Place-based Education:

Listening to the Language of the Land and the People

By Clifford E. Knapp,
Professor Emeritus, Northern Illinois University

The intersection of place and education has occupied much of my teaching even though this field has not always been called place-based education. I began my career in 1961 as a high school science teacher. When I took my students outside to plant and identify trees, build nature trails, and predict weather, I described what we did as outdoor education. In 1972 when I taught seventh grade science we took field trips to the local water and sewage treatment plant, a geology museum, and a forest to study tree management practices. I described this as environmental education. Before I retired from teaching in 2001 as a professor in the Teaching and Learning Department of Northern Illinois University, I took my graduate students to a local bookstore to learn about its role in the community, on a walk in the business district to study architectural styles, and to an arboretum to observe tree damage from pollution. Only then, did I describe this way of teaching as place-based education.

In all three of these examples, I used the place and people in the community as living textbooks to teach parts of the curriculum that were best learned in context through direct experiences. I did this because I believed in experiential education and knew these people and places were the best teachers. The places in these communities were strong factors in my choices of what and how to teach. I viewed the curriculum through a lens that magnified opportunities to involve my students in authentic and engaging interactions with a more expansive classroom. Place-based education is an old idea and at the same time it is a new term and movement that evolved from its predecessors. This modern approach to teaching incorporates the best of the best practices, as educators understand them today.

David Sobel (2004) a pioneer in the field, described the term as “the pedagogy of community, the reintegration of the individual into her homeground and the restoration of the essential links between a person and her place” (p. ii). The first time the term was used in the United States was in his book and on a cover designed by The Orion Society (1998). Over time, place/education approaches have sported different names. This idea of teaching about the local environment has been called nature study (Wilson, 1916), bioregional education (Traina & Darley-Hill, 1995), ecological education (Smith & Williams, 1999), environment as an integrating context for learning (EIC) (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998), a pedagogy of place (Hutchison, 2004), and community-based education (Smith & Sobel, 2010). More recent names include contextual teaching and learning (Sears, 2002), watershed education (Michael, 2003) and life-place education (Berg, 2004). Another emerging synonym is environment-based learning.

All of these terms describe programs demonstrating how local places contribute to curriculum and instruction in schools and other educational institutions. Sometimes other descriptors are used to explain why extending education into the community is simply a good teaching technique. For example, in an article appearing in the Harvard Educational Review in 1967 the authors labeled their plan for school reform “a proposal for education in community” (Newmann and Oliver, 1967, pp. 95-101). The school building was where teachers planned, set objectives, and taught basic literacy skills to students. They went into the community to visit factories, art studios, hospitals, libraries and other laboratories to generate learning. The third part of their proposal was the in-school seminar where local “experts” helped students reflect on and apply what they learned in the community laboratories. In that same year the National Council for the Social Studies (Collings, 1967) issued a publication titled, How To Utilize Community Resources. It was designed to help teachers learn from their communities. In 1970 the National Science Foundation funded a curriculum project titled, Environmental Studies for Urban Youth (ES). “The student determines and investigates whatever is of interest to him within the available learning environment, both inside and outside the classroom” (Romey, 1972, p. 322).

Naming or labeling a teaching method or philosophy may make the idea easier to communicate to others, although it sometimes creates confusion about what that term really means. Jonathan Sime cautions: “The concept of place is reaching the early stages of academic maturity. Undoubtedly, there are confusions in the way the concept is used at present” (In Hutchinson, 2004, p. 12). This article defines place-based education, pedagogy of place, and sense of place. It gives examples of different types of educational programs having common characteristics at their core and explains why place-based education is an important educational reform. To provide historical perspective, I describe the Progressive Education reform movement in the United States, Great Britain, and other countries about 100 years ago. Finally, I compare that movement with the place-based education movement of today. My hope is to provide useful information, but mostly I want to stimulate your curiosity by raising questions. Niels Bohr, atomic physicist, told his students, “Every sentence that I utter should be regarded by you not as an assertion but as a question” (In Klose, 2009, p. 768). My hope is that my words will help you connect to places through a greater understanding of their educational potential.

Looking Back at Place-based Learning
Long ago, before schools were invented to educate the young, children learned from their families and from others in their communities. If they wanted to learn a trade, they apprenticed and were taught by a skilled master. If they wanted to cook, sew, and clean, they gained these skills from their parents. Comenius (1592-1670), an educational reformer, wrote: “We should learn as much as possible, not from books, but from the great book of Nature, from heaven and earth, from oaks and beeches” (In Quick, 1890, p. 77). Rousseau (1712-1778), a Swiss/French philosopher, believed: “His [the ideal boy’s] ideas are confined, but clear; he knows nothing by rote, but a great deal by experience. If he reads less well than another child in our books, he reads better in the book of nature” (In Quick, 1890, p. 118). Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a teacher from Zurich Switzerland stated, “nature offers the succession of impressions to the child’s senses without any regular order” (In Quick, 1890, p. 184). Throughout the history of schooling many educational reformers advocated for direct experiences in the community as a way to improve how students learned important knowledge. Later, when schools were established, instruction became more separated from the community and less experiential and practical educators today continue to offer school reform proposals in hopes of finding better ways to teach and learn.

