by Lucy Clothier

eing a new teacher in this contemporary era of education can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. The demands placed upon teachers are extensive, often lacking clear pathways to achieving these substantial goals. Within the classroom, educators bear the responsibility of nurturing a grade-appropriate understanding of numeracy and literacy in all students, attending to each student’s emotional well-being, fostering open lines of communication with guardians, and so much more. Moreover, amid the hastening climate crisis and transformative technological strides reshaping society, the very structure of education is also changing. Education is moving away from the industrial model of rote memorization and increasingly molding into a 21st century structure concerned with cultivating socially conscious citizens who are able to navigate our rapidly changing world.

To advance these objectives, educators are increasingly turning to the implementation of place-based education (PBE). In essence, this comprehensive pedagogical approach seeks to immerse both students and educators in the richness of their surroundings for learning — seeing education unfold not only in the conventional classroom but from the local community, nature, history, and beyond. This philosophy disrupts the industrialized educational framework and flips it on its head. It suggests that learning is hands on, is reflective of real life, takes place anywhere, and centres the student experience. PBE supports teachers in confronting those classroom concerns while also actively participating in the shifting world. The positive impacts of this pedagogical approach is undeniable. Students feel empowered in their learning and have a heightened affinity for their immediate community. These sentiments, in turn, fosters improvement in academic performance and nurtures adaptive and responsible members of society.

How can a novice educator incorporate place-based education into their teaching practice while managing the myriad of other responsibilities inherent to the role? As a new teacher myself, I embarked on this journey with unwavering enthusiasm, envisioning myself as a proficient place-based educator, guiding my students to become intimately connected with nature and stewards of their community all within my first practicum. However, reality quickly humbled me as the challenges of this profession became more clear. In this article, I aim to dissect the strategies new teachers can employ to integrate PBE into their teaching. I also draw on my own experiences from teaching in a grade 3/4 combined class in the North Vancouver School District for specific ways to utilize these strategies. I hope this helps those interested in PBE to engage with place and see the beautiful rewards from this pedagogical approach.

When you begin your teaching journey, the initial focus often revolves around refining classroom management skills, mastering assessment techniques, and crafting personalized lesson planning approaches. Imposing undue pressure upon oneself to attain instant expertise in PBE is unrealistic. Start small. Begin by weaving locality into your lessons — any effort constitutes commendable progress. For instance, in a language arts poetry lesson, explore the works of community poets who write about the beauty of their neighbourhood. Similarly, in a science class regarding biomes, delve deep into the environment in which your school resides on. This practice enables you to explore diverse ways of merging academic content with local context allowing the effectiveness of this pedagogical approach to unfurl naturally.

Map of haida gwaii

My personal journey with PBE began with modest steps within a third-grade math class. The topic was kilometres, and to explain the concept with real-world relevance, we took a virtual road trip around British Columbia. The classroom came alive with the map of the province, and we collectively measured distances between cities along the major highways. Among our destinations was Haida Gwaii — an archipelago known for its breathtaking natural scenery and historic totem poles crafted by the Haida Nation. At this stop on the map, an unexpected spark ignited. A student’s hand shot up with excitement. When called upon, she began to proudly share about her ancestral ties to the Haida Nation. This students excited monologue prompted a profound lesson on Haida culture. What had initially been a lesson on kilometres transformed into a beautiful testament to the interconnection of place and identity, underscoring the transformative potential of PBE.

2. Restructure the Classroom

As previously explored, PBE represents a departure from traditional educational norms, urging educators to expand their horizons on what education can look like. The physical classroom is not constrained to the four walls of a school. The teacher isn’t the only voice that should be heard within the learning community. Instead, the classroom comes from emergent education that can take place anywhere and students are empowered to speak their minds and help shape their learning community. It’s not only the structure of the classroom but how we build community together.

In order to effectively practice PBE one does not need to completely throw out the traditional organization of the classroom, just be mindful in how you can make little changes. I maintained many elements of a conventional classroom structure, one being organized rows of desks facing the front of the class — this order of desks greatly increased the productivity of the chatty students that I taught. One of the ways I took a PBE perspective in the structure of the classroom was by introducing dynamic changes in seating and special arrangements for specific activities. I orchestrated group work stations, held circle based discussions, and diversified my teaching positions within the room. Beyond the classroom walls I contemplated alternative learning environments by venturing outside for different lessons. A science lesson on energy unfolded on the playground as we discussed kinetic and potential energy in a real-world context. In a geometry lesson, we embarked on a neighbourhood stroll, spotting geometric shapes within our everyday surroundings. Even without curriculum-aligned outdoor sessions, occasional silent reading sessions outdoors offers a refreshing change of scenery. There are countless ways to slightly modify the structure of the classroom to integrate PBE.

Empowering students’ voices stands is a cornerstone of PBE. This tenet prompted me to reflect on the balance between my own voice and the voices of my students within our classroom. An integral facet of cultivating classroom community through a PBE lens involves co-constructing expectations with students. Commencing lessons, I would encourage students to articulate their envisioned expectations. This small act extends beyond expectation setting; it empowers students to become active members of their learning community where their voices are heard and respected. I recognize the value of harmonizing my guidance with their perspectives, nurturing an environment where collaboration and mutual respect thrive.

3. Make Time in Your Schedule

Place-based education is often conceptualized as being integrated across various subjects and curricula. However, the idealized image of a teacher orchestrating flawless synchronized cross-curricular activities that seamlessly connect students’ experience with local knowledge remains somewhat elusive, particularly for beginning teachers. For many students and teachers, PBE remains a novel approach to engagement with education. Infusing this model of learning into conventional subjects can initially feel awkward and disjointed. Allocating dedicated time within the class schedule for PBE offers educators an opportunity to experiment with this pedagogical approach and cultivate a deeper familiarity.

When I began my teaching journey, there were countless PBE activities that I wanted to share with my class, yet I grappled with integrating them into my existing subject areas. It was with this frustration that I opted for a paradigm shift, reserving a portion of each week for PBE specific lessons. My intention was to make space within our schedule for our classroom community to immerse ourselves in place and explore our interconnectedness with the world around us. Within this dedicated time slot, we were able to engage in a PBE unit I had co-created and look more closely at community dynamics, local nature, and historical narratives. Through this focused work our classroom community was able to engage in lessons entered on place that might not have organically found their way into other subject areas.

4. Connecting with Different Aspects of Place

Learning from “place” can be a lofty and abstract notion. The essence of “place” itself is multifaceted and demands a nuanced perspective. The definition of “place” often converges at an intersection of various socio-spatial dimensions. Embracing place in regards to PBE encapsulates geography, history, culture, environment, and lived experience. Given the expansive and intricate nature of place, it proves to be advantageous to deconstruct the specific facets you intent to explore within your classroom. This deliberate segmentation offers a clearer way to navigate the educational potential within your unique community.

For my classroom, I chose to explore place through three distinct facets: community, nature, and local history. Within the dedicated PBE unit that I made time for in our class schedule, we engaged in a range of lessons and activities that corresponded to these three aspects of place. By exploring these segmented ideas of place, I witnessed students make connections of place to other subject areas and aspects of their lives.

To initiate our exploration of community, we began by thinking about the essence of this foundational concept. Through interactive class discussions, students thought about the components that constitute a community. These dialogues nudged students to reflect on their own neighbourhood, fostering a deeper awareness of its elements. As an extension of this lesson, I had students sketch a map of their community to help them reflect on the most important elements of their immediate surroundings. This activity could evolve by having students periodically add to their maps, incorporate envisioned changes to their neighbourhood, or invite students to make out other communities they feel a bond with, such as their places of origin.

In learning about local history, I aimed to take a holistic approach when diving into the history of North Vancouver. Oftentimes we are taught about our nation’s history within school, but rarely are we given a chance to learn about the events that took place within the very place we grew up. With this in mind, we began by learning about the Indigenous land upon which our school resides — the ancestral territory of the Squamish Nation. Acknowledging my role as a non-indigenous educator, I consulted local educational resources to ensure a culturally sensitive approach when teaching about the Squamish Nation. Keeping within these respected guidelines we practiced land acknowledgments, learned greetings and local plant names in the Squamish language, and read stories that relied information about Squamish culture. Our historical lessons continued by tracing the evolution of North Vancouver, particularly explore the role of roads in shaping our present-day city. Learning about local history underscored the integral role of preceding generations in sculpting the very space we inhabit today.

The school where I taught had an incredible forest located in the back of the school grounds. Majestic cedars, nurturing nuts logs, and a tapestry of flora made this space a beautiful area for PBE. Prior to integrating PBE into our schedule, outdoor time primarily served as an outlet for expending energy. Reconfiguring students’ perception of nature from merely a recreational space to a place of profound learning took much time and patience. We began by introducing ourselves to our natural neighbours by learning about local flora and fauna. Land acknowledgments and learning Squamish language for local plants further enriched these lessons. We also embraced the practice of “sit spots,” wherein students immersed themselves within specific areas of the forest — an embodiment of a quintessential PBE approach.

5. Teaching as a Student

PBE embodies the idea that you, the educator, are a fellow learner alongside your students. Embrace the notion that you are continually evolving and gaining insights beside your students. Be attuned to the lessons that unfold through community interactions and remain receptive to the wisdom your students impart within your shared learning space. Embrace humility by acknowledging that you do not know everything and that your knowledge may be limited. This opens is fundamental, for your journey as an educator mirrors the lifelong pursuit of learning you seek to cultivate in your students.

Stepping into the role of a new teacher in this ever evolving educational landscape can feel overwhelming. The path is marked by missteps, pedagogical uncertainties, and self-doubt. Yet, these challenges are juxtaposed by moments of fulfillment by witnessing your students’ responses to your dedication to transformative education. My journey with PBE has encompassed all of those complicated feelings. As I continue on this teaching journey I promise to continue to explore, reflect, and experiment. I promise to teach as though I am a student and embrace the idea that the world itself is my classroom.


The following articles are some of my most treasured Place-Based Education resources that help guide my understanding and practice.

Smith, G. (2002). Place-Based Education: learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan.

Sobel, D. (2004). Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities (2nd ed.). Vermont: Orion Society.
Sobel, D. (1999). Beyond Ecophobia (Vol. 1). : Nature Literary Series.

What is Place-Based Education and Why Does it Matter? Getting Smart.

Lucy Clothier is a newly certified teacher who has just spent the past year sailing the coast of California and teaching online. She is looking forward to starting a new chapter of teaching at the Sea to Sky School District in British Columbia this fall.