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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 4

The Emergence of Place in Outdoor Education

In this chapter we discuss the emergence of place as a pedagogical concept within both broader education and outdoor education discourses. Place-based pedagogies have been discussed in educational literature in North America for some time. As we have already argued, ‘place’ and ‘sense of place’ have become popular concepts, and a number of writers and practitioners have begun to explore connections between pedagogy and place. In the process of writing this book we came across several articles in teacher journals where ‘place lessons’ were presented as ‘mapping your neighborhood’ style lessons in geography, or ‘recording local stories’ approaches in history. While these initiatives are encouraging, we argue that they do not yet represent a view of curriculum, teaching and learning where place provides a significant philosophical and pedagogical foundation. Put another way, when an interest in place is ‘retro-fitted’ to current educational curricula as a theme or a lesson it is likely to be treated as just another topic to cover in geography, history, English or even outdoor education. This approach is unlikely to produce a new educational philosophy or significant reforms to pedagogic practices. It does not represent the kind of fundamentally different way of doing education, and of learners experiencing their learning in localised contexts that we are arguing for in this book. If place is fundamental to human identity and experience, then it needs to be thought about in ways outside of current, fragmented ways of learning through the disciplines. At the very least within the educational context place must be multi-disciplinary, or better, trans-disciplinary and experiential in character.

Place is not a thing, an object. It is, as we discussed in the previous chapter, an unfolding phenomenon. But it can, at different levels, be studied and reflected upon in terms of how it might influence practice. Therefore, in educational contexts, place is best understood as a meeting of learners’ experiences, the ideas and ideals of their group and culture, and the geophysical reality of the site of learning itself. This view of place gives outdoor education practitioners a unique advantage. Arguably outdoor educators have fewer disciplinary constraints than educators in many other disciplines and perhaps greater exposure to experiential approaches to teaching, guiding and learning. Yet, as we have already discussed in chapter three, there are a number of barriers and likely resistances that will be encountered in any move towards a place-responsive curriculum and pedagogy in contemporary outdoor education. One of these resistances, perhaps the most significant, requires further elaboration here.

It may be all too easy to think of the concept of place as a kind of substitute for nature and/or community in the popular understanding of outdoor education as learning about self, others and nature. We have already discussed the existence of a preference for a romanticised view of wild nature and a Utopian sense of the small-scale community in outdoor education. However, we feel that it is necessary to start this chapter by extending the discussion of how educators’ and learners’ relationships with the natural world have been represented in outdoor education discourse in recent years, particularly by academics striving to develop and articulate new theoretical and practical approaches to outdoor education. There are elements of this professional discourse that is useful, yet there are also some important differences between these proposals and the case we are making for a place-responsive pedagogy. Therefore we begin this chapter with a discussion about how and why the concept of place-responsiveness provides a distinct pedagogical difference to outdoor education directed towards developing critical and sustainable relationships with nature.

We then discuss the contribution of broader educational discourses on place-based education. There is considerable potential for outdoor educators to both benefit from, and contribute to, the broader debate about the role of place-based and place-responsive learning experiences in education. The last topic we consider in the chapter is the emergence of a nascent body of research literature about place and sense of place in studies conducted into outdoor education practice in Australia, New Zealand and overseas. Several crucial concepts about the potentials and pitfalls of a pedagogy of place are developed which are carried forward as guiding questions into the case study chapters that follow.

Outdoor education, nature relations and place

In a recent review of the aims and purposes represented in outdoor education textbooks, Andrew Brookes (2004) identified three ‘absolutist tendencies’. First, authors of the textbooks focused almost exclusively on individual learning. Second, consideration of the local geography was either absent or regarded as being the same as ‘the outdoors’ (i.e. a taken-for-granted or considered a ‘blank’ space in which to perform). We have already discussed how problematic and pervasive the notions of individualism and a universal view of the outdoors as natural space can be in education. Finally, Brookes (2004) claims that the educational aims of outdoor education represented in the texts were largely abstract and based upon broad generalisations. He also noted the lack of any serious attempts to connect with wider educational discourses.

Thus there seems to be an insularity in much of the programming and educational literature of outdoor education (see M. Brown 2008a for a further example of this lack of engagement). Outdoor education is treated, both by practitioners and some of its advocates, as a discipline detached from the rest of the learner’s educational journey. To the field’s detriment it would appear that all too often outdoor education seems to occur in a bubble, insulated from broader educational debate and discussions about curricula and pedagogy.

Peter Higgins (2003), for example, believes that while there has been an increase in debate among academics about the impact of globalisation and modernity upon outdoor education practice, there has been little representation of this within practitioner-focused journals and associations. In Higgins’ view, practitioners may be dangerously unaware of how their practices may be inadvertently subject to these wider forces. Humberstone, Brown and Richards (2003) point out that ‘“old” romanticised ideals of outdoor leisure are becoming reconstructed through the demands of “mass market” consumers for “authentic adventure”’ (p. 7). Thus the modern outdoor adventure educator sees and seeks nature as ‘an assault course, gymnasium or puzzle to be resolved and controlled. It is a resource to be commodified instead of a home to which to relate’ (Loynes 2002, 114).

An outdoor education that appears to deny place through the Romantic desire for ‘wild’ nature, misunderstandings about the corporeal nature of embodied experience, and the erasure of local meanings to form novel adventure spaces, maintains universalist assumptions about knowledge, values and practices that are held throughout education and wider Western culture (Orr 1992, 1994; Bowers 1993). The education system, of which outdoor education is a part, has become crucial in the initiation of young people into modern views of knowledge, experience and forms of rationality. Teachers, leaders and guides, through their own education and training, may themselves have become authorities in this system and perpetuate its establishment, whether it be in the classroom or the outdoors. Such a system silences more basic questions about learners’ experiences of particular outdoor places.

The rhetorical shift towards a critical orientation in outdoor education which focuses on the development of sustainable relationships with nature is evident within the professional outdoor education literature and can be traced through a series of academic papers. This discourse dates from the 1990s and we will be discussing the contribution of several of these influential papers in this chapter. Perhaps this critical interest in ‘nature’ is the latest iteration of the goals and purposes of outdoor education articulated in the Dartington conference and other forums since. Yet this discourse has developed amidst a growing awareness, outside of outdoor education, of the diversity of meanings that Western industrial cultures have for ‘nature’ (see, for example, Chambers 1984; Heller 1999; Marshall 1992; Schama 1995; Soper 1995; Soule and Lease 1995). This list of possible ‘natures’ is long and is seemingly inexhaustible: nature as unknowable universe, Magna Mater, wild kingdom, Gaia, pristine wilderness, picturesque landscape, gymnasium, temple, sunship, ecological process, habitat, environment, and so on. Soper (1995) considers that each of these social constructions tends to be representative of two basic views. On one hand there are those that promote a ‘nature endorsing’ discourse of ecological reality. On the other, are the postmodernists whose ‘nature-scepticism’ doubts that any such reality can exist beyond its cultural inscriptions. Both perspectives, Soper (1995) argues ‘need to be more conscious of what their respective discourses on nature may be ignoring or politically repressing’ (p. 8). Lease (1995) offers a slightly different, but equally illuminating perspective on our collective struggle to come to grips with the panoply of views about what nature is or might be.