The Progressive Education Movement
Public education has long been a contested arena in societies around the world. People continue to hold different views about how to educate students and what is important for them to know. When people become discontented with how schooling is conducted, they suggest educational reform. In the United States, beginning as early as the 1870s (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995), a new progressive movement challenged the way students were educated. Critics did not like the way meaningless routines, rote memory, long recitations, regimentation, and passive learning characterized traditional education. There is no agreement on the exact dates of the progressive reform movement in the United States, but most historians agree that it flourished from the 1890s to the 1930s (Hines, in Squire, 1972). The Progressive Education Association was founded in 1919 and disbanded in 1955. Progressive Education was not a unified movement. At least three types were identified: 1) “child-centered, or children’s interest and needs approach”, 2) “the creative values approach”, and 3) “the social-reconstructionist approach” (Hines in Squire, 1972, p. 118).

John Dewey was one of the leading proponents of the child-centered approach in the United States. He also was known outside the country through his books, articles, and lectures. He promoted experiential education: “Experience [outside the school] has its geographical aspect, its artistic and its literary, its scientific and its historical sides. All studies arise from aspects of the one earth and the one life lived upon it” (1915, p. 91). He also wrote, “The teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational, etc., in order to utilize them as educational resources” (1938, p. 40). Dewey outlined some common principles found in progressive schools: 1) promoting expression and cultivation of individuality (as opposed to imposition from above), 2) nurturing freedom of activity (as opposed to external discipline), 3) learning mainly through experience (as opposed to texts and teachers), 4) acquiring meaningful skills (as opposed to drill), 5) using the learning opportunities of present life (as opposed to preparation for a remote future), and 6) adapting to a changing world (as opposed to static aims and materials) (Macdonald, in Squire, 1972, p. 2). Progressive educators viewed the curriculum as ecological and linked to the broader community. Therefore it included what happened there as well as in the school building.

Whenever theoretical principles of a movement are briefly outlined like this, opportunities for misinterpretations are likely. This was true in the case of Dewey’s message and in much of the Progressive Education movement. Advocates for this movement point out how Dewey and other progressive educators were misunderstood (Squire, 1972; Wang, 2007; Tanner, 1997; Lauderdale, 1981). Because many educators interpreted Progressive Education differently and they discovered that implementing the theory and practice took hard work, the movement eventually lost power in the mainstream and was replaced by more traditional and abstract ways – mostly by transmitting knowledge through lectures and the written word. Progressivism never died out completely; it moved outside in the form of outdoor and experiential education (Knapp, 1994). In some cases, it re-emerged in schools (especially some private and charter schools) and nature centers. Some educators continue to implement progressive educational methods because they recognize that their students respond well to them. Do you know teachers and schools that could be called progressive today?

A Crisis of Place?
Why is a pedagogy of place important for educators to understand and implement? Some believe that today’s youth, especially in Western societies, are missing important connections to their surroundings. Phillip Sheldrake (2001) refers to this problem as a crisis of place characterized by “a sense of rootlessness, dislocation or displacement” (p. 2). Bill McKibben (1993) called this alienation from nature, rapid globalization, and loss of skills needed for self-sufficiency “a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information” (p. 9). Laurie Lane-Zucker (as cited in Sobel, 2004) calls for a “fundamental reimagining of the ethical, economic, political, and spiritual foundations upon which society is based, and . . . this process needs to occur within the context of a deep local knowledge of place” (pp. i-ii). In a study of primary school children’s knowledge of natural and non-natural objects in the United Kingdom, the researchers found that after age 8, children could recognize more Pokemon characters than common local wildlife (Senauer, p. 7). “Few American schoolchildren can name more than a few of the plants or birds in their own neighborhoods, yet studies have shown the average American child can identify over one thousand corporate logos” (Michael, 2003, p. xii). Another indicator of “missing information” from today’s student knowledge base is that a recent edition of the Oxford Junior dictionary omitted many words related to nature. The following words have disappeared from the pages: dandelion, stork, otter, magpie, beaver, doe, minnow, wren and porcupine. They have been removed to make room for new words such as blog, broadband, and chatroom (River of Words personal e-mail communication, 2009). If you believe that today’s youth are in crisis by lacking connections to their local community, you may want to implement a pedagogy of place in your schools. One response to this crisis of place was the formation of the Children & Nature Network in 2006. Co-founders Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, (2008) and Cheryl Charles, former director of two leading environmental curriculum supplements (Project Learning Tree and Project WILD), led the way. Now the network is a strong force in promoting nature activities to combat “nature-deficit disorder” in the United States and Canada. I have attended the group’s national gatherings and find great energy and enthusiasm there.

