Book Review: Place-based Education

Book Review: Place-based Education

Enlivening Students


by Gregory A. Smith


Review of Sarah Anderson’s, Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (Lanham, Massachusetts: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)

or the past two decades, books and articles written by place- and community-based advocates have been largely focused on defining and justifying an alternative approach to teaching and learning grounded in local knowledge and issues with the aim of inducting children into a sense of community participation and responsibility. This literature was largely exhortatory rather than prescriptive. It did not often provide interested teachers with detailed guidelines about how to move from a broad vision to the challenge of creating and enacting curriculum and instruction not limited by either textbooks or even classrooms. These advocates asked teachers to be courageous and take risks, trusting in their capacity to experiment and learn from their failures and successes. And many teachers across the United States and elsewhere became early adopters of this approach, willing to embrace those challenges and risks. As place- and community-based education enters its third decade, however, something more is needed to make its implementation appealing and understandable to a broader group of educators. Sarah Anderson’s Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum (2017) provides exactly the kind of guidance required to accomplish this end.

Anderson is a former student of David Sobel, one of the early advocates of this approach. For the past dozen years she has embraced what she learned while studying with him first as a middle-school teacher and now as the fieldwork coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon. Anderson’s work is especially powerful because of her concern about citizenship education and democratic practice. Place-based educators often focus primarily on providing students with immersive experiences in nature without necessarily engaging them in the cultural understandings, conflicts, problem-solving, and negotiation that accompany life in civil society. This is not to diminish the importance of those immersive experiences—which can be central to the development of a strong environmental ethic—but in themselves not enough to give young people the confidence or savvy required to become engaged community actors. Anderson’s work exemplifies how this can happen and how schools and communities can truly “get better together.”1

Her volume provides multiple examples of lessons and units she or the teachers she works with have developed and taught. Chapters describe ways that students can use maps to learn about their place, contribute to its human and environmental health through community science, learn directly about local history, partner with nearby agencies and organizations, explore the way different subject areas can be integrated to deepen knowledge and understanding, and develop a sense of connection with and empathy for one another and people beyond the school. The three chapters about mapping, citizen science, and local history provide detailed descriptions of units interested but uncertain teachers could profit from as they begin to incorporate local possibilities into their own work with students; they will be the focus of the remainder of this review.

Maps offer not only a good way to introduce children to their own place but to think about “What is where, why there, why care?”2 They naturally lead students to observe, collect data, and make inferences. At the Cottonwood School maps are integrated into the learning experiences of children at all grade levels. Early in the school year as a welcoming activity, everyone is invited to create and share personal maps of things special to them in their bedroom, home, neighborhood, or someplace away from home. Kindergarteners through second graders then create maps of their classroom and playground, sometimes using blocks and unix cubes to illustrate a space. Third graders map the school focusing on specific features such as sound. Fourth through sixth graders create maps to scale of neighborhood features such as parks and then compare and contrast in writing the data presented in their maps. Sixth graders map nearby features of their own choosing. They walk through the South Waterfront neighborhood and record the location of things like K9 restrooms (fire hydrants), bike racks, and food carts. They then create a formal illustrated map with compass roses and borders (and sometimes sea serpents in the Willamette River) to represent what they have found. Seventh and eighth graders go further afield and focus on the city and state. Given a map of the city’s boundaries and different districts, they identify major bodies of water, traffic routes, and one personally significant place in each district. This leads into a more extensive exercise in which they choose one data set to map. Possibilities include population, temperature levels during a heat wave, city parks, or the location of Starbucks coffee shops. They are encouraged to think about who has access to which resources by comparing demographic maps that focus on race and ethnicity. Maps offer a way to synthesize disparate but related information as well as integrate a variety of subject matter.

The school’s incorporation of community science offers similar opportunities to link lessons to students’ lives and create learning experiences that allow for observation, analysis, and curricular integration. Community science involves identifying local phenomena or issues worthy of study and action and linking these topics to the Next Generation Science Standards. One year, seventh- and eighth-graders identified the problem of animal waste in the neighborhood as an issue they wanted to explore and investigate. As they ventured beyond the school for a variety of learning activities, they found nearby sidewalks both hazardous and smelly. They decided to do something about it. Their teacher divided the class into teams who performed different tasks: one counted all of the pet waste in a six-block radius, another researched the environmental toxins found in dog poop, a third team investigated Portland laws regarding the regulation of pet waste, and a fourth researched similar laws in other cities. Once students had all of this information in hand, they analyzed what they had found and brainstormed possible solutions. They then wrote letters to public officials recommending that the city provide more public education about this problem and enact bigger fines for people who violated laws already on the books. Their letters resulted in a meeting with officials in city hall, and their ideas were incorporated into a “petiquette” campaign that the city had already begun planning. Extended units like these offers students a chance to systematically explore a topic, do so in ways that allow them to see its relevance to their own lives, and then make a contribution to the broader community. Such experiences match the call by framers of the NGSS to apply scientific concepts and practices to real life circumstances.