Western thought had culminated in an impasse regarding nature. Was it the material world of experience, experiences that could be shared, repeated, and tested; or was it the ineffable, invisible, and transcendent world of divine origins, available only to acts of faith … After wrestling with the notion of nature for well over two thousand years, Western tradition had come up dry: neither an identification of the human species with nature nor a strict dichotomy between the two proved ultimately successful. (pp. 8–9)

In broader terms this impasse has been described by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) as a standoff between two central myths of Western philosophy, the myths of objectivism and subjectivism. In the first myth humans believe that objective reality can be proven if the human errors of illusion, perception, judgment, emotion and personal and cultural bias can be avoided. It is believed that words and language, as the main medium through which we express our experience of reality, can have fixed meanings if metaphoric, poetic, fanciful, rhetorical and figurative language is avoided. Alternatively the myth of subjectivism, exemplified by the Romantic poets, proposes that in our everyday, practical activities ‘we rely upon our senses to develop intuitions we can trust’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 188). Activities like poetry and art are seen to transcend rationality, taking us to a new level of awareness, a ‘more important reality of imagination and feelings’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 188). Both myths are wrong, Lakoff and Johnson argue, but need each other. They are a binary pair where each position defines itself in opposition to the other. The impasse occurs when we cling to the belief system of one while rejecting the possibility of the other.

Within the space of this impasse nature has become a contested ground on which opposing ideological interests fight for the ascendancy of particular cultural and social meanings over others (Soule and Lease, 1995). Already we have seen that outdoor educators privilege certain interpretations of nature: nature as an arena where students experience personal development through challenging activity; or nature as a venue or landscape that can be appreciated and encountered aesthetically and for which we should develop some affinity, or nature as an environment in need of sustainable management practices by humans.

Brookes (1993) argues that outdoor education practices uncritically treat the ‘bush’ (a particularly Australian vernacular construction of nature) as a resource.

Seen against an emerging backdrop of environmental degradation as the unintended outcome of subconscious attitudes, any outdoor education practice might appear to be just another form of assault on the bush. What hunting, grazing, mining, clearing, harvesting and the introduction of exotic plants and animals began, outdoor education and its cousin tourism will finish off. (p. 11)

We might assume from the above quotation that Brookes (1993) sees each outdoor education student as extracting his or her experiences from the ‘bush’, and he asks: ‘What’s in it for the bush? What’s in it for the community?’ (p. 11). Later Brookes (1994) characterises such approaches as ‘short raids on the “bush” as strangers, rather than [as experiences that] develop a sense of place’ (p. 31). That outdoors nature in Australia and New Zealand has been perceived as strange to European settlers and their descendants, and the negative consequences for both the environment and traditional cultures that followed as a result, has been well documented by environmental historians and anthropologists (Bolton 1981; King 2003; Lines 1991; McKenna 2002; Park 1995, 2006; Read 1996, 2000; Rose 1996, 2002, 2004; Seddon 1994; Sharp 2002; Sinclair 2001). David Tacey, a scholar of Jungian psychology, argues that the psychic estrangement from nature continues to be a major source of dislocation from place for settler Australians (1995, 2000, 2003).

Searching for a metaphor: ‘Nature as friend’

In searching for a way to encourage and reconnect outdoor educators and their students with nature, Brian Nettleton (1993) suggested that the relationship between humans and nature should be based on friendship. Nettleton highlights how friendship requires a reciprocal, diffuse and multifaceted relationship very different to a relationship of exploitation or distanced otherness.

The natural world is seen as a friend and from the immediacy of daily interaction, and not seen by modernity as from afar, as an object or as an inanimate other; as a whole and not as a composite of clever fragmentary insights painstakingly gleaned from the measurable aspects of nature. (p. 19)

Nettleton’s nature-as-friend metaphor should be admired for its sentiment. However, Seddon (1997) argues that while it is ‘perhaps corrective for a society that has seen nature as the enemy to be told to see it as a friend … it is neither’ (p. 20). Martin and Thomas (2000) attempted to further elaborate a model for human-nature relationships that extends Nettleton’s nature-as-friend metaphor to one of interpersonal relationships. They develop their model based on the theoretical understandings of the constructs of human relationships (skills, concern, interaction, trust, knowing) and present it as a pedagogic tool to be considered by other educators who would like their students to move from a level of ‘acquaintanceship’ with nature to one of more ‘intimate friendship’. Barriers to developing intimate friendship are seen to occur when participants experience fear and uncertainty. The
authors conclude:

For programs with a clear intent of initiating human-nature relationships, the activities and places selected need to be those which enable participants to easily develop a sense of safety, comfort and well being – this may contrast with the high adventure goals and practices of more traditional outdoor programs. (Martin and Thomas 2000, 41)

Martin and Thomas’ ‘constructs of relationships’ seem, like Nettleton’s nature-as-friend, to be a little too anthropomorphic, a point the authors concede. When a person develops a relationship with another person they establish, as a result of experience, an intimate knowledge of the other’s character, behaviour, idiosyncrasies and unique qualities. One of the difficulties inherent in a discussion of human-nature relationships within outdoor education is the tendency for ‘nature’ to remain an abstract and universalised concept. Any relationship between an individual person and nature is likely to be a one-sided affair. It is possible that we might feel a love for nature, but is unlikely that it will love us back. Instead, what we might experience is a reflection of our own desire where nature acts like a mirror (Cronon 1996). At its most extreme, the starry-eyed nature lover, like Narcissus in Greek mythology, is in danger of becoming stranded, unable to pull him or herself away from the beauty of his/her own reflection.

A second problem with the self/nature relations approach is that it potentially abrogates the responsibility to develop relationships with actual others in the outdoor places where the educational program is being enacted. Through placing an emphasis on developing an intimate relationship with nature there is the possibility that local people, their experiences and histories will be overlooked. An unintended outcome may be that it provides a cultural licence to pass local people by, not engaging with their often interesting and informative local stories and histories. In addition, we might ask, how might relationships with non-human others be conceptualised, explored and experienced? How do we relate to the chatter and song (two more anthropomorphisms) of birds in the forest as we lug our packs up the trail? Their song is, after all, probably a warning call easily interpreted by all in the forest but us, about the danger of a bunch of sweaty, noisy humans suddenly appearing in their home. People and other life forms do interact in significant and in potentially meaningful ways. The nature writer Barry Lopez (1986, 1988, 2003), for example, has explored this theme extensively.

