed] the academic benefits of EIC-based learning.” Lieberman and Hoody’s work provided one of the first research studies to suggest that place-based education could contribute to higher levels of student achievement, although in the era of No Child Left Behind from 2001 through 2015, this message was generally lost in the effort to create more centralized forms of curriculum and assessment.
David Sobel and Co-SEED. At about the same time on the opposite side of the United States, the Massachusetts-based Orion Society was also taking steps to urge educators to explore the possibilities of place. First through its Stories of the Land Teaching Fellowships and then in its publishing of David Sobel’s 2004 volume Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms Communities,30 it offered professional development experiences and provided a platform for place-based educators to share their practice with a broader audience. The teaching fellowships were aimed at helping educators discover ways to explore serious environmental problems at the local level. Its volumes, Stories in the Land: A Place-Based Environmental Education Anthology31 and Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching32 described educators who were seeking to work in this way.
Sobel, a teacher educator and environmentalist, was one of the founding professors of Antioch University New England. In the late 1990s, he started a program called CO-SEED (Community-based School Environmental Education) that worked with schools throughout New England to “restructure school curriculum to study local places, solve community issues, and use the resources close to the school.”33 Although most schools associated with the CO-SEED project were located in rural villages like Gilford, New Hampshire, or Bradford, Vermont, some were situated in urban centers like Boston. Sobel laid out four principles or “new directions” he believed should govern this approach:
1. From extraction to sustainability as the underlying metaphor
2. From fragmentation to systems thinking as a conceptual model
3. From here-and-now to long-ago-and-far-away as a developmental guideline for curriculum design
4. From mandated monoculture to emergent diversity as a school district goal34
Sobel’s first two principles reflect his concern about environmental issues and the need to engage students in real-world problem solving activities that necessarily cut across different academic disciplines. His third and fourth principles speak to the value of starting with children’s local experiences before branching out to the rest of the world and of recognizing that common curricular aims might be best met by allowing teachers to use the diverse learning opportunities that exist in their own community and region. Throughout the remainder of the book, he describes numerous examples of place-based education and strategies he had learned through his experience with CO-SEED schools to make it a reality in more educational institutions. Of special note is his discussion of the use of community Vision to Action forums as a vehicle for identifying needed projects and the hiring of place-based education staff with the time and ability to connect teachers with local resources and to support inquiry projects.
A number of organizations located in New England have contributed significantly to disseminating with Sobel place-based educational approaches. Among these are the Center for Place-based Learning and Community Engagement (a collaborative project of the Marsh-Billings National Historical Park, the National Park Service Conservation Study Institute, and Shelburne Farms), Community Works Institute, and the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative (PEEC). Shelburne Farms, located just outside of Burlington, Vermont, provides a range of school trips for K–12 students and professional development for educators; it also supports school-based initiatives like the Sustainable Schools Project and the Forest for Every Classroom. The Community Works Institute publishes the online Community Works Journal as well as sponsoring professional development workshops for educators interested in integrating place, community service, and sustainability into their work with students. PEEC was initially created by a collection of organizations (including CO-SEED and the Forest for Every Classroom) involved with the delivery of place-based educational approaches to engage in systematic assessments of their work. Its website includes one of the more complete listings of research about the impact of place-based educational experiences on student learning (www.peecworks.org).
David Greenwood’s critical pedagogy of place. In 2003, David Gruenewald (now Greenwood) published articles in two major journals of the American Educational Research Association that significantly deepened the theoretical underpinnings of place-based educational approaches.35 Drawing upon an extensive investigation of the role of place in human thinking and identity as well as challenges he had encountered as a graduate student concerned about the environment in an educational setting primarily focused on issues of social justice, Gruenewald argued for a necessary convergence between critical theorists such as Paulo Freire, Michael Apple, and Peter McClaren and place-based educators if schools were to play a significant role in moving industrial civilizations in the direction of both environmental sustainability and equity. The most widely sited of these articles, “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place,” reasoned that educators should strive to cultivate in their students the ability to see through and understand the way modern institutions too often serve oppressive and environmentally destructive purposes (what Gruenewald called decolonization) and at the same time help them gain the skills and attitudes required to restore the social and ecological health of their home regions (reinhabitation).