One of Anderson’s talents lies in her capacity to find ways to make the study of history local, as well. The third grade curriculum, for example, includes a focus on Native Americans. As part of that study, students visited the Oregon Historical Society, Portland State University’s Department of Archeology, and a traditional Chinook longhouse at Ridgefield, a National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State less than an hour from the city. Returning to the school, they transformed their classroom into a longhouse with a “fire pit” in the middle of the room. They also participated in PSU’s Archeology Roadshow where after having learned about the characteristics of meaningful exhibits at the Oregon Museum of Science Industry, they created a longhouse model and became the only K-12 students to share their work at an event otherwise populated with much older presenters. The opportunity to be involved with people beyond the school at PSU or City Hall demonstrates to children that they are as much citizens as anyone else in their community, lending them both a level of confidence and a sense of responsibility too absent in the education of this country’s future adults.

Learning experiences like these are deeply engaging for students. Furthermore, they demonstrate to community members the capacity of children to make genuine contributions to their common life.   Anderson’s book offers a useful and inspiring roadmap for other educators interested in realizing this vision of place-based education themselves.

1 Tagline for the Rural School and Community Trust, an organization that grew out of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, the first national effort in the 1990s aimed at disseminating the possibilities of place-based education.
2 In Brian Baskerville’s 2013 article, “Becoming Geographers: An Interview about Geography with Geographer Dr. Charles Gritzner (


Gregory Smith is a professor emeritus of the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He has written numerous articles and books about environmental and place- and community-based education. He is a fellow of the National Education Policy Center at UC-Boulder, a member of the education advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools, and a board member of the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science.


Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction


Reviewed by Mike Weilbacher

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt. 319 pp. $28

We inhabit an extraordinary planet overflowing with an abundance of life: massive coral reefs built by billions of tiny invertebrates, rain forests teeming with uncountable plants and animals, frogs and toads singing in vernal ponds, bats flitting over summer meadows.

But we also live at an extraordinary moment when all of the creatures named above, and millions more, might disappear in our lifetime. And while climate change gets all the attention as an environmental game-changer, the loss of biological diversity, the burning of the Tree of Life, has too quietly slipped below the cultural radar screen.
Until now. Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the acclaimed Field Notes From a Catastrophe about climate change, has just published the definitive book on the biodiversity crisis. It is a must-read for every citizen of this planet.

As a science writer and reporter, Kolbert has few peers. Just as she did so effectively in Field Notes, Kolbert travels to the front lines of the issue, visiting the biodiversity hotspots you might expect, such as the Amazon rain forest and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But she also mixes in a ton of surprises, and much of the joy of the book is discovering where she ends up next: an Icelandic museum to visit a stuffed great auk, the last of which vanished in the 1840s, or the “Frozen Zoo,” a California lab that cryogenically stores cells from nearly a thousand species of extinct and nearly extinct species.

Kolbert begins in Panama, where she walks alongside scientists frantically searching for vanishing frogs, too quickly succumbing to a little-understood fungus. Frogs are amphibians, a group that “enjoy[s] the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals.” While creatures have always vanished throughout geological history, the natural extinction rate is incredibly small; amphibians, Kolbert reports, are now disappearing at a rate 45,000 times higher than normal.

The book also travels through the human understanding of extinction; these early chapters alone are worth the price of admission. She traces the history of extinction itself, the title alluding to five previous, natural, very large extinction events. The last big extinction occurred when that now-famous asteroid smashed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, wiping out T. rex and maybe two-thirds of all life on Earth; she walks us through the science that painstakingly led to the theory, then covers the ensuing debate.

How bad is the sixth extinction? “It is estimated,” she observes, “that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of all sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” That bad.

While extinction is natural, her book’s subtitle signals her impatience with anyone declaring the sixth extinction “natural.” Never before has one species so rearranged the planet, or so greatly altered the planet’s chemistry and biology, that so many creatures could die out. “This time,” one scientist says ominously, “we are the asteroid.”
The toughest part of the book is its last two chapters, where she visits not only the Frozen Zoo, but also the Neander Valley in Germany to see where fossils of our cave cousins – a separate human species that once lived alongside us – were discovered in 1856. Turns out that Homo sapiens likely killed off Neanderthals while, at the same time, intermingling with them (lots of us still carry Neanderthal genes). But “man the wise,” as our Latin name translates, seems to have been foolishly killing off life from Day 1. From Ice Age mastodons 10,000 years ago to flightless moas in New Zealand killed off in the 1400s, extinction has trailed in our wake for millennia.