Lopez has traced the complex interactions of people, animals and landscapes in specific North American locations for many decades. In doing so he draws upon scientific, historical, mythological, and anecdotal sources of information and blends these with his own experiences. Thus his accounts start by being grounded in a place as he draws upon experience and different knowledge systems to build up the complexity of the web of relations between people, animals and land. A potential criticism of Lopez, and other nature writers in the North American tradition, is that they tend to write about remote and seemingly intact wild places. There are, however, important exceptions. Aldo Leopold was writing over a half a century ago about experiences of land and nature as he attempted to rehabilitate a degraded piece of farmland in the sand counties of Wisconsin. Despite its limitations, the approach of the nature-writers would seem to be a more meaningful approach to the study of human/nature-relations than striving for something that is almost certainly unattainable – the individual on a quest to relate to the abstract and elusive concept of nature.

Several research studies in outdoor and environmental education seem to confirm the consequences of seeing outdoor education as engaging with the outdoors as a means to relate to nature (see, for example, Haluza-Delay 2001; Haskell 2000; Johnson 2004; Martin 2005), and its impact on participants. The ideal of wilderness continued to provide a potent cultural ‘template’ for teenage participants on a backcountry journey in North America (Haluza-Delay 2001). The result, suggests Randolph Haluza-Delay, is that the teenagers saw nature as being ‘out there’ and as a completely different kind of environment to that of their home in suburbia. David Johnson’s (2004) study explored the activities and reflections of students from a Melbourne secondary school who visited the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria for a ten-day program of sea kayak and sail training, environmental activities and an expedition. According to Johnson these adolescent students were already keenly aware of a perceived division between ‘city’ and ‘nature’. The city was seen as frenetic, noisy, dirty, exciting, but also familiar. By way of contrast, students reflected that the outdoors was clean, quiet, relaxing and beautiful. Students reported that ‘the Lakes’ was a nice place to visit for a while, but they would not want to live there – it was too primitive. Peter Martin (2005) reported on research into university undergraduates’ perceptions of nature, and how they changed during the years of their studies in outdoor education. These young adults were seen to be on a continuum from being alienated from nature, travelling through nature, caring for nature or becoming integrated with nature.

There remains in outdoor education, as Brookes (2004) has pointed out, a strong tendency to treat ‘nature’ or ‘wilderness’ as monolithic. In many ways this is the antithesis of what we mean by place. Where nature is experienced as universal, place is always encountered within the parameters of a particular location. Admittedly, humans inevitably experience both nature and place subjectively. But a focus upon place in learning keeps bringing our attention back to the local, to the specific meanings and experiences that are attached to our embodied experience. In doing so, learners will always be responding to both universal cultural ideas about ‘nature’ and the local, particular qualities of their encounter with a specific outdoor place.

Within a region we may be able to respond to many similarities. If, for example, we grew up and developed a depth of experience in one place on the southern coastline of Australia, we might find that we experience a sense of the familiar in many places that we visit from Cape Howe (the south eastern most point of mainland Australia) to Cape Leeuwin (the south western most point of mainland Australia). If we are walking on a southern beach we may accurately anticipate a change in weather as a cold front spins out of Antarctic waters and approaches us from the south-west. We take notice of the cloud progression and shifts in wind direction. We feel changes in temperature and humidity. We might put on our snorkelling gear and dive beneath the surface of the ocean and see a similar array of flora and fauna species stretching along thousands of kilometres of coastline. There will be changes of course but we know enough to accommodate them. We learn how to interpret this 5000km edge zone of the continent. But turn the corner at Cape Leeuwin and begin to travel north and the place suddenly feels unfamiliar to us. The southerly running Leeuwin Current brings warm water from the tropics and as a result there are many changes in both land and sea. What we know from our south coast experiences no longer seems enough. The geology, weather, climate, ecology all suddenly change dramatically. Human patterns of settlement also change. The very history of the place seems to be dramatically different. We have reached a boundary between places. If we choose to cross it we need to begin the process of relearning what it means to be a local again if we want to make much sense of the new places we experience.

So to research and talk about the universal qualities of nature and wilderness does provide us with some useful insights, but it is unlikely to be enough if we want to develop a stronger sense of the significance of the local and the particular. The temptation of universal and abstract notions such as ‘nature’ are that they seem precise and that it is possible to transport them from one location, or context, to another. But this is illusory. It is only part of the picture. Some ideas and understandings relocate, others do not. A strong debate being played out in farming in New Zealand at present illustrates this point. The desire to engineer ideal dairy farming conditions on the dry and windswept Canterbury Plains, through extensive irrigation and water management strategies, is a dramatic manifestation of this desire to replicate an idealised nature.

Outdoor educators would be better to shift their focus away from the abstraction of nature to the particulars of a place, and should understand why a particular place matters to their students. Some of these places may be places where the primeval qualities of nature seem more evident than the marks of culture. But, as we discussed in the last chapter, in almost all locations, even this is an illusion. As Geoff Park (1995, 2006) demonstrates so clearly in the remnant lowland forests of New Zealand, even in the most wild-like places, the evidence of human occupation and how it has impacted on and changed the landscape, is there for those who take the time to learn to look for it. Similarly, in the most cultured of landscapes, Park finds evidence of the primeval life force of wild nature, constantly trying to re-establish itself. A focus upon a particular place collapses the illusion of boundaries between culture and nature. Outdoor educators need to understand that increased competence in interpreting places requires specific pedagogic strategies. As outlined in the previous chapter, the empathetic insider draws upon all of their senses and disciplined study skills to get as close as possible to the insider’s experience of a place.

Critical outdoor education

Peter Martin (1994, 1995, 1998, 1999) has argued that outdoor education should promote critical reflection on human-nature relationships: ‘I am a critical outdoor educator. For me, developing sustainable relationships with nature is the ultimate good’ (Martin 1999, 14). It is a laudable aspiration, but is this a realistic goal for outdoor educators? There are several reasons why such proposals for a critical outdoor education for sustainable nature-relations should be approached with a degree of caution. Critical social theory is summarised by Macauley (1996) as being characterised by a ‘critical perspective on technology, power, scientism, and instrumental reason along with an opposition to exploitative capitalist social relations’ (p. 2). According to Carr and Kemmis (1986), the enacting of social critical theory into practice requires:

a social process that combines collaboration in the process of critique with the political determination to act to overcome contradictions in the rationality and justice of social action and social institutions. A critical social science will be one that goes beyond critique to critical praxis; that is, a form of practice in which the ‘enlightenment’ of actors comes to bear directly in the transformed social action. (p. 144)

It is the everyday encounter with, and the transmission of social inequity in all its forms and the cultural mechanisms that make this process persistent, that critical theorists in education want to interrogate, challenge and change. Such an approach has been used effectively, for example, to highlight the hidden social curriculum in health and physical education (HPE). The example of how a critical theory has been applied in HPE is worth exploring in more detail. Tinning (2002) and Macdonald (2002) draw on a discourse spanning the last three decades (by Giroux, Bain, Kirk and Fernandez-Balboa, to name a few) in examining issues of power, privilege and oppression in the hidden curriculum of HPE. Interestingly the ascendancy of a critically-inspired social justice agenda in physical education, Tinning argues, ‘now behoves university teacher education programs in Australia to actually set about teaching student teachers how to implement a HPE curriculum that is coherent with social justice principles that are inscribed in contemporary policy and curriculum documents’ (2002, 229). Yet Tinning notes difficulties that should be of interest to critical outdoor educators. He describes the resistance of undergraduate physical education students to the critical agenda suggesting that their desire for technical competence and certainty rather than ambiguity, even if that sense of certainty is largely itself an illusion, were significant points of resistance. Tinning cites research where physical education undergraduate students, by and large, rejected the overtures of the socially-critical agenda in their teacher education training as they confronted the seemingly more immediate demands of developing the knowledge and technical and pedagogic competence they felt their profession required.