A Pedagogy of Place
David Orr (1992) gives four reasons to integrate place into the educational curriculum. First, the study of a place requires teaching through “direct observation, investigation, experimentation, and application of knowledge” (p. 128). Experiential learning capitalizes on the rich content found in specific places. Problem-based learning in the context of place investigations has been shown to engage students actively and increase their understanding of required concepts. “Second, the study of place is relevant to the problems of overspecialization, which has been called a terminal disease of contemporary civilization” (Orr, 1992, p. 129). In other words, place involves the study of many interrelated disciplines. Place-based education demonstrates how knowledge from various content areas is needed to understand place at an ecological level. This is how learning originally occurred before educators divided up knowledge into separate and often unrelated compartments. Third, the study of place gives rise to many significant projects that serves to improve policy and practice in communities. These activities leading to more sustainable community practices can promote policy change related to “food, energy, architecture, and waste” (Orr, 1992, p. 129). Fourth, some view the destruction of local community life as a “source of the instability, disintegration and restlessness which characterize the present epoch” (Orr, 1992, p. 130). The study of place can serve to reeducate people in the art of living well where they are. To be an inhabitant there means a person who dwells “in an intimate, organic, and mutually nurturing relationship with a place” (Orr, 1992, p. 130). Do you know students who have a close relationship to where they live? Implementing a pedagogy of place enables educators to plan the instructional programs that spring from within the contexts of local areas.

A Sense of Place
My earliest contact with the concept of a sense of place came in the early 1970s from the artist Alan Gussow speaking at a conference. He described a place as a piece of the whole environment that was claimed by feelings (1974). This made sense because I learned best when I felt attracted to the content and saw it as meaningful to my life. I can remember special places from my childhood – the sandy beaches at the Atlantic Ocean, school athletic fields, a children’s camp, and the lakes and streams where I fished. I had feelings of excitement, joy, satisfaction, and security there. These places shaped my sense of self and eventually led to my career as a place-based educator. I agree with Hug’s (1998) definition that a “sense of place is the meaning, attachment, and affinity (conscious or unconscious) that individuals or groups create for a particular geographic space through their lived experiences associated with that space” (p. 79). Albert Camus described it this way: “Sense of place is not just something that people know and feel, it is something people do” (In Basso, 1996, p. 143). In order to have a strong sense of place a person has to been actively engaged in those places doing something important. This “doing” needs to raise a person’s level of awareness to a point that changes a person’s view of the place. How has your personal identity been influenced by the places you’ve been?

The idea of a sense of place is difficult to quantify, just like a sense of joy, sense of community, or sense of wonder are. However, this does not mean that the concept is not important. My sense of place is strong if I experience many positive feelings somewhere and it is weak if I feel disconnected to that place. However, there is a downside to being closely attuned to a place. If you move away or that place is harmed or destroyed you might feel sad or angry. When I was a child, I walked to school on a familiar path through a vacant lot of trees. I came to love some of the plants growing there, especially a plant called skunk cabbage. When that land was sold and a house built there, I felt a deep sense of loss and sadness. My special plant and path were gone. Losing a special place happened to me again as an adult. I live along a tree-lined river in my town. For years, I walked there to find peace and relaxation. I even built a trail and invited the community to share nature with me. I had fallen in love with that place because of the good feelings I found there. When the park district bulldozed the trees, leveled the land, and placed stone riprap on the shore, I felt another sense of loss of landscape. Whenever I go there I know my sense of place is violated. Have you ever lost a special place that had claimed your feelings?

Place and the Disciplines of Study
Disciplinary content in the study of place extends beyond art and education. According to Philip Sheldrake (2001) “place has become a significant theme in a wide range of writing including philosophy, cultural history, anthropology, human geography, architectural theory and contemporary literature” (p. 2). To this list Hutchinson (2004) added psychology and urban planning. Because place-based education includes many disciplines, it is well suited to being incorporated into much of the school curriculum. Gregory Smith (2002) described five different thematic patterns or models of place-based education in American schools. The first model, Cultural Studies, focuses on collecting information about the people living in an area. Students can interview these people and then write about their lives. The Foxfire program, begun in Georgia in 1966 by a high school English teacher, is one example of this model (Hatton, 2005). Many of these interviews and photographs became part of the Foxfire book series published by a major New York publishing company.

The second model, Nature Studies, emphasizes investigations of local natural phenomena. These studies lead to conservation and restoration projects to improve the local environment. Whenever one or more teachers in a school plan to teach students about their ecological addresses as well as their home addresses, they create a more knowledgeable citizenry. One example of this model is River of Words in Moraga, California (Michael, 2003). One project of this non-profit organization is promoting an international poetry and art contest for youth each year.

