The following is part 1 of an on-going discussion on place-based education topics between Gregory Smith of Lewis and Clark College and David Greenwood of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario (formerly of Washington State University). You are invited to participate in this discussion and can add your comments through the reply box at the bottom of the post.


gregsmithHi David,

I’ve been meaning to touch base with you about my experience in Juneau doing a place-based education institute a month ago. What I encountered there raised some questions for me about whether it’s possible to marry the wisdom of Indigenous educational systems to what happens in Western schools, even though this underlies at least some of what I’m attempting to accomplish as I advocate for place- and community-based approaches. I’m wondering whether it is appropriate to link a goal-based meritocratic enterprise with a process of acculturation that is at base spiritual, humane, and ecological. As a result of an unspoken tension between me and the Tlingit elders and leaders who were part of the team that organized the institute, I found myself increasingly questioning the application of the goal- and accountability-dominated curriculum development process encountered in contemporary schools with the kinds of more open-ended and improvisational learning experiences that connect young people to community and place encountered in Indigenous societies. All of this reminds me of your feelings about the importance of not letting place-based efforts get sucked into the assessment miasma that has hijacked public schools. It also reminds me of Illich’s insights about ways that schools are a fundamentally colonizing institution and that societies might be better off without them.

At the same time, a large part of me says, we’ve got to figure out how to work with the institutions have. But I’m wondering. In her June 27-July 3 Grace Lee Boggs—the social activist who has been so involved in grassroots efforts to regrow Detroit–makes this observation:

I was especially interested in Growing Power’s [Will Allen’s urban gardening initiative in Milwaukee, WI] Community-school partnerships. These projects will only work, Will emphasized, if teachers are willing to get their hands dirty in the soil along with the kids. His concern identifies the new challenges teachers face as education is redefined to mean engaging schoolchildren from K-12 in community-building activities.

Fortunately some teachers are accepting the challenge. In their important new book Place and Community-based Education in Schools (Routledge 2010) Gregory Smith and David Sobel describe the special efforts that teachers in different cities are taking to involve their students in addressing local issues.

The fundamentals of the new pedagogy are outlined in two articles. In the Handbook of Social Justice in Schools, edited by William Ayers, Therese Quinn, David Stovall. Routledge 2009.

Julio Cammarito, and Augsutine F. Romero call their approach “Socially Compassionate Intellectualism for Chicano/a students.” It begins with cooperative learning or greater equality in the relationship between teachers and students. Teachers help students realize their potential
for changing the conditions in their communities.

Lawrence Tan calls his educational philosophy “Emancipatory Pedagogy: A Rehumanizing approach to Teaching and Learning with Inner City Youth.” In this approach the teacher’s role is to help students use the skills they develop inside classrooms to create change outside the classroom. Students study social movements, create documentaries of their communities, and engage in local social actions

As the schools crisis deepens, hundreds of thousands of teachers face layoffs. They can spend their time lamenting their hardships and struggling to get back their old jobs. OR they can take advantage of this strategic moment to redefine the role of teachers to become full partners with students and parents in the visionary transformation of education so that students have the tools they need to create a more just, democratic, and sustainable world.

The time has come for teaching and learning to contribute to creating democratic, resilient communities within thriving ecosystems.

Maybe as our society transitions away from capitalism (see Immanuel Wallerstein’s recent work and his talk at the US Social Forum with Grace), public schools as we know them will also undergo a dramatic transformation—in part because the society as a whole is no longer willing to pay for them. Maybe, as Grace suggests, place- and community-based educators can participate in this process by resituating where education happens and redefining what it means to be educated.

Greg Smith
Lewis and Clark College
Portland, Oregon


Thanks for your reflections. What I hear you describing is exactly the tension I feel everyday around education. On the one hand, schools are part of a system of colonization, domination, and control, and other the other, schools can be places of transformation, participation, and emancipation. Most of all, I believe, schools are what the people inside of them make them, and I am with you when you express your hope that we can make them better and more responsive to people, place, community, and planet. I think the only way to really accomplish this is if people within schools begin to work more with the great number of people and organizations outside of schools who are doing the work of social justice, ecological stewardship, peace, and democracy. This is the promise of place-based education, and other kinds of adjectival educations (i.e., peace education, environmental education, education for social justice, etc.), that purposefully seek relationships with non-school community members as part of how schools work.

Just last week I was in Toronto for a one day conference on Sustainability and Community at York University ( Toronto, by the way, is an amazing city—extremely cosmopolitan and multicultural. The man who drove my taxi—a Punjabi named Kuldip—told me that there are three Hindi radio stations in Toronto. Amazing for me to hear, having just come out of the mountains in Idaho where you are lucky even to pull in a country or western station. Anyway, the York conference was led by Chuck Hopkins, a long time environmental educator and international organizer of sustainability education. With a deep history of leadership at UN summits on education and environment going back at least to the Tbilisi Declaration , Chuck now holds a UNESCO Chair for reorienting teacher education for sustainability; he is also on the faculty at York. Like Grace Lee Boggs, Chuck is an elder in a movement of movements for better education and more sustainable communities. Certainly place-based education is part of this larger movement.

I had an excellent dinner with Chuck and others from York and from Toronto’s neighborhoods, incidentally, at a great all vegan restaurant (very low carbon footprint!). I could have listened to Chuck tell inspiring stories all night. He was talking about all the engaged work to revitalize education at all levels and in all kinds of communities in countries all over the world. Of all Chuck’s stories, three stand out to me. First, York is involved in a sustained effort to reorient its teacher education program for education for sustainability in Toronto (all teacher education programs and all schools need similar efforts). Second, apparently both Sweden and Germany have recently resolved to make sustainability a central theme in their respective country’s institutions of higher education (can we do that here in the US?). Third, United Nations University, with Chuck’s help, is leading a huge action research project to develop “Regional Centres of Expertise” in 75 cities to achieve the goal of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (

The point I want to make is summed up nicely by Chuck Hopkins: We’ve got to transition from education for development to education for sustainable development. I very much like this compressed statement, and I think, Greg, that it relates to the tensions that you see between place-based education, Indigenous education, and schools. What we have in most schools is an education for development paradigm. The development agenda, which serves a vision of limitless economic growth rather than a vision of sustainable communities, so dominates most schools that many educators themselves are unaware of its pervasive power. But as Grace Lee Boggs says, many teachers do recognize that we need a new vision, that we have to redefine education as a community-building activity that serves people, and I would add, places and planet. This new vision, it seems to me, is one that many people around the world share, whether they call it place-based education, community-based education, education for sustainable development, environmental education, critical pedagogy, ecopedagogy, etc., etc., etc.

What Chuck Hopkins helped me remember in Toronto last week is that it this is redefining education necessarily a local and global movement, and in order for it to make headway within the development paradigm, the movement to transform education needs to become better connected to other social movements. Everywhere, education needs to be reoriented as education for sustainable development, because if it is not, what we will be left with is education for development that is proven everyday to be unsustainable, both now and in the long run. My feeling today is that people interested in place need to participate in and help nurture the mega-movement, both locally and globally. I think teachers can start this work by developing relationships with local non-profits who are focused on improving the quality of life for some segment of the human or other-than-human community. And then, teachers also need to begin organizing at the building and district level—and for this they will also need the support and perhaps leadership of those outside of the formal school community.

David A. Greenwood
Associate Professor
Department of Teaching and Learning
College of Education
Washington State University