There is an important lesson here for those who would endorse a critical agenda (for sustaining nature) in outdoor education. The ability to critique is not enough if we want to change practice, and practice is always experienced locally. Viable alternative forms of practice have to be proposed, experienced by educators and learners, evaluated and reported on, if the critique of contemporary practice is not to ring hollow. Gaps between rhetoric and reality need to be closed. As we have seen, it is too simplistic to make a strong case for human/nature-relations in outdoor education as a guiding principle. Nature, as a concept is too complex, culture bound and disputed to provide a meaningful foundation for pedagogic decision-making. In addition, critical approaches in education have tended to focus on social rather than ecological injustices – perhaps for the very reason just mentioned.

While it is clear that social justice issues (gender, sexuality, race, equality of access, and so on) are gathering momentum in outdoor education discourses (see for example, Humberstone; Brown; Richards 2003, Warren 1999), it is not clear that a socially critical agenda can be readily extended to include a critical pedagogy for relating to nature. Gruenewald (2003b) warns that

Critical pedagogy can work to reinforce cultural beliefs … that underlie ecological problems and that are reproduced throughout conventional education: namely, individualism, the belief in the progressive nature of change, and anthropocentrism. (p. 4)

Such an approach avoids the more difficult task of negotiating practical solutions locally from a socio-ecological orientation (Mulligan and Hill 2001), or through a critical pedagogy of place (Gruenewald 2003b), which would appear to hold greater potential for a place-responsive pedagogy. What is required for outdoor education to be an effective form of cultural criticism, according to Payne (2002), is a more earnest ‘“reflexive turn” about its “own” activities and constructions of experience, learning, education and nature’ (p. 17). Brookes (1994) also remains cautious about the limits of a critical approach.

Ecologically responsive experience is negotiated with a particular place, using our bodies and all our senses, and is (necessarily) mediated by culture … We can tell of the experience later (like a novelist), and interpret its cultural dimension (like a critic), but rational theory cannot wholly script, nor wholly explain, the experience. (p. 32)

In summary, then, we contend that the emergence of a discourse for relating to nature-as-friend or for a critical outdoor education that focuses on sustainable human-nature relations, while corrective to persistent interpretations of outdoor places (as arena or wilderness, for example), does not acknowledge how people actually live in and experience the world. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1996) reminds us that ‘no one lives in the world in general’ (p. 256). This emerging discourse in outdoor education has, no doubt, moved the profession in the right direction. But, we argue, another significant step is needed for it to provide a useful pedagogic strategy that changes practice and which will close the gap between rhetoric and reality. That step is, conceptually at least, a relatively simple one. We need to step back from the apparent grandeur of nature to embrace the mundane, everyday experience of particular outdoor places.

Very little outdoor education practice has been researched to assess the role of place and how it is encountered and experienced (or not) by outdoor education participants. Alistair Stewart (2004b) neatly articulates how problematic this may yet prove to be.

While the idea [of relationships with nature] is commendable, without consideration or acknowledgment of the place, culture, context or situation of an experience it could be argued that this is another form of colonialism, or neo-colonialism perhaps. I am fearful that our colonial history has produced a blind-spot in how we seek to relate to ‘nature,’ for ‘nature’ is again subjected to our desire for ‘mastery’ in our attempt to connect to it. (p. 47)

Educators, and outdoor educators, have fallen into step with the other groups in society in promoting a nature-endorsing argument. Place, a more appropriate everyday human scale phenomenon, continues to be too close to be seen by most educators. Why? According to David Orr (1992), educators have failed to see much significance in understanding, or attempting to teach, place. He explains that ‘place is nebulous to educators because to a great extent we are deplaced people for whom immediate places are no longer sources of food, water, livelihood, energy, materials, friends, recreation or sacred inspiration’ (p. 126). The typical curriculum, according to Orr, is based upon abstraction, which disconnects people from ‘tangible experience, real problems, and the places where we live and work’ (p. 126). Outdoor education, in its difficult quest to forge sustainable relationships with nature, is in danger or becoming just another example of this typically placeless approach to curriculum and pedagogy – brimful of good intent, but exceedingly difficult to put into practice.

So we have reached a turning point. We must now begin the journey back to place. This becomes the focus for the remainder of the book. We begin with examining what has been written about place-based education and an analysis of recent research into outdoor education where place is acknowledged as having a role to play in participants’ experiences. Together, these begin to shed some initial light on the challenges that must be overcome if outdoor educators are to develop an alternative, place-responsive form of practice.

Place-based education

Much of the writing on place-based education has come out of the United States (see, for example, Gruenewald 2003a; Gruenewald and Smith 2008; Hutchinson 2004; Smith, 2002). Other writers have discussed similar ideas using terms such as ‘ecological literacy’ (Orr 1992) and ‘ecological identity’ (Thomashow 1996) which include elements of a place-responsive approach. Much of this discourse seems to feed off of the literary tradition of North American nature writing. In particular, writers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, amongst others, are often cited as providing model examples of multidisciplinary and experiential inquiry into living simply in response to a place. Thoreau’s Walden, for example, is a revered book in North American culture, ‘a mosaic of philosophy, natural history, geology, folklore, archeology, economics, politics, education, and more’ (Orr 1992, 125). Yet, as we have seen, nature writing is not without its limitations in terms of depicting and valorising the author’s own narrative as an individual seeking contact with the wild. The author, like Thoreau in his year living beside Walden Pond, goes to the edge of the ‘civilised’ world, experiences the rawness and wildness of nature, and reports back.

David Orr (1992) and Mitchell Thomashow (1996) have begun the process of articulating an alternative argument for the aims, intents and practices in education that respond to a moral ecological imperative. The approach proposed by these authors is to examine and respond to those cultural forces that continue to cause damage to ecological systems on which communities depend. Orr (1992) refers to ecological literacy both in terms of what is required to become learned (ie to be literate) in how ecological systems function. But he also argues that it is about experiencing the world in a particular way – having the desire to develop the ‘capacity to observe nature with insight, a merger of landscape and mindscape’ (p. 86). In the effort to develop ecological literacy Orr (1992) suggests that we need to open up a dialogue with nature. Thomashow argues that this may lead to ‘a reconstruction of personal identity, so that people begin to consider how their actions, values, and ideals are framed according to their perceptions of nature’ (1996, xiii). The reconstructed identity is then assumed to operate from a renewed ethical standpoint in the world. This Leopoldian form of thinking supports the eco-philosopher’s famous dictum, a thing (a human decision or action) is seen to be right when it ‘tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’ (Leopold 1987, 225).