We are burning tropical rain forests, poaching animals such as elephants and rhinos beyond their capacity to recover, and introducing invasive species everywhere (10,000 different species carried in ship ballast every single day worldwide). But the sixth extinction also has more subtle causes: Overheating the atmosphere with carbon dioxide changes land habitats, but also affects oceans, now acidifying from the excess carbon. Acidifying oceans are killing off coral – and possibly one-third of all ocean life as it does. The sixth extinction has multiple causes, but we are at the root of each.

Her last chapter, titled “The Thing with Feathers,” alludes to Emily Dickinson’s famous poem about hope, and she struggles to end on a hopeful note. “Though it might be nice to imagine there was once a time when man lived in harmony with nature,” she concludes “it’s not clear that he ever really did.”
Our “enduring legacy,” she ends, will be the sixth extinction.
The language of the Earth is losing nouns, names being plucked from the landscape: little brown bat, golden toad, Sumatran rhinoceros, Guam rail. While the book is not intended as a call to action, I hope its readers will rally around the burning Tree of Life, and agree that the preservation of this language is our highest calling, the necessary work of our time.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, an island of biological diversity in Philadelphia. He can be reached at

Book Review: A Pedagogy of Place

Book Review: A Pedagogy of Place


What is Outside of Outdoor Education? Becoming Responsive to Other Places

By David A. Greenwood

A review of Wattchow, B. & Brown, M.
(2011). A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World.
Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Press.

As someone who follows the literature around place and education, and who is always curious to see how diverse educators and learners around the planet learn from diverse places, I was very interested to read Brian Wattchow (Australia) and Mike Brown’s (New Zealand) book, A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World (2011). While it does not significantly address the local/global tensions inherent in contemporary place study (Heise, 2008; Nespor, 2008), this book represents a major contribution to the place-conscious educational literature. It is one of the first book-length inquiries in the genre that effectively blends theory and practice, cultural and ecological contexts, as well as personal and professional perspectives. Wattchow and Brown write with authority and affection about the places in Australia and New Zealand that they love and that they continue to learn from through their work as seasoned outdoor educators. Their stories of place should inspire people everywhere to pay attention to what nearby places have to teach. A Pedagogy of Place also raises significant questions about competing meanings of place, the value of adjectival educations and the complex ways in which learners might become more placeresponsive in the outdoors.

The kayak on the cover of Wattchow and Brown’s book is a good emblem for what one finds inside—an intellectual and embodied journey recounted in the voices of the two place-attached authors who have deep experience in outdoor learning. The journey begins with stories of how each author connected to outdoor places as children and adults and integrates these stories into descriptions of their experiences as outdoor educators. Next, the authors provide a convincing critique of the ironic absence of place-responsiveness in the field of outdoor education and offer a very insightful review of the meanings of place, which seem especially productive for continuing to build theory in place-responsive education. In the last part of the book, the authors narrate compelling case studies of place responsive outdoor education practice in Australia and New Zealand. The book ends with a discussion of “signposts to a place-responsive pedagogy.” These signposts provide an elegant framework for considering how educators and learners might become more responsive to the teachings of places everywhere, such as

1. being present in and with a place
2. the power of place-based stories and narratives
3. apprenticing ourselves to outdoor places
4. the representation of place experiences (p. 182)

It strikes me that any outdoor or environmental education theory or practice that fails to engage with any one of these powerful signposts is neglecting an opportunity to develop multivocal and multisensory relationships between learners and the places where they live.

The narrative writing style in A Pedagogy of Place (with the emphasis here on a pedagogy rather than the pedagogy or pedagogies) is very accessible and engaging, and the scholarship is also deep in its examination of outdoor education and its relation (or lack of relation) to the discourse of place and place-responsive learning. I find that the book would be an excellent introduction to place-responsive education for any group of educators interested in place. In its focus on getting outside for deep experiences that involve paying attention to place, the book offers an implicit critique of all indoor education, and also place-based experiences that are merely conceptual or too brief and disconnected to become storied place-responsive relationships that can only develop through a longer apprenticeship. This critique could be directed as well toward “cosmopolitan” views of learning that trade movement, speed or a “global” perspective for the presence and kinds of attention required to open to what places have to teach. In this regard, A Pedagogy of Place is a welcome reprieve from the deepening problematic trend that Aldo Leopold described over a half century ago: “[O]ur educational…system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land” (Leopold, 1949/1968, p. 223).