Ecojustice education. Greenwood’s work dovetailed with the emergence of a new focus on ecojustice by C. A. Bowers, a major theorist in the field of environmental education whose work explores the relationship between culture, language, and the environment. His Educating for Ecojustice and Community and Revitalizing the Commons: Educational Sites of Resistance and Affirmation36 also recognized the necessity of linking environmental and social justice concerns, although Bowers objected to elements of the critical theorists’ agenda, especially their failure to acknowledge how the ideology of progress disregards beliefs and practices encountered in many pre-modern societies that could well be essential to the realization of a vision of equity and sustainability. Two students of Bowers, Jeff Edmundson and Rebecca Martusewicz, took his ideas and created teacher education programs at the University of Oregon and Eastern Michigan University that addressed these concerns. Along with John Lupinacci, they published a book in 2011 entitled Ecojustice Education: Toward Diverse, Democratic, and Sustainable Communities that lays out an agenda for reshaping the preparation of novice teachers.37 In this volume they explore a range of issues including gender, class inequality, racism, globalization, the enclosure of the commons, Indigenous traditions, and strategies for educating for the commons. Martusewicz and one of her colleagues at EMU, Ethan Lowenstein, have played a major role in implementing their ideas in Michigan schools under the auspices of the place-based Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, a $10.9 million project supported since 2007 by the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust that has worked with over 283 Michigan schools and impacted more than 80,000 students.
As an approach to curriculum development and instruction, place-based education is atypical of most educational reform movements. It has not had a single advocate, organization, or foundation disseminating its concepts and practices. It has instead functioned more like a vision of educational possibilities around which people already attracted to teaching in this way have rallied. In a sense, it has been disseminated more like a cultural meme, spreading organically rather than mechanically as a result of institutional fiat. This has meant that large funders have not been attracted to this approach because it is difficult for them to imagine bringing it to scale. When Jack Chin was presenting his All of a Place Institute in San Francisco, this was the reason Marshall (Mike) Smith, then chief education program officer at the Hewlett Foundation and former U.S. Undersecretary of Education in the Clinton administration believed it was not worth his support.38 Despite this, in the years since David Orr initially wrote about the importance of place in education and the publishing of articles in journals with a national and international reach, place- and community-based education has entered into the vocabulary and practice of a growing number of teachers and schools. Although still an effort primarily encountered on the margins of mainstream educational practice, it is dispersing in its own way and time, and finding advocates in surprisingly varied places.
Place-Based Education Beyond North America
The ideas and practices associated with place-based education have resonated with educators concerned about the environment and community development in countries around the planet. Some of these initiatives were inspired by efforts described earlier in the United States, but others arose from the response of individuals in other countries to similar environmental and social conditions. Educators in places as diverse as the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, India, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, China, El Salvador, and Bhutan are all experimenting with ways to engage students in the study of their own communities and the critical issues they face. What follows is a partial selection of some of what has been attempted in different countries; it is illustrative rather than comprehensive.
Norway and Scotland. Wenche Ronning and Bronwen Cohen describe place-based education in their two respective countries in a chapter of a 2014 volume entitled International Perspectives in the Early Years.39 In Norway, place-based education is a central feature of the learning experiences of kindergarten students. Teachers are enjoined to provide ongoing opportunities for children to connect with the natural environment in their home communities and are expected to include two to three hours of outdoor play every school day. Efforts are also made to acquaint children with the economic and cultural traditions of their regions. Classes visit local industries, farms, and museums. In and out of school, children are introduced to regional culinary practices, storytelling, and local crafts.