Both Orr and Thomashow acknowledge the crucial importance of place and community as appropriate settings for the kinds of ecological work that they are proposing. Though they draw extensively from a particular literary tradition that includes Muir, Thoreau, Leopold and others, their work, perhaps, marks a significant departure rather than continuation of this literary tradition. Notions of individualism, rationality and a preference for wildness are challenged and the work of providing alternatives is begun. Both argue that mainstream education is part of the problem. They make an overwhelming case for the need for educational reform as a part of a larger paradigmatic shift in cultural awareness and beliefs about how humans live within communal and ecological systems and habitats. However, the scale of eco-revolution they appear to be advocating seems unlikely in the near term. Orr and Thomashow’s arguments are compelling but place an enormous onus of responsibility on the shoulders of teachers and students to take on and overthrow doggedly persistent cultural beliefs and systemic educational and political structures. Perhaps a more practical and viable, albeit humble, alternative is to begin the process of reforming educational practice from within.

Gruenewald and Smith (2008) see place-based educational initiatives as part of ‘a broader social movement reclaiming the significance of the local in the global age’ (p. xiii). It is part of a ‘new localism’ that is a reaction to economic globalisation and corporate capitalism. Schooling and education can be seen as contributing to these globalising forces through centralised curricula, the promotion in schools of a national and international agenda at the expense of a regional and local one, and in the processes of preparing students to participate in the modern economy. Rather than getting muddy in a study of the local wetland, and perhaps even beginning the process of its ecological rehabilitation, students are more likely to be found online, gathering facts about the problems of deforestation in the Amazon. The hidden curriculum here favours students developing info-tech literacy, the notion that the global crisis is far away and the experiencing body as irrelevant in education.

Gregory Smith (2002) reviewed a number of place-based educational programs and initiatives in North American schools. He noted five distinct types of programs. First, cultural studies programs that involved students and teachers investigating local and historical phenomena that impacted on their lives. As a result they have produced oral histories, journalism, dramatic plays and so on. Such outcomes resonate with the traditions of oral culture and local storytelling. Second, Smith highlights local nature studies where students engage with and learn about nature in their local environment. Most outdoor and environmental educators will already be familiar with these style of programs. Third, both of the first two types of programs may be extended into ‘real-world problem-solving’. Students identify a local issue or problem and develop strategies to solve it through taking action. The teacher works as facilitator with the students and possibly as a broker with outside groups. There is a strong sense of Dewey inspired democracy at work here, although there may be an assumption inherent in the belief that humans can practice a form of mastery over their situation by evaluating, solving and managing complex social and ecological phenomena that are simplified as environmental problems.

Smith also considers internships and work experience opportunities within schooling to have the potential to be run as placed-based learning experiences. What becomes important here is the realisation that local employment opportunities exist for students, particularly in rural and inner city locations, when they may have assumed that they would have to move away from home to pursue work or further study. Such experiences are seen to provide an alternative to the common belief in modern industrial and post-industrial societies that the population (especially young adults) will need to move, perhaps many times, to establish themselves. This capitalist assumption, as we noted earlier, may be manifest in outdoor adventure education where risky expeditions in search of opportunities far away from home are endorsed. Finally, Smith (2002) claims that opportunities for learners to be inducted into the community process of local decision-making can also be seen as examples of place-based education. This brings notions of place politics to the fore. As argued in the previous chapter, place is not simply a question of personal identification. Rather place emerges as a phenomenon that is manifest between person, location and community interactions.

These types of educational programs, and Smith cites many examples from across the United States, might be seen as grassroots resistance movements against both national agendas and globalising forces. They germinate and grow when they are nurtured locally. Like the slow food movement, perhaps, they are action based but suggestive of deeper philosophical roots.

The attention to experience in place-based education locates its pedagogy in the broader traditions of experiential and contextual education and in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Places, and our relationship with them, are worthy of our attention because places are powerfully pedagogical. (Gruenewald and Smith 2008, 143)

What seems attractive about these initiatives from an educational perspective is that they engage with the learner’s lived experience of their immediate world. They occur on an appropriate scale for the learner. They begin with the view of the learner as an inhabitant of a place. There is a home-grown feel about them: ‘Let’s consider our situation and make some realistic decisions together about what seems like an appropriate course of action.’ ‘Let’s give it a go, be aware of what happens and modify things along the way if necessary.’ ‘When we finish it, we’ll evaluate how we think we went and tell our local community about it.’ ‘We’ll keep some records and stories about what we’ve done for ourselves and for others in the future.’ ‘We’ll then be in a good position to think about what to do next.’ Of course this somewhat simplifies the complex thinking and educational negotiations that go into many of these types of initiatives.

David Gruenewald (2003b) has previously argued that for these kind of educational experiences to have a deeper and longer lasting impact upon both the individual learner and society, they need to function as an education in decolonisation and re-inhabitation. David Orr (1992) contrasts the inhabitant of a locale with that of the resident. The resident, he argues, puts down few roots and establishes few real connections with his or her local environment. Although they may live part of their life there for a time, they do not dwell there. The inhabitant, on the other hand, lives in a reciprocated union with a place. Inhabitants live within an intricate web of associations (work, family, family history, leisure, belief systems and so on) with the place they call home. Gruenewald (2003b, 9) continues:

Decolonization describes the underside of reinhabitation; it may not be possible without decolonization. If reinhabitation involves learning to live well socially and ecologically in places that have been disrupted and injured, decolonisation involves learning to recognize disruption and injury and to address their causes. From an educational perspective, it means unlearning much of what dominant culture and schooling teaches, and learning more socially just and ecologically sustainable ways of being in the world.

There are several possibilities here for outdoor educators. Clearly, outdoor educators who are sympathetic to the cause of educating for ecological sustainability (and, by association, with community sustainability) would see the potential to form alliances with other place-based or place-inspired educators and programs. Indeed, these educators have found a way to draw upon the mutuality of communal and ecological systems. Outdoor educators might also see themselves as bringing particular skills in experiential pedagogies and understandings of how to introduce students to, and teach in, outdoor settings. Smith (2002) notes that one of the hallmarks of place-based education is that ‘the wall between school and community becomes much more permeable’ (p. 593). Outdoor educators might position themselves as educators well-versed in assisting with learners making frequent transitions between schools (or other institutional settings), their larger communities and the ecologies within which they are located.

Nascent research into place in outdoor education

As we mentioned at the outset of the book, John Cameron (2001) challenged outdoor educators to move beyond the dualistic separation of wilderness and everyday places. Yet there are only a handful of examples in Australian and New Zealand outdoor education literature which raise questions about outdoor pedagogy and look beyond outdoor educators’ own discourses to those of ‘place’ for inspiration (M. Brown 2008b; Hill 2010a; Irwin 2010; Mullins 2007; Preston and Griffiths 2004; Stewart 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2004a, 2004b; Wattchow 2001a, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008). This is not to say that place-based and place-responsive outdoor education programs do not exist. They almost certainly do. But little evidence of them has been published in the outdoor education literature (although the New Zealand Journal of Outdoor Education has recently published a special edition on this theme in 2010). This may be because peer-reviewed academic journals and conference proceedings tend to publish the writings of academics and postgraduate research students and much of this is theoretical in nature. Anecdotal accounts of programs written by practitioners are few and far between.