Inside and Outside of Outdoor Education

Wattchow and Brown’s main argument in A Pedagogy of Place is that it is important to critically review key assumptions of outdoor education and reconceptualise the field through attention and responsiveness to place. As someone who does not identify chiefly as working in the field of outdoor education, it was somewhat surprising to read how this subfield of education has often neglected local cultural and ecological contexts as it has become professionalized. On the other hand, lack of attention to place seems to be part of the professionalization of all branches of education and a problem with (post)modern culture at large. As professional fields and subfields evolve, the local social and ecological contexts where people actually live their lives are almost entirely forgotten while attention is placed on the established frameworks and routines that give a particular educational approach its identity (Gruenewald, 2005). As a result, Wattchow and Brown (2011) write of outdoor education: “The geographical locations where programs run can all too easily come to be seen as clinical sites, obstacle courses, testing grounds, venues or curriculum resources.” When places become clinical sites for outdoor education, activities, regimentation, standardization and even the implementation of models such as the experiential learning cycle can dominate curricula while unwittingly de-placing or de-contextualizing experience—all typical hallmarks of colonizing educational models. When this happens, according to Payne and Wattchow (2008), it is “increasingly difficult to confidently make the claim that outdoor education is an ‘alternative’ beyond the fact that some of it occurs in the outdoors” (cited in Wattchow and Brown, 2011, p. 50).

What, then, is outdoor education and what is its relation to place and to its cousin, environmental education? While reading Wattchow and Brown’s critique of outdoor education as a field, I continually found myself puzzling over the meaning of the label “outdoor.” I wonder about the limitations of any adjectival educational subfield (outdoor, environmental, placebased,land-based, culturally-responsive, experiential, Indigenous, sustainability, etc.) in relation to the larger goal of advocating for education that is responsive to places and how they are experienced by those who inhabit them. Does the proliferation of subfields (and strands within subfields) work for or against this larger goal? Can mutual interest in place provide a meeting ground for educators with a variety of complementary commitments and forms of knowledge? Or, does professional investment in, and politicized identification with, a particular group keep us focused on defending our turf, boundaries and vocabularies while screening out possibilities for building strategic alliances? In short, can the educational subfields with interests in the outdoors, places, environments, experiences, etc., develop better political strategy in the service of people and places rather than in the service of professional subfields? If the answer is yes, what might this suggest for how we manage the labels around which our professional work currently revolves? I think it might mean that we need to consider abandoning attachment to these labels, or at least work to de-centre them, as we learn to enact what Arjen Wals (September 22, 2011, personal communication) is calling “cross-hybrid learning.”

In their focus on place as a transformative construct, Wattchow and Brown demonstrate a welcome willingness to rethink the assumptions underlying a professional field of practice—though the focus remains on outdoor education as an insular subfield. As the authors note throughout their book, place and the outdoors are not the same. In the practice of outdoor education, the outdoors can simply become another decontextualized and colonized space for scripted learning outside of buildings; a place is where meaning is made through a reciprocal relationship of coming to know. While efforts are made in A Pedagogy of Place to expand the meaning of the outdoors in outdoor education to include multiple perspectives toward place, it is somewhat ironic that the case studies provided describe a placeresponsive pedagogy mainly through the traditional practices of tripping and journeying through the “natural” environment (albeit often to nearby, “mundane” or culturally complex places).

Clearly the authors share an interest in diverse meanings of place and in the educative potential of a wide variety of place-responsive experiences. Yet, in their stories of practice, the authors sometimes risk limiting the meaning of place to the conventional outdoors (mountains, deserts and rivers) and risk limiting the context of place-practice to hiking, camping and boating. Is this inevitable or desired in outdoor education? Inviting relationship through experience with the local and regional physical geography, and the cultural stories held in place there, is a vital component of educating for place-responsiveness. But what about other “outdoor places” and built-over lands and mindscapes—such as the streets people drive and walk on every day or commoditized and damaged places like mines, highways, strip malls, power plants, factories, schools—through which hums the global engine of neoliberal economic growth and development? What about all the regulated places, public and private, whereby we are constantly told to follow the rules? KEEP OUT! NO TRESPASSING! And what of the myriad other outdoor spaces, which, depending on one’s experience, may either invite belonging or enforce exclusion? In other words, the meanings of place or the outdoors and the possibilities for placeresponsive outdoor learning extend far beyond what the authors describe in their case studies, even as their work pushes on and extends conventional meanings of outdoor education.

