place-based education, democracy education, community

Joining School and Community: Supporting Place-based Educators

June 08, 2022

Bio: Sarah Anderson is an educator and author specializing in place-based education and curriculum design. Previously a middle school humanities teacher, Sarah is the fieldwork and place-based education coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Oregon and the author of the book Bringing School to Life: Place-based Education across the Curriculum. In this interview, Sarah provides an overview of her experience with place-based education and outlines research interests for her doctoral work at SFU.

Within your main area of study, Educational Theory and Practice, you describe your focus as place-based education and curriculum design. Can you say more about what “place-based” means or what it involves?

For the last several years, I have been a place-based education practitioner. Place-based educators ground curricular units in the places where we live. Science, social studies, art, literacy, wellness, and more are framed and explored through local history, ecology, and current events. Students and educators work together to bring learning outside of the school and into communities by building partnerships with neighbouring organizations, agencies, businesses, and individuals. Students work on projects to benefit the school, land, and city, learning how to be responsible and caring members of a community.

Yet, while interest in place-based education is growing and much has been written on the theory of place and education, there is a gap between theory and practice. I see opportunities to examine the overlap between place-based education and other pedagogies, such as culturally responsive teaching.

What sparked your interest in this research focus? Are you branching out in any other ways?

My interest in place-based education came from my desire to create an educational environment that values and cares for community: both human and ecological. Growing up in a small rural town, I saw how our family relied heavily on others for support and collaboration. I also developed concerns about the power of wealthy interests and corporations to make decisions for the community that did not necessarily prioritize the health of the ecosystems or the people who lived in them. These influences led me to place-based education, which I practised as a middle school classroom teacher for nearly 10 years.

More recently, I had the opportunity to coach and train other teachers and to develop curricula. Through this work, I have become more aware of perceived barriers to disseminating a place-based approach. For this reason, I wish to focus my research on professional development—particularly on teacher support.

Do you draw from or are you building on previously published work, such as your book Bringing School to Life?

Yes, I certainly draw from my experience as a teacher and administrator—the basis of much of my writing to date. My book and related work also serve as a launching point for future research. Moving forward, I am interested in learning more about critical theory and Indigenous studies, as well as the experience of educators practising in other parts of the country and world-wide. What are the major barriers to bringing a place-based approach to schools? How can place-based education challenge traditional schooling (the status quo) by prioritizing community-building and reimaging concepts such as “rigour”? How can place-based practices foster students who value democracy and have the skills needed for creating a truly democratic system? And how can we support teachers who want to centre place and community in their practice with students?

What experiences during your research journey have been highlights for you?

I have only just begun my doctoral work but have already learned so much. Readings and class discussions have sent my research in many new directions, including an infusion of perspectives from Indigenous scholars and the unique ecological lens of my supervisor, Professor Sean Blenkinsop. I have the fortunate opportunity to directly link theory to practice through the K-8 school where I work as a place-based education coordinator. Being able to fuse the two makes my research journey even more dynamic and exciting.

The past couple of years have brought other exciting opportunities to collaborate with others who are doing great work. The Green Schools National Network included a chapter I wrote about place-based civic education in their recently published book, Trailblazers for Whole School Sustainability. I have also been invited to speak to groups of educators at Antioch University New England, Teton Science School, and the Hawaii Association of School Librarians, to name a few. Connecting and sharing with other practitioners helps to grow my research and promote its relevancy. 

Did you face any challenges in your research? How did you handle them?

There are varying understandings of place-based education: what it is and what it looks like, especially for practitioners. One challenge is finding common threads within different approaches. It is additionally challenging to synthesize work being carried out by different programs yet avoid standardizing the place-based approach, allowing for variation based on diverse locations and communities.

What insights or findings do you see your research contributing? What outcomes do you envision?

The success of place-based education depends on educators who feel competent and supported in this way of teaching. One of my primary goals is to offer insight into how to best foster practitioners who have developed the confidence to critically challenge our educational system.

I also hope to learn more about overcoming barriers in schools that prevent place-based education from taking hold. Beyond that, I hope to encourage reimagining some of these barriers, inspiring educational practices that promote healthy communities and true democracy. Many barriers standing in the way of true place-based education—such as standardization, the siloing of content areas, concepts of rigour, and rigid time constraints—reinforce an industrialized, colonized approach to education. I envision my research offering both a challenge and an alternative to this status quo.

Also, in the United States, Indigenous perspectives have only recently entered the conversation within place-based education circles. I see an opportunity to investigate intersections between place-based education and anti-colonial education and to offer any insights I may discover to practitioners.

Do you have any insights or advice for other scholars interested in place-based education?

If other scholars out there are interested in place-based education, please let me know! I’d love to connect and learn together.