In Scotland, two policy documents, Curriculum for Excellence (http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2004/11/20178/45862) in 2004 and then the 2010 Learning and Teaching in Scotland (http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/learningandteaching/index.asp) have encouraged teachers to make use of local environmental and cultural resources. Curriculum for Excellence emphasizes the value of active learning and urges educators to involve their students in outside-of-classroom inquiry and problem-solving activities. It also addresses the value of teaching languages indigenous to Scotland, especially Gaelic, as well as local modes of living, including the long-standing tradition of crofting as a strategy for land use and management. The 2010 policy statement makes even more explicit guidance regarding how the outdoors can be used to teach different subjects:
• encouraging and capitalizing on the potential to experience learning and new challenges in the outdoor environment (health and well-being)
• teachers taking advantage of opportunities for study in the local, natural, and built environments (science)
• learning outdoors through field trip visits and input by external contributors (social science)40
Australia. Place-based education in Australia has largely emerged from the work of this country’s environmental education centers. Primarily located in Queensland and New South Wales, these centers have from the 1970s been serving as sites for outdoor education and environmental immersion. As they have evolved, some have begun to address the cultural and political issues that are central to place-based education, as well. In an edited volume entitled Diverse Pedagogies of Place, Ron Tooth, the founder of one of these centers in Queensland, and Peter Renshaw, a professor of education at the University of Queensland, have collected essays by a number of their colleagues that demonstrate how the investigation of the natural environment can be extended to a consideration of colonialism or the work of activists to preserve natural places.41 Some of the rural environmental learning centers discussed in their volume, for example, explore through role playing experiences the difficult history of European and Aboriginal relations and contrast the varying approaches to land and natural resources used by these groups. In this way, students are led into a consideration of the issues of decolonization seen as central to a critical pedagogy of place by David Greenwood. Educators in these centers help students begin to see that place, itself, can be contested and the source of multiple narratives. In centers located in urban areas, students are acquainted with stories about local environmental activists who have sought to preserve beaches or wetlands from development, exemplifying what it means to be a citizen steward intent on inhabiting the landscape in respectful and sustainable ways.
Although the experiences in the environmental educational centers are generally limited to one or a few days, students who participate in their programs can be encouraged to take ideas learned there back to their own schools. Sixth grade students who participated in a program at one of the environmental learning centers in Northern Queensland developed a year-long plan that focused on reducing litter at their school; creating a compost bin for food scraps from lunch; digging and then planting a small garden with vegetables, papayas, and pineapples; and initiating an award program that recognized students who kept the tidiest classroom. Given their concerns about student relations at their school, they also instituted an anti-bullying program. In engaging in these activities, they were learning the skills of inhabitation and applying them within their own context. In some instances, as well, staff from the environmental learning centers have worked closely with teachers in regional public schools to use imaginative and sensory-rich pedagogical approaches to draw their students into a deeper sense of relationship with and responsibility for nearby environmental features in their own community. Although place-based approaches are only rarely encountered in conventional public schools, Australia’s environmental learning centers are providing important settings where children and youth are being given the chance to develop the sense of affiliation and agency that are among the primary goals of place-based education.
Japan. In Japan, nonprofit organizations, or NPOs, more than public schools, have taken the lead in providing opportunities for young people to engage in place-based education. Sometimes these groups work extensively with schools; many, however, focus on providing school-age children and sometimes adults with the opportunity to participate in nature camps or in restoration or agricultural activities that are made available to schools and students. One of these is called ECOPLUS (www.ecoplus.jp/); it focuses on both environmental and cultural issues and is deeply involved in efforts to preserve knowledge system indigenous to Japan. Based in Tokyo, it has a rural center in the village of Tochikubo in Niigata, Japan’s “snow country.” ECOPLUS’s programs provide participants with opportunities to plant or harvest rice and connect with the natural world, help village residents remove snow from their homes, and become familiar with some of the craft skills that allowed people to achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency in a moderately remote environment. In an effort to slow the depopulation of villages through Japan, one of the aims of ECOPLUS is to let rural residents know that their urban counterparts are interested in their way of life and that their traditions are worth preserving. The organization is also helping to create small businesses to make it possible for people to earn a living without being forced to relocate, a critical element in the revitalization of rural villages.42 Each year ECOPLUS sponsors an international conference about place- and community-based education that often attracts 150–200 participants to encourage more NPOS and schools throughout the country to adopt this approach.