The third model, Real-world Problem Solving, involves the identification of community problems and issues. These problems and issues result from the clash between culture and nature. The student projects include learning about biology, physics, psychology, mathematics, economics, politics, and other subjects. One example of this model is promoted by Harold Hungerford and his colleagues at Southern Illinois University (Hungerford, Litherland, Peyton, Ramsey, & Volk 1996). Designed for middle school students (ages 10-14), this program helps students learn the steps for dealing with controversial place-based topics in the region.

The fourth model, Internships and Entrepreneurial Opportunities, explores the economic options available to students. Students examine various vocational possibilities by shadowing employees in local businesses or by taking on service learning assignments. The fifth model, Induction into Community Processes, allows students to become more involved in the life of the community’s decision-making processes by learning how local government works. By partnering with those agencies responsible for the day-to-day operations of a community, students become more engaged and responsible citizens. Smith’s five models show that place-based curricular reform takes several different forms. He identified some common elements in all models: 1) surrounding phenomena are the foundation for developing the curriculum; 2) students become creators of knowledge more than consumers of knowledge created by others; 3) students’ questions and concerns play a central role in what is studied; 4) teachers act primarily as “brokers” for connecting students to learning possibilities in the community; 5) separation between the community and school is minimized; and 6) assessment is based on how student work contributes to the well-being and sustainability of the community.

Implementing Place-based Education
It may be useful to envision what might happen if teachers or entire school staffs decide to implement place-based education. What might that look like in the lives of students, teachers, and administrators? All of these projections are based on some empirical studies, anecdotal evidence and my experience, but clearly more research is needed. For more information about the benefits of place-based education, I recommend reading Andrew Kemp’s (2006) chapter, “Engaging the environment: A case for a place-based curriculum” (pp. 125-142). Another reference is fact sheet #2 available from the University of Colorado at Denver ( Smith and Sobel’s book, Place- and Community-based Education in Schools (2010) gives a powerful rational for implementing this approach in schools.

The most obvious outcome of a well-taught place-based curriculum is that students develop a strong sense of place for where they live. They feel rooted and connected there. They know the history of their place and discover where to find beauty as well as blight. They have a better sense of their personal identities because there is a positive relationship between knowing your place and knowing yourself. Students grasp how the community officials make decisions affecting their daily lives. They also know more about the critical issues facing the local government and may get involved in some of them. Students become aware of their own ecological ethic and want to take steps to maintain the community’s sustainability into the future. They demonstrate a reverence for life and a love of nature and are motivated to care for local ecosystems. They want to learn more about their place because they experience the joy and satisfaction of learning relevant concepts, skills, and values. They find many opportunities to apply the concepts, skills and values learned at school. Students improve as team members as more and more community projects are completed cooperatively. They are able to move between the school building and the rest of the community with greater ease and confidence.

Because of the students’ enthusiastic responses to learning, teachers look forward to going to school each day. Teachers notice that their classroom climate has improved as a result of a curriculum that engages students. Teachers realize that the students are retaining information learned in meaningful contexts and scores on certain tests and other indicators are slowly rising. Teachers look better in the eyes of their administrators and receive more acknowledgements. They realize that students are learning about their place through a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, science, history, government, language, art, music, and physical education. Teachers are able to teach their students about higher order executive functions (habits of mind) such as asking better questions, critically analyzing, problem solving, and evaluating their own thinking processes through lessons about place. They set textbooks aside in favor of learning through direct experiences and new information found in the community. They lecture less and let the places and the residents do more of the teaching. Their main role is to facilitate learning more than transmit knowledge. Teachers gain confidence in their ability to build challenging curriculum from the rich contexts in their community and surrounding region. They feel like creative and innovative educators and not mere technicians of a scripted curriculum.

If all of these transformations became visible in students and teachers, school administrators will be deeply satisfied. They will receive frequent praise from parents and other members of the community for running a successful school. They will boast to their fellow administrators about a school reform that works. The positive school climate will reflect a healthy place to be. Place-based education will have contributed to helping the school fulfill its critical role in the community.

Theologian and geologian, Thomas Berry (2006) wrote: “Two things are needed to guide our judgment and sustain our psychic energies for the challenges ahead: a certain alarm at what is happening at present and a fascination with the future available to us if only we respond creatively to the urgencies of the present” (p. 17). I hope that you share some of the alarm I feel about today’s youth becoming alienated from their local natural and cultural worlds and will respond to the urgencies of the present with plans to teach more about your local places.


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Cliff Knapp is a professor emeritus from Northern Illinois University. This means that he has time to attend conferences, teach workshops, carve wood, read books, travel and become a better husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather to his family. He can be contacted at

This article appeared in Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education. (Fall, 2012). Vol. 25, No. 1. Pp. 4-12