However, there are a small number of research studies that shed some light on the place dimension of outdoor education experiences (Cuthbertson 1999; Henderson 1995; Mullins 2007; Preston and Griffiths 2004; Raffan 1992; Stewart 2003a; Wattchow 2006, 2007, 2008). These studies stand to offer important directions and insights for outdoor education practice. Collectively, perhaps, they represent the first steps towards a deeper understanding of the role of local places in outdoor education experience. Wattchow’s (2006) study of undergraduate student responses to river places in south-eastern Australia is reported on in one of the case study chapters to follow. The other studies are discussed in the following section of this chapter.

Stepping back into place

Lou Preston and Amma Griffiths (2004) used a similar approach to Cameron (2003a) when they constructed a collaborative action research project with postgraduate outdoor and environmental education students that involved a minimum of four visits of two hours’ duration to a ‘natural place’ selected by each participant. On each visit students explored the place using a different ‘frame’ – either the experiential, historical, scientific, or aesthetic. In between visits they attended classes and completed readings and tasks associated with these seemingly different ways of knowing their chosen place. Evidence from the study seemed to demonstrate how the experiential frame often provided a foundation in getting to know a new place. As one of the participants in the study noted:

For me the biggest thing that helped me to connect was when we used the experiential frame and I went there and just observed and touched things. Using all my senses and looking from every angle is what worked best for me to get to know my place. (Preston and Griffiths 2004, 39)

Over repeated visits a layering effect resulted where the participants were surprised by feeling increasingly connected to ‘their’ place as they learnt about it through historical, scientific and aesthetic forms of inquiry. The authors of the study noted that the multi-pronged teaching approach which included discussion groups and journal keeping between visits were important components of overall learning. Yet, ultimately, Preston and Griffiths comment that ‘we remain ambivalent about the durability of the connection once the influence of this intense experience recedes’ (p. 43). Once again, it seems that students in the study have responded to the cultural idea of the separateness of nature from their everyday life. This student’s honest summary should give cause for deep refection on the part of all outdoor educators.

In many ways I have kept my experience and connection with place separate from my daily life. While I was there I was intrigued. I wanted to see everything, experience everything and understand everything. But I found that after returning from a visit I was quickly reconsumed with the events of my daily life … quickly slipped back into my societal role and continue to live as I do. (Preston and Griffiths 2004, 42)

Perhaps, like Cameron, who used similar student–place projects with social ecology students, regaining a child-like sense of wonder located in the sensual saturation of getting to know a place became an end in itself for the participants.

I have observed a tendency amongst some students to take refuge in their chosen places, to derive personal comfort and significance from these visits, to revel in the newfound place attachment, and not to relate to the larger questions of sustainability, or cultural change, or control of economic power. It is a risk for educators that experiential learning can lead students so deeply into their internal experience that they are reluctant to emerge from it. (Cameron 2003a, 188)

The land as teacher

James Raffan’s (1992) doctoral thesis ‘Frontier, homeland and sacred space: A collaborative investigation into cross-cultural perceptions of place in the Thelon Game Sanctuary, Northwest Territories’, explored how the land may act as teacher in shaping people’s perceptions of a place. While his study did not directly involve the collection or interpretation of data from an outdoor education program, Raffan made deliberate links to experiential outdoor pedagogy. Raffan’s goal was to better understand the range of human responses to a specific place, the Thelon Game Sanctuary, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and how people learnt from the land. He collected data through an extensive range of interviews with indigenous and Euro-Canadians and also used his own poetic and artistic responses to the land on a six-week-long canoe journey to build insights into the person–place connection. It is this grounding of research activity in place, its local terrain and its people, that makes Raffan’s work so instructive. While commenting on the work of phenomenological investigations into people’s experiences of places by scholars such as Tuan, Buttimer, Relph and Seamon he observed:

There is, however, a problem with the bulk of sense of place research, namely that it is rarely based on primary field work. Tuan, for example, writes lyrically about sense of place, drawing from the mythology and traditions of a wide diversity of cultures, but in the end, one cannot ground his work in any one place. As such, the concepts are strong, but the work is almost too clean, not concerning itself with politics or the interactions within and between people. (Raffan 1992, 23)

At the time of writing Raffan described the Thelon Game Reserve as a ‘contentious piece of land’ (1992, ii) in the central Northwest Territories of Canada. A number of indigenous groups were in the process of making territorial claims for the land and it had a complex history of European exploration. Indigenous peoples continue to live and hunt in the area and canoe companies guide expeditions with Euro-Canadian visitors. Raffan’s dissertation was an exploration of how the land did, or did not, act as a teacher in terms of shaping perceptions about the Reserve as a place for these various groups of people. As a result of the study Raffan (1992, 1993) identified in the data four guiding concepts that constituted how the land acted as teacher. He advocates them for consideration by educators, as a means of exploring connections to outdoor places.

The first component that Raffan (1992, 382) refers to is the experiential component of a sense of place as the personal link to the land itself through experience, although he notes that not ‘every experience leads to a deepening sense of place’. Raffan concluded that dependence on the land for survival necessitated a much deeper attention to land, ‘an exponential jump in magnitude’ (p. 384), and thus a deeper sense of place than resulted, for example, from a self-contained canoe journey. Raffan calls the second component the toponymic sense of place. This refers to the origin and significance of place names and the process of naming places. The third component relates a narrative sense of place and how stories about the land came to be, and the cultural significance of oral traditions, and tales of travelling the land: ‘What sets apart [indigenous] from most Euro-Canadian narrative is that native narrative is set into the land-knowledge triangle, and integrated into the mix of place names and personal experience that has for many years been used by elders to teach young people about land and survival’ (1992, 381–382). Raffan (1992) describes the land knowledge triangle as an embodiment of three ways of knowing: ‘place names, land related stories, and personal experience living, hunting and trapping on the land’ (p. 370). The final component Raffan describes is the numinous, a sense of divine presence in spiritual encounters with the land. Such a response by the author seems to result from the indigenous participants in the study who still retained mytho-poetic relations with their lands. A numinous response was far less evident among Euro-Canadian participants.

For Raffan, each of these concepts differentiated ways that people were potentially linked to, and learnt from, place within the holistic concept of ‘the land as teacher’. Even though much of Raffan’s study was based on an ethnographical inquiry into indigenous peoples, he found that these dimensions of the place experience held for some, but not all, Euro-Canadians who visited the region. The influence of Raffan’s canoe journey and his poetic and artistic responses to the land and the participants in his study cannot be underestimated. Like Geoff Park’s descriptions of his explorations of the remnant lowland forests of New Zealand, the reader becomes aware that the sensing body of the author/researcher plays an important role in the production of the final text. The writer is not a disembodied and invisible authority. Instead, the reader encounters a storyteller drawing upon all of their faculties to try to work their way inside a place and take us, the reader, with them.