Other notable place-based projects in Japan include a long-term effort to restore Lake Kasumigaura northeast of Tokyo. This project has featured collaborative arrangements including schools, local residents, farmers, businesses, and regional governments all working together to restore the lake and the watershed that drains it. Over 210,000 people have participated in this effort, including 90 percent of the primary schools in the surrounding region.43 Another long-standing project is located in the Kyoyama neighborhood of Okayama City west of Osaka. The Koyama Community Center has acted for years as a locus for a variety of projects aimed at deepening citizens’ relationship and sense of responsibility for the “hometown river.” In 2003, people involved with this work started a “Kids Waterfront Checkup Project” that involved children from the ages of 6–15 in efforts to restore natural areas in their community to the point where they would once more become part of the residents’ daily life. Students conducted surveys and participated in discussions aimed at solving problems of litter and pollution, and were welcomed as full members in a visioning process that included defining criteria for sustainable development for their neighborhood. Children were so inspired by these activities that they initiated conversations with lawmakers and even the Prime Minister.44
Bhutan. The Teton Sciences Schools, a multi-pronged educational institution based in Wyoming, has been practicing place-based education with an environmental focus for many years. In 2008 it started a program of professional development for teachers in Bhutan. The Bhutanese government was interested in finding ways to link its educational aims more explicitly to its efforts to preserve its natural and cultural resources. A focus on place provided a way to achieve this end. Since that time, seven Bhutanese graduate students have participated in a master’s program based at the Teton Science School’s Kelly campus and at the University of Wyoming. And staff from Wyoming have gone to Bhutan where they have conducted workshops for 132 teachers in the practices of place-based education. This reform initiative is still in its early stages, but Bhutanese teachers who have participated report that they have become more likely to take students outside, invite guest speakers into their classrooms, and devote part of their curriculum to inquiry-based research projects aimed at studying cultural and ecological factors in their local community. Since some of the participants in these workshops were curriculum developers or staff from the Royal Education Counsel, suggestions to apply textbook information to local settings have begun to find their way into the national curriculum and textbooks.45,46 Although few of these inquiry activities include the kind of activist or critical elements encountered in place-based projects aimed at developing involved citizens, they are laying the foundation for the experience of connectedness that could in time lead to collective problem solving and leadership.
Canada. Place-based education has become most evident in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Six schools in Saskatoon, alone, have adopted place-based approaches. Canadian schools that have moved in this direction often have either a strong focus on Indigenous or environmental themes. Eighth graders at the St. Edward School, for example, can participate in an ecojustice program that explores the negative impact of Western consumer culture on the health of global ecosystems. They use problem-based learning experiences connected with the community and nearby environment to evaluate important local, provincial, and national issues. At the Strawberry Vale Elementary School in Victoria, British Columbia, students study the natural world as they participate in walks through nearby neighborhoods and parks, monitoring conditions and engaging in interdisciplinary project-based units.
The Environmental School Project of Maple Ridge in British Columbia is a “school-without-classrooms” that blends a concern about the natural world and Indigenous issues as it exposes its students to local places and communities while working closely with members of the Kwantlen First Nation. The Davis Bay Elementary School on the Sunshine Coast is located on the traditional lands of the Shishalh Nation. It houses a program for kindergarten through sixth grade students called Nature Education for Sustainable Todays (NEST). Teachers work closely with a local biologist as they and their students study local forests, beaches, and a salmon spawning creek. The Northwest Community College in Terrace, British Columbia works with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Its program emphasizes the importance of community empowerment, innovation, and sustainability. It works with Indigenous leaders to develop programs that reflect their concerns and interests. Learning in the field and in First Nation cultural settings provide opportunities for students to deepen their familiarity with their region and its peoples.