Through their critique of outdoor education, their attention to place theory and the development of their case studies, Wattchow and Brown certainly gesture at making connections between embodied experience in outdoor, culturally significant places and the development of critical social conscience in everyday life (see Cameron, 2008). Yet the impact of these gestures seems somehow restricted by some of the more typical contexts of outdoor education they describe (hiking, camping, boating), journeys and trips signified by the gorgeous kayak emblazoned on the cover of the book. This observation is in no way meant to critique the power of experience in the pedagogically rich places the authors lead us to. I want to be in the kayak and on the campout and learn the ecological and cultural stories there with these authors and their mentors as guides. The only way to know the power of the journey or trip is to experience it fully. No doubt many of us facing lives of increasing boredom, incarceration, shut-in, medication and screen time (Louv, 2005) would benefit from outdoor experiences that offer much less than what Wattchow and Brown provide. The point is rather to rephrase a simple question the authors themselves pose with their important book: What constitutes the outdoors in outdoor education?

In an interesting section titled “Critical Outdoor Education,” Wattchow and Brown (2011) advocate for socio-ecological or critical place-based approaches over those focused on “social justice issues (gender, sexuality, race, equality of access and so on” (pp. 86–89). They rightly argue that critical social justice perspectives are often abstracted from a larger socio-ecological framing. However, many “social justice” issues have “outdoor” characteristics that are doubtless part of a larger ecology of place. One does not have to take a very long walk in most cities, for example, to witness many varieties of power, inequality, privilege and oppression, as well as the regimes of spatial exclusion. Additionally, since the start of the resistance movement to industrial capitalism (over 150 years ago), one does not have to look far for social or ecological conditions that need to be changed, or for local people calling for it. Today, worldwide, outside in the streets , people—including homeless people who live outside—are marching for local change in global contexts, raising critical social conscience through embodied and emplaced experiences. Does observing and participating in a street protest constitute place-responsive outdoor education? What about working with people who are homeless to change the local conditions that create homelessness? Or, should the meaning of place-responsiveness in the (sub)field of outdoor education remain concerned mainly with “natural environments” removed from the everyday street life of the crowd?
In other words, this book makes me wonder with the authors: What kind of places does the field of outdoor education privilege and which do they neglect? What is the potential range of places of practice for outdoor educators? Further, what is the relationship between outdoor education, geopolitical consciousness raising, and placemaking and re-making? The Occupy movement is only one example of the intersection between the outdoors and political experience and learning. In his remarkable book Blessed Unrest , Paul Hawken (2007) reports that there may be as many as two million organizations working to create localized change in communities all around the planet. Many efforts for local change have an outdoor dimension; the same can be said of activism around climate change. Community development and revitalization, including rural, urban and regional planning, happens outside in the interface Is this mundane political process of placemaking an appropriate context of outdoor education, or does the field prefer to privilege its traditional practices of tripping and journeying for the irreplaceable experiences that these practices deliver? Is it even possible to learn what a river trip by kayak has to teach without leaving the street protest behind (and vice versa)?

Such questions probably should not be posed as either/or dichotomies. But there is certainly a tension here for me, at this juncture in the evolution of place-responsive education, between the local, regional and geo-politics of placemaking and the aesthetics of nature-based place-experience (no matter how culturally responsive), which mirrors a more general tension between politicized and depoliticized environmental education. Neither is inherently better than the other and I believe we need both, as well as a more nuanced and inquisitive stance toward the tensions between them. Reading this book kindles my desire and my too-often denied need to connect with land and water for the experiences that only land and water can provide. Borrowing from Wattchow and Brown’s (2011) framework, I want to get outside onto the land or into the seat of the kayak. I want to become present in and with a place through deep immersion. I want to leave the street and Internet protests behind as I journey into another world—perhaps the real world—where the land is alive. I want to discover and be moved by the power of place-based stories and narratives, and learn with the people who hold these stories. I want to apprentice myself with others to outdoor places. And I want also to represent and communicate my experiences with places in meaningful, creative ways. Outdoor education that is responsive to place can be as worldwide protests for social, economic and environmental justice—protests which may lack the outdoorsy appeal of a paddle or a hike, but also represent a distinctly unique aesthetic and an embodied politics unlikely to be found on a river trip. Again, these musings are not a critique of A Pedagogy of Place , but an invitation to extend the critical question that is the thesis of the book: How might a consideration of place transform outdoor education?


Cameron, J. (2008). Learning country: A case study of Australian place-responsive education.In D. Gruenewald & G. Smith (Eds.), Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity (pp. 283–398). New York: Routledge.

Greenwood, D. (in press). A critical theory of place-conscious education. In R. B. Stevenson, M. Brody, J. Dillon, & A. Wals (Eds.), International handbook of research on environmental education research. New York: AERA/ Routledge.