People’s experiences of places, their spiritual or numinous encounters, the names and naming of outdoor places, and the stories that people both tell and listen to in a place, provide outdoor educators with important clues in thinking about what a place-responsive form of practice might look like. However, Raffan (1992) also sounds a note of caution when he concludes:

It is possible, or so it would seem from the Euro-Canadian accounts, for a person to visit the place with an outfitter on a guided trip, or even on their own trip with perspective narrowed to the river corridor exclusively and/or with sight shortened to map references only, and to return with no appreciable new insights or observation of what the land was like or what the land had to offer. (p. 382)

Students boating on smooth lake with snowy mountain backdrop

“People’s experiences of places, their spiritual or numinous encounters,
the names and naming of outdoor places, and the stories that people both
tell and listen to in a place, provide outdoor educators with important clues in thinking about what a place-responsive form of practice might look like.”

Researching the outdoor education journey from a place perspective

The studies by Henderson (1995) into outdoor travel and guiding, Cuthbertson (1999) into expeditionary encounters with place, and Stewart (2003a) into environment specific learning while on a three-week outdoor journey, were all concerned with the experiences of undergraduate university students on extended outdoor field trips. There are several overlapping qualities in these three studies. Henderson and Cuthbertson both completed studies using an inductive, qualitative methodological approach and both adopted a socially critical orientation. Cuthbertson and Stewart’s inquiries were both case studies of specific field programs, whereas Henderson’s was a retrospective account based on data collected from multiple programs. All utilised participant-written accounts of experiences and the researcher’s (as leader/guide) observations, reflections and interpretations. Cuthbertson was the only researcher to also utilise interviews as a means of gathering data, whilst Henderson was the only researcher to conduct a ‘member check’ with participants of his research findings and interpretations. Collectively, their findings and interpretations add further to the framework provided by Raffan (1992, 1993).

‘What does it mean to be “OF” a place?’ asks Henderson (1995, 33).

It is certainly a far cry from let’s ‘overcome’ this route, ‘challenge this whitewater,’ ‘beat this mountain,’ ‘study the particulars of this setting or phenomena.’ Perhaps it is a greater traveller’s challenge to be ‘still’ and come to see really where you are. (p. 33)

Henderson collected and interpreted student journal entries written over ten years, based on two long-standing field programs – an eight-day canoe tour and a five-day snow shoe trip, both in eastern Canada. The journeys seemed to encourage heritage values of travel and exploration in the Canadian outdoors. Stewart’s (2003a) study of Australian participants on a three-week long bushwalk was designed to gain insight into the experiences and learning gained from travelling through three different, but neighbouring environments: ‘It is not an inquiry into ‘people’ alone, or of a certain environment, but rather of a particular people encountering particular landscapes’ (Stewart 2003a, 26). Participants in Stewart’s study traversed alpine country between Mount Jagungal and the Main Range of the Australian Alps, the sub-alpine country around The Pilot and Chimneys, and then an area around a section of the Snowy River, as they walked between food drops. The participants on this walk maintained a field journal to capture their own reflections but also to respond to a series of guiding questions (about outdoor leadership, community/social interactions and the natural environment). The participants in Cuthbertson’s (1999) study faced possibly the most arduous physical challenges in their outdoor expeditions; a month long back country skiing trip and, a few months later, a six week sea kayaking journey. Both of these expeditions were conducted in western Canada. Cuthbertson’s research began with a simple and humble goal.

I wish merely to add to the concept of place so that those of us who live primarily in urbanized areas, but who still seek a profound relationship with nature may do so without feeling it to be somehow inferior. (Cuthbertson 1999, 6)

According to Henderson (1995) ‘deep’ connections with community and ecology can lead to a transformation of self for the participant – the ability to ‘realise’ oneself and one’s connection to the world differently. In addition Cutherbertson and Stewart felt that the undergraduate participants that they researched were able to develop a critical awareness of their outdoor journeys and their significance. Collectively, this research suggests that such responses are possible as a result of relatively short, but intense, outdoor journeys (six weeks). But does this constitute responsiveness to the places where these journeys were conducted?

Two of the researchers commented that participants struggled to feel connected to the land they were travelling in when their personal comfort (physical and emotional) was challenged (Cuthbertson 1999; Stewart 2003a). All three researchers noted the significance of solo-time and the observation that participants responded to travelling through a ‘storied landscape’. Interestingly, Cuthbertson’s study, perhaps due to the expedition’s duration and arduous nature, revealed how participants’ personal experiences were ‘fickle,’ in so far as participants encountered phases of the expedition experience when they definitely wanted to go home, and other times when there was no other place that they would rather be. As may well be expected in studies that inquire into the ‘lived experience’ of outdoor education participants, people are revealed as being complex and capable of holding contradictory emotional responses to their experiences.

All three researchers noted the importance of community relationships – that is, for the small group community of the expedition. Places encountered were often recalled in relation to social events that occurred there. Cuthbertson noted this social layering of the experience of place as the dominant theme of his findings. Interestingly, and perhaps as a result of the duration and arduous qualities of the expedition experience in his group, Cuthbertson was alone in commenting in any depth on social influences that did not seem conducive to experiencing the place, such as gender-based conflict and the formation of cliques within the larger group.

There was little evidence that encounters with wildlife played a significant role in the participants’ experiences in these studies (at least in how the participants’ experiences are represented), and this is perhaps surprising. Instead, outdoor nature was largely referred to in more encompassing and possibly universal terms, such as mountain, forest, river. Cuthbertson noted that the romanticisation of outdoor nature at the expense of the city was a regular feature in his group, while Stewart concluded that expectation often resulted in a mismatch where the encounter with places (for example, an ecologically damaged river like the Snowy) resulted in unexpected emotional responses such as sadness, disappointment and even a sense of rejection of place amongst some participants.

Henderson found that the simple means of outdoor travel and living, such as using fires and tarpaulins instead of stoves and tents, maintained a sense of openness to nature. Yet both Cuthbertson and Stewart found that the structures of the experience (for example, carrying heavy packs over demanding terrain and extended periods of single file travel whilst ski touring), could impact negatively on participants’ ability or desire to relate to where they were. Cutherbertson, in particular, devotes considerable textual space to discussing the influence of technology, and its cousin technique, and how they result from various social and cultural imperatives in relation to outdoor experiences.

A particular strength of the three research studies is that they were place-based. Yet, apart from some introductory commentary about the locations of the programs, detailed descriptions of the places encountered by participants are not particularly evident. This contrasts for example, with nature writers and some recent environmental historians (see, for example, Park 1995; Seddon 1994; Sinclair 2001) who dedicate long passages of their text to providing careful descriptions of place locations, meetings with local people, and environmental contexts (such as landscape, light, temperature, time of day and so on). Such descriptions, if well crafted, give the text a resonance that allows the reader a greater level of insight into the representations of participants’ experiences and the researcher’s own journey of discovery. It highlights that the place matters.