Although educational practices similar to place-based education—such as education for sustainability—have become increasingly common across the planet, schools and programs that explicitly use the language of place-based education are less so. Still, as the foregoing examples demonstrate, there is a slowly growing interest in the possibilities of reintegrating local culture, knowledge, and issues into children’s school experiences as a counterpoint to centralized national curricula and the adoption of what has nearly everywhere become an educational process primarily aimed at preparing children to participate in a globalized economy. As an alternative to this press toward a planetary corporate monoculture, place-based education offers a way to recognize and transmit diverse cultures as well as introduce students to the potential inherent in local decision-making and involvement aimed at improving the health of local human and environmental systems.
A Transformative Educational Vision and Public Schools: Oxymoron or Genuine Possibility
Since emerging in the 1990s as a concept and practice distinct from environmental or civics education, place-based education has thus begun to gain some traction in schools and in the thinking of educational theorists and researchers. A review of the first 10 pages of Google Scholar in the fall of 2016, for example, surfaced 70 articles about place-based education published in 38 journals including those that reach a broad readership like Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, Educational Researcher, American Educational Research Journal, and Teachers College Record as well as those that have a narrower focus and audience like Curriculum Inquiry, the Journal of Geoscience Education, Environmental Education Research, the Journal of Geography, and Early Childhood Educator. Children, Youth, and Environments in 2011 and Green Teacher (not included in Google Scholar) in 2016 devoted entire issues to place-based education. Most of these articles appear to be either descriptive or theoretical with a much smaller number focusing on evaluation, something that has been an ongoing dilemma for the field of place-based education as practitioners attempt to convince schools districts or funders about the value of this approach. Place-based projects tend to be small scale and poorly funded; the resources needed to complete more definitive studies of their impact have rarely been available. The one exception to this is the decade-old Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan, but its final evaluation reports have yet to be published.
With regard to the actual practice of place-based education, a recent effort sponsored by the Teton Science Schools is suggestive. Educators and researchers associated with this reform in the United States, Canada, Scotland, Norway, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand were asked to identify schools where place-based education was a central characteristic of their schools. These informants identified over 100 schools, the majority of which are in North America (22 states, and 2 provinces). This list is certainly only partial, but it demonstrates the degree to which place-based education is gaining adherents in a wide variety of different locales.
In 2016, as well, the learning design firm, Getting Smart (www.gettingsmart.org), whose CEO Tom Vanderark was the first Executive Director for Education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sponsored a public relations campaign aimed at disseminating information about place-based education to a broader audience. The campaign included the creation of a blog that published over 50 posts about place-based education over the course of eight months and a summary document that articulated themes from these posts (http://www.gettingsmart.com/categories/series/place-based-education/). In the same year, half of the 10 high schools that received $10 million XQ awards from the Emerson Collective demonstrated a focus on place-based concerns. Clearly, the language and possibilities of place-based education are entering the mainstream of educational thought and innovation (http://xqsuperschool.org/abouttheproject).
Despite these indicators of growing interest, the dissemination and implementation of place-based approaches have encountered three primary challenges. First is its dependence on the skills, commitment, and longevity of teachers, administrators, and funders committed to realizing its potential. The majority of schools in the 1990s and early 2000s that were associated with the Annenberg Rural Challenge and CO-SEED, for example, are no longer sites where place-based education is strongly in evidence. When place-based practitioners move on to other schools or retire, their efforts to link schools to communities and place often go with them. Or when external funding encouraging the adoption of place-based education ends, so does the incorporation of these approaches in most classrooms.
