Educational Research

A Pedagogy of Place

Relph (1976), Tuan (1974) and Buttimer (1976) developed “humanistic” approaches for understanding place organised around “human experience.” In other words, how does our experience of place contribute to our construction of it? Understanding place seems straightforward, but in incorporating a “humanistic” perspective, place emerges as a complex and sophisticated concept. This is illustrated well by Kissling (2012), who writes “place is landed in a physical sense, imagined in a psychological sense, felt in an emotional sense, storied in a historical sense, enacted in a cultural sense, constructed in a social sense, and sure it ‘is’ in many other senses as well (p. 111).”  

Following the work of Relph and others, the WISERDEducation multicohort study asked 831 pupils to list up to three words that best describe the places where they live. This produced nearly 3000 responses that were organised by themes and given a positive, neutral or negative value – values representing the evaluative nature of the pupils’ responses.

Overall, 62.7% of the pupils surveyed used positively oriented words to describe the areas where they live. As a curriculum theorist, I was intrigued by the difference between “official” curricular representations of Wales found in the national curriculum and Cwricwlwm Cymreig (a policy I’ve critiqued here and here) and the language pupils used in their responses. The Cwricwlwm Cymreig was concerned with helping pupils appreciate living in Wales and in them developing their own sense of “Welshness.” Curricular guidance provided case studies of how this could be accomplished through highlighting aspects of Welsh culture. However, evidence from this research (also available here) shows most pupils construct their “place images” through expressions of social relationships, and not necessarily through representations found in the curricular guidance, such as mining, music, devolution, dragons, language and sport.  

As Pioneer Schools began their deliberations on the curriculum proposed in Successful Futures, some were charged with how to promote and maintain a “Welsh dimension and international perspective” in schools. In other words, what might a pedagogy of place for Wales look like and how do we achieve it? When I use the term “pedagogy,” I’m specifically referencing the theorisation — the philosophical consideration, of teaching and learning. Recent usage of the term has focused on instruction and method, and in my opinion this has robbed “pedagogy” of its theoretical strength and intellectual character. Therefore, a pedagogy of place is a theoretical consideration of how place informs our thinking about teaching and learning in schools across Wales.  

In the Pioneer School meetings, I suggested working towards the aims of the Cwricwlwm Cymreig through emphasising place and pupils’ relationships to it. Eventually, a conceptual model was produced wherein pupils would start with their local context and work outwards to their community, country and “the world.” As Pioneer Schools continued their curricular work, other contributors, including Dr Sara Morse and Dr Daniel Evans, extended the idea of a pedagogy of place by introducing Cynefinwhich loosely translates into “habitat,” but may be more appropriately thought of as one’s placement or ‘situatedness’ within a particular geographical, social, political and cultural context(s).  

Welsh government has released the first draft of the new curricular framework for public consultation, and as people discuss and debate its content, some worry a focus on the local will diminish pupils’ engagement with the rest of the world. This is a legitimate concern. A pedagogy of place should not limit learning to just the local context, nor should it undermine exposure to knowledge learned from experiencing new people, places and ideas. Instead, it should inspire teachers and pupils to perceive education as the means through which young people come to understand themselves as individuals located in, and connected through, multiple contexts and identities.  

A pedagogy of place can help young people gain a better understanding of the dimensions of being in a “place” (e.g. citizenship, cultural identity and personal identity) and how constructions of place (e.g. home, Wales, the world) are produced, understood and promoted. If we don’t understand our own “places,” then how can we come to understand the relationships of others and their “places?” In our current social, cultural, political and even environmental climate, a pedagogy of place might not only be beneficial in helping young people appreciate living in their “place” and developing a sense of “placeness,” it may also help them to understand how our “place” and “placeness” intersect and relate to the “place” and “placeness” of others. 

Reflective Questions 

  1. How might a pedagogy of place help pupils and teachers observe and develop empathetic connections with each other? With others? 
  1. How might a pedagogy of place lead to social, political and cultural action? 
  1. How might a pedagogy of place contribute to young people acting as cultural producers rather than consumers?