Teaching through place to promote cultural and biotic diversity and well-being

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February 18th, 2015

This research brief has been made available by Relating Research to Practice (RR2P). RR2P provides short synopses of current peer-reviewed research relevant to informal science education (ISE).

Research Summary

Today’s students are growing up in a world in which many of the most pressing issues are global: global warming, global food security, global health, and, not least, inequities within and between nations. Meanwhile, science educators are being urged to promote inquiry and engagement in ways that may be far removed from the lived experience of many people. Educators need to connect the global to the local, the cultural to the ecological, so they can foster inquiry in the places where learners live.


In this seminal paper, Gruenewald blends critical pedagogy and place-based education into a critical pedagogy of place. Critical pedagogies challenge the assumptions and practices implicit in the dominant culture of Western educational systems. Place-based education aims to educate citizens so that they can influence the social and ecological places in which they live. It builds on aspects of environmental education, indigenous education, and other locally focused perspectives. Traditionally, critical pedagogies have emphasized social and urban contexts, whilst place-based pedagogies have emphasized ecological and rural contexts. Taken together, these perspectives provide a framework that acknowledges cultural concerns in a global society but, as Gruenewald notes, is “attuned to the political assaults on both human and biotic diversity in particular local places” (p. 6). Critical pedagogy urges recognition of the social, political, and economic conditions that shape all natural and human systems and that are sometimes oppressive. Building on the work of Paolo Freire (1970/1995), critical pedagogy seeks to: raise questions about inequalities of power, about the false myth of opportunity and merit for many students, and about the way belief systems become internalized to the point where individuals and groups abandon the very aspirations to question or change their lot in life (Burbules & Beck, 1999, p. 50). Gruenewald, however, argues that this approach does not go far enough and that, in particular it ignores the ecological aspects of inequality. Instead, he points to Bowers’s (2001) argument for eco-justice — a framework that recognizes the interconnectedness of cultural and ecological life. The four main foci of eco-justice are:

  • Understanding the relationship between ecological and cultural systems, especially between the domination of nature and the domination of oppressed groups
  • Addressing environmental racism, including the geographical dimension of social injustice and environmental pollution
  • Revitalizing the non-commodified traditions of various racial and ethnic groups
  • Reconceiving and adapting our lifestyles in ways that will not jeopardize the environment for future generations

Gruenewald argues that contemporary educational systems standardize students and teachers from diverse geographical and cultural places so that they can compete in a global economy. Although shared knowledge and skills are important, this approach neglects multidisciplinary, experiential, and intergenerational learning that can not only foster student engagement but also contribute to community wellbeing. Indeed, the current emphasis on teacher skills and student performance distracts from the valuable learning experiences available outside the classroom.

Implications for Practice

A critical pedagogy of place calls for research and practice that operate in the place-specific nexus of environment, culture, and education. Informed by eco-justice, a critical pedagogy of place seeks to equip students from both rural and urban backgrounds with the ability to challenge political assaults on cultural and biotic diversity. In practice, a critical pedagogy of place would involve students in learner-directed studies of a particular locality, whether rural or urban. Students would interact with the local community in order to learn about the locality’s ecology and cultural history. Then they would engage in an action research project that would contribute to the locality, whether socially, culturally, or environmentally, in either immediate or long-term ways. Other practical implementations are discussed in Gruenewald and Smith’s 2008 book, Place-Based Education in the Global Age.


Bowers, C. A. (2001). Educating for eco-justice and community. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Burbules, N., & Beck, R. (1999). Critical thinking and critical pedagogy: Relation, differences and limits. In T. Popkewitz & L. Fendler (Eds.), Critical theories in education. New York, NY: Routledge. Freire, P. (1995). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum. (Original work published 1970). Gruenewald, D., & Smith, G. (Eds.). (2008). Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity. New York, NY: Routledge.

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