Second, in an era of high stakes tests and accountability tied to broader neoliberal educational reforms, many teachers view place-based educational approaches as too risky and unpredictable to incorporate into their own pedagogy. John Huckle and Arjen Wals encountered something similar in their examination of the impact of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainability.47 Regardless of the gravity of environmental concerns and the erosion of democratic practice in many countries, schools globally have restricted their curricular and instructional possibilities in the name of international competitiveness and workforce preparation. Learning experiences aimed at cultivating not easily measurable outcomes (like environmental awareness or civic involvement) will be set aside in the face of district or state requirements regarding students’ performance on standardized exams. A study of two Australian schools in 2013 that had incorporated a strong focus on sustainability issues and place revealed how challenging it can be for administrators and teachers to resist this kind of state agenda.48
Finally, schools can exercise a powerful influence over innovative ideas even when implemented by reshaping them to match the institutions’ dominant concerns and goals. Enacting Greenwood’s vision of critical place-based pedagogy with its emphasis on decolonization and reinhabitation, for example, can be undercut if this approach is simply seen as another instructional methodology that has the capacity to increase student engagement and potential achievement. For this reason, practitioners and researchers would be well advised to keep in mind the three categories of questions Greenwood suggests ought to inform the implementation of place-based education. These include the historical question of what happened here, the socioecological question of what is happening here right now and where do things appear to be headed, and the ethical questions of what should happen here.49 Using such questions as the basis for inquiry and speculation holds the possibility of drawing students into a deeper consideration of their current circumstances and the need to move in more sustainable and humane directions. Rather than simply using the local to increase the relevance of what happens in the classroom, the investigations that Greenwood calls for hold the potential of preparing children and youth to become the informed and caring change agents the future requires. More than an instructional technology, the aims of place-based education are transformational. Whether a mainstream institution like public education can in fact be a vehicle for such transformation remains an open question, but given the gravity of contemporary social, political, and environmental concerns, it seems unwise to disregard the potential impact schools might have on creating a more just and sustainable future.
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(21.) Barnhardt, R. (2008). Creating a place for indigenous knowledge in education. In D. Gruenwald & G. Smith (Eds.), Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity (pp. 113–135). New York: Taylor and Francis.
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(28.) Smith, G. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Kappan, 83(8), 584–594.
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(36.) Bowers, C. A. (2001). Educating for social justice and the commons. Athens: University of Georgia Press; and Bowers, C. A. (2006). Revitalizing the commons: Cultural and educational sites of resistance and affirmation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
(37.) Martusewicz, R., Edmundson, J., & Lupinacci, J. (2014). Ecojustice education: Toward diverse, democratic, and sustainable communities. New York: Routledge.
(38.) Jack Chin, personal communication, 2000.
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(44.) See http://www2/agepp.net/files/Japan_Okayama_Summary_s.pdf for more information.
(45.) Koinis, N. (2016). An evaluation of the Teton science schools’ place-based education professional development workshops for teachers in Bhutan. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Wyoming.
(46.) Information about these schools is gathered from the following websites: Davis Bay Elementary School (http://dbeweb.sd46.bc.ca/); Strawberry Vale Elementary School (https://strawberryvale.sd61.bc.ca/our-school/about-us/); the Environmental School Project of Maple Ridge (http://es.sd42.ca/); Davis Bay Elementary School (http://dbeweb.sd46.bc.ca/); and Northwest Community College (http://www.nwcc.bc.ca/about-us/explore-nwcc/northwest-community-college-mission-statement-and-values).
(47.) Huckle, J., & Wals, A. (2015). The UN decade for sustainable development: Business as usual in the end. Environmental Education Research, 21(3), 491–505.
(48.) Smith, G., & Stevenson, R. (in press). Sustaining education for sustainability. The Journal of Environmental Education.
(49.) Greenwood, D. (2013). A critical theory of place-conscious education. In R. Stevenson, M. Brody, J. Dillon, & A. Wals. (Eds.), International handbook on environmental education (pp. 93–100). New York: Routledge.