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The School of Life


The School of Life


The School of Life

The Maple Ridge Environmental School and the Davis Bay Elementary School are fertile places for learning, and for research and inquiry into place-based schooling.

In 2008, a fateful conversation transpired about a then-hypothetical school children were educated “in place," an experience that could give them a radical sense of connection to community and environment. Those present were Mark Fettes and Sean Blenkinsop, both researchers at SFU’s Faculty of Education, Jodi Macquarrie, one of the Blenkinsop’s doctoral students at the time, and Clayton Maitland, a teacher and vice-principal in Maple Ridge, British Columbia.

At the time, Fettes was coming off of a five-year community-based research project in imaginative education, a theory of education developed by fellow SFU professor Kieran Egan that, true to its name, values engaging the imagination during the learning process. “All four of us were committed to the ideals of public education,” comments Fettes, “But we also saw the limitations of existing approaches. We were excited about the possibility of developing a public school that was committed to reworking everything from a local perspective.”

The group hammered out guiding principles for the project: it would include a focus on nature and community and would be informed by values such as inquiry, imagination, and inclusion. Learning would take place in local parks, libraries and other public spaces. The following three years were spent writing proposals, acquiring funding, and getting parents, community members, and local educators on board for what would become The Maple Ridge Environmental School Project. In the fall of 2011, with the help of a $1 million grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the “school without walls” welcomed 66 excited kindergarten to grade seven students, with three equally excited teachers.

A partnership between SFU, community groups, the District of Maple Ridge, and School District 42 (Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows), the Maple Ridge Environmental School still uses the provincial school curriculum, but students are offered more immediate ways to engage with it. For example, learning about indigenous traditions and perspectives takes place in partnership with the local Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations, and learning about plants, animals and ecosystems is situated in the forests and watersheds of Maple Ridge.

Just months after it opened, news of the alternative school garnered attention from Canadian science education luminary David Suzuki. In an article in praise of the school, he wrote: “These young students and the people who had the foresight to get the school running have lessons for all of us.” Suzuki traces his own passion for science, in part, to time spent exploring the outdoors as a child.

Fettes says that parents consistently comment on the self-confidence and resilience their children are developing. “They become more interested in spending time outside and are more aware of their surroundings. However, we are really still in the early stages of figuring out what all this might mean for education writ large.”

Two years after the Maple Ridge school launched, the project expanded to Davis Bay Elementary School on the Sunshine Coast. The Nature Primary Program (kindergarten to grade three) opened in September 2013, and now has four classes extending up to grade five. And recently, Blenkinsop and Fettes were contacted by Gabriola Elementary School in the Nanaimo School District to explore a possible research collaboration around its own transition to becoming a place-based school. Meanwhile, the Maple Ridge School District has approved a high school program that would extend the guiding principles of the Environmental School into grades eight to twelve.

It's been an exciting research journey so far, says Fettes. “Given the size and scope and the variety of community partners involved, we’ve often been surprised at the turns the school has taken–but that’s part of doing research. Ours is a unique contribution to the field of place-based, ecological schooling, and one that is urgently needed given the interest around the world in this kind of approach.”


Dr. Mark Fettes has been part of SFU’s Faculty of Education since 2002. He originally trained as a biochemist and worked as a magazine editor and policy analyst before becoming an educator. His work focuses on the intertwining of imagination, language, experience, culture and place in the structures and processes of education. He is particularly interested in how imaginative approaches to teaching can make schools more responsive to their communities and places and has led research collaborations on culturally inclusive imaginative education in Chilliwack, Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii.

Q & A with Mark Fettes

If you could sum up the value of university research in one word, what would it be?


What motivates you as a researcher?

Intellectual curiosity, empathy, social justice, and ecological justice.

How is your research making an impact on lives?

I see it as expanding the bounds of possibility in education, that is, encouraging teachers, schools and school systems to take risks and be ambitious in how they teach and what they try to accomplish. In particular, I see my work as leading to more successful educational experiences for Aboriginal students and others who experience traditional mainstream schooling as unmotivating and disempowering.

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

In the kind of educational work I do, collaboration at the community level is essential, as is the engagement of teachers as co-researchers.

SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?

Key concepts in both Indigenous and ecological education are relationality, reciprocity and responsibility, all of which point to the need for universities and researchers to be deeply engaged with the individuals and communities participating in their research. Much of my work at SFU has taken place in the context of two multi-year community-university research partnerships where these values have been central.

What advice would you give your younger self regarding the challenges you've faced as a researcher?

Don’t rush things. Invest time in relationship-building. Make sure writing stays among your top priorities. Try to do less, but better. 

Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?

I take courage from the people I work with, who have faced and overcome far greater challenges in their lives and continue to take on the work of social change.

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?

Here in Canada, and especially in BC, I see the rise of Indigenous scholarship, worldviews and perspectives as posing a major challenge to established research paradigms.

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

I have valued SFU’s ongoing openness to innovative cross-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary research, and I hope that it will remain a leading centre for such research, along with courses and programs built on similar lines.