The final research study we discuss involves the experience of river guides working as outdoor educators on the Snowy River in south-eastern Australia (Mullins 2007). Marc Mullins describes how outdoor education programs often hire leaders who are also credentialed guides for a range of reasons: to manage safe passage of the group downriver, to provide technical training, and to meet the educational objectives of the organisation that the program participants are drawn from. However, the river guide-as-educator is often provided with little advice or assistance about how to navigate through this set of demands.

In his study, Mullins collected the reflections and views of three river guides who each had a long history (more than ten years) leading educational expeditions on the Snowy. The study included a series of three interviews (life history, river guiding and sense of place, follow up on emerging themes) with each guide. Mullins revealed how the guides balanced their own sense of attachment to the Snowy with the needs and desires of the program participants and their host organisations. At a personal level it was found that the guides had a sense of belonging and care for the Snowy River accrued through a layering of many experiences over an extended period of time. As one of the guides commented:

I’d love to go down the Snowy every year until I couldn’t walk again … I just want to be able to keep my connection … if I can keep the personal connection that, that’s really important. (Mullins 2007, p. 77)

Mullins himself has worked as a river guide on the Snowy and has similar feelings of connection with the river as his co-participants in the research. In the presentation of his findings he couples representation of the participants’ views, with discussion and quotations from his own journal kept on a descent of the Snowy, which he completed during the analysis phase of the data he collected in the interviews.

River Journal,

Day 2, Friday September 20th 2006 – Campsite at McKillop’s Bridge.

Sleeping under a simple tarpaulin shelter I feel the bush start to come alive at first light. A bronze glint reflects off waters that have their source a long way from here, flowing from upstream tributaries like the Delegate, Jacobs and Pinch Rivers. The annual snowmelt, and the waters that steadily seep through Sphagnum Moss beds for months afterwards, no longer make the 500km journey from headwaters in the Snowy Mountains. Instead they are captured to spin turbines before being channelled west of The Great Dividing Range for irrigators and other downstream users.

Even from a silent campsite it is hard to hear the slow moving river as it flows over a sandy bottom that does little to disturb the current. Only when you listen carefully might you hear the river song chortling softly like a magpie as it surges over river rocks. Yet these are mostly invisible things for those that arrive here to begin a rafting expedition on the river. I have stood here many times as a guide amongst a clatter of equipment, food and people knowing that my job is to get it all on the river. Normally there is distance to be covered meaning that all this must be done in a very short time. But more difficult than this is the sizeable weight of expectation that people bring with them to a wild river. This part of the river seems to be a difficult place for people to connect with, not fitting the beauty expected of wilderness and without the ‘grandeur’ of the gorge country. It seems to fit better as a remote and unlovely necessity, a staging ground for the expedition.

For those who are new here, and keen to take on the challenges that have been constructed well beforehand, early glimpses of the river raise the question ‘Where are the rapids?’ I have often read the story in their faces, as they think ‘The ‘real’ river must be down there somewhere in the gorges’. It will be a couple of days at least before most will even begin to listen to the unique song of the Snowy River … (Mullins 2007, p. 72)

For the outdoor educators whose narratives are told in Mullins’ (2007) study, including his own, it is clear that they have developed a strong sense of attachment to the remote country of the Snowy River. Despite this deep sense of connection and a multilayered knowledge of the Snowy (including its history, geology, ecology and so on) the guides often had to work to the agenda of the host organisation that the students or clients came from. As one of the guides stated:

It doesn’t matter which context you’re working in, the ultimate responsibility is to keep people physically and emotionally safe. And then under that, is just to provide a really good experience that meets whatever criteria the groups happening, whether that be adventure, or personal development, or environmental education, or whatever it may be. (p. 70)

The guides represented a strong sense of service culture, delivering their skills and technical knowledge of rafting and river travel. The guides reported that host organisations were almost always interested in fairly typical outdoor education learning objectives (such as learners’ personal development, team building, opportunities to experience leadership and develop technical skills). Servicing these aims was found to work counter to the unique local knowledge of the Snowy. In other words, the singular focus on the learners’ development or the expressed program criteria of the host organisation worked against an experience of the Snowy as a place, to which each of the guides had a deep sense of attachment. How did the guides cope with this professional dilemma?

The three river guides in this study were all exceptionally experienced on the Snowy and as outdoor educators. They found ways and times to become storytellers, when they would introduce historical and ecological knowledge to the clients and students in their care. In some ways they were subverting the host organisation’s stated educational aims. The research concluded by recommending that the outdoor education host organisations (most often secondary schools and TAFEs) needed to provide a ‘cultural license’ for river guides to draw deeply on their sense of place knowledge. In addition, Mullins makes a case for the accreditation of river guides to acknowledge the importance of guides’ place-based knowledge of the rivers where they work. This would mark an shift in the outdoor education community away from generalised models of outdoor education to more nuanced and place-specific approaches that was more responsive to Australian and local conditions.

Collectively, these research studies provide considerable food for thought. How do contemporary pedagogic structures such as outdoor expeditions and journeys compare to repeated visits to one location in terms of place responsiveness on the part of educators and students? Is one of these forms of practice better than the other? Are they both defensible but require different pedagogic strategies? How do outdoor educators develop a deep sense of attachment to particular outdoor places and how do they use this with students? The only way to begin to answer these kind of questions is to continue the work started by these researchers, building on their insights into outdoor education philosophy and practice. Research into the subjective responses of outdoor educators and students, specifically into their lived experiences of particular outdoor places, is the most likely form of inquiry to yield rewarding insights.


As we have seen, outdoor educators have often privileged the role of experience in the way that learners learn. Yet the structures and qualities of human experience are elusive by nature and they cannot be fully captured and articulated. Cuthbertson (1999), for example, comments on agonising over the issue of representation of participants’ experiences in his study. There will be aspects of learners’ experiences, particularly their embodied learning, which continues to elude representation. How then should outdoor research into participants’ experiences of outdoor places be researched and evaluated? This becomes a crucial question for outdoor researchers and practitioners alike as, surely, gaining greater insight into the quality of the lived outdoor education experiences of both educators and learners will enable us to make better choices about pedagogic approaches in future programs. This is the overarching intent of the four case studies that follow.

Through this process we hope to provide the reader with material for deep reflection about the qualities and structures of the outdoor education experience from the perspective of one inside the experience. We hope that this will reanimate the reader to both empathise with the narratives in the case studies and to reconsider the character and nature of their own work as outdoor educators – either accepting, confirming, adapting or rejecting what we present in terms of their own situation and context. On a larger professional scale we hope to reinvigorate an interest in the importance of outdoor educators as researchers and writers, whether their starting point is as a theorist or a practitioner, in telling each other about the philosophical and pedagogical dimensions of our work.

Cite this chapter as: Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. 2011. ‘The Emergence of Place in Outdoor Education’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 77–105.

© Copyright 2011
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the copyright owners. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University Publishing.

A Pedagogy of Place

   by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown