Place-Based Education Pedagogy


Over the past several years, there has been increased interest in designing curriculum that is rooted it place-based pedagogy (Fien, 1993; Bowers, 2001; Smith, 2002; Theobald and Curtiss, 2000; Theobald, 1997; Tanner, 1998). Despite this intersest, mainstream education policies remain rooted in generalized –or – universialized curriculum that is void of a reference to a specific place or community (Gruenewald, 2008).

Situating course curriculum within a place-based model has proven to be a successful teaching model for Native students (Cajete, 1994), which constitute the majority of our students at Northwest Indian College (NWIC). The success of this model is directly linked to what Native scholar, Galindo (2009), suggests is the abilty to link the heart and the head through educational practice. In addition, situating course content within the context of embettering ones own community strikes the core values and mission of NWIC:

Through education, Northwest Indian College promotes indegeous self-determination and knowledge.

In the text below, I define place-based education and describe how teaching curriculum from the place we call home (or taking the “frogs eye view” rather than the “birds eye view”) is a successful model for our student population.

What is place-based education

Several distinctive characteristics can be used to describe to this developing field of practice:

(a) it emerges from the particular attributes of place,

(b) it is inherently multidisciplinary,

(c) it is inherently experiential,

(d) it is reflective of an educational philosophy that is broader than “learning to earn”, and

(e) it connects place with self and community.

– Woodhouse and Knapp (2000)

Place as radical in education

Perhaps the most revolutionary characteristic of place-based education is that it emerges from the particular attributes of place. On first brush, this idea may seem far from revolutionary. However, a survey of standardized educational curricula reveals that current educational discourses seek to standardize the experience of students from diverse geographical and cultural places so that they may compete in the global economy. As Gruenewald (2008: 314) notes, “such a goal essentially dismisses the idea of place as a primary experiential or educational context, displaces it with traditional disciplinary content and technological skills, and abandons places to the workings of the global market”.

The study of places can help increase student engagement and understanding through multidisciplinary, experiential, and intergenerational learning that is not only relevant but potentially contributes to the well-being of community life (Gruenewald, 2002; Haas & Nachtigal, 1998; Smith, 2002; Theobald & Curtiss, 2000). This model does not compromise the importance of content and skills, but rather enhances the curriculum through student engagement in community life and focus on content that is meaningful for our students.

In general, place-based educators advocate for a classroom experience that relates directly to student experience of the world, and that improves the quality of life for people and communities (Gruenewald, 2008). This is of important particularly for Native American and Alaska Native students who have the lowest rate of graduation from higher education than other ethnic groups in the United States (Bigfoot, 2008; Galindo, 2009). In short, the ability to link content to values; content to culture; and content to community significantly increases the students’ engagement in class material.

Tools and Strategies

Teaching from a “frogs-eye-view”

Place-based education can be conducted through a variety of methods in a range of disciplines. For example, the curriculum for the class, Biology and Natural History of Salish Sea Basin – a required class for all incoming students at NWIC – is entirely based on place. That is, the content is linked to the local mountain ranges, local streams, and local environmental issues. As the students gain understanding of wider ecological and biological processes, they are able to link it the course content to the physical place they call home.

This class has a field component that supports the exploration and understandingof place. Every chapter has a supporting field excursion (to the sea, to the mountains, to the streams, etc) that allows the students to contextualize the curriculum. In addition, the course includes a service component that allows students to “give back” to their community and apply their knowledge. This project is usually paired with a local organization involved in habitat restoration projects whose primary aim is to enhance salmon populations. This project works both for the heart and head of our students (as salmon is of considerable cultural significance as well as economic importance).


Place – based education has become widely accepted in environmentally-oriented courses. However, this model has potential for much wider applications. All disciplines have the potential of engaging this model to help students strengthen the link between community and education. For Native American and Alaska Native communities, this pedagogical tool has a tremendous potential to enhance the students’ classroom experience and increase retention.


For more information on place – based education, please see the following references:

Bigfoot, D.S. (2008) American Indian and Alaska Native children and youth: Child welfare and trauma: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Available: http:

Bowers, C. A. (1995) Educating for an ecologically sustainable culture: Rethinking moral education, creativity, intelligence, and other modern orthodoxies State University of New York Press, Albany

Bowers, C. A. (2001) Educating for eco-justice and community The University of Georgia Press, Athens

Cajete, G. (1994) Look to the mountain: An ecology of indigenous education Kivaki Press, Durango, CO

Fien, J. (ed) (1993) Environmental education: A pathway to sustainability Deakin University, Geelong, Australia

Galindo, E. (2009) Compassion: A Hearts-on Paradigm for Transitioning Native America Students into a STEM University Environment. The Journal of Mathematics and Culture 4(1): 1 -22.

Gruenewald, David A. (2008) The best of both worlds: a critical pedagogy of place. Environmental Education research. 14(3): 308 – 324.

Haas, T., and P. Nachtigal. 1998. Place value. Charleston, WV: ERIC Press.

Knapp, C. (1996) Just beyond the classroom ERIC Press, Charleston, WV

McLaren, P. (1997) Revolutionary multiculturalism: Pedagogies of dissent for the new millennium Westview Press , Boulder, CO

Simon, R. (1987) Empowerment as a pedagogy of possibility. Language Arts 64:4

Smith, G. (2002) Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan 83 , pp. 584-594.

Smith, G. and Williams, D. (1999) Ecological education in action: On weaving education, culture, and the environment State University of New York Press , Albany

Sobel, D. (1996) Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education The Orion Society and The Myrin Institute , Great Barrington, MA

Submitted by Emma Norman, April 2010

Tanner, T. (ed) (1998) Significant life experiences [Special issue]. Environmental Education Research 4, no. 4

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