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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 9

Signposts to a Place-Responsive Pedagogy in Outdoor Education

In this book we have argued that outdoor educators’ and learners’ experiences of the significance of outdoor places are less well understood than is warranted. The pedagogic implications of this omission are important and have significant consequences for outdoor education philosophy and practice. We have proposed that outdoor places are not merely venues or empty spaces, rather they are rich in significance and meaning. Places are a powerful pedagogic phenomenon. However, if educators fail to acknowledge and respond to places as an expression of culture they fail to recognise that places could be other than what they presently are. David Gruenewald (2003a, 627) argues that when we accept places as unproblematic,

such as the farm, the bank, the landfill, the strip mall, the gated community, and the new car lot – we also become complicit in the political processes … that stewarded these places into being and that continue to legitimize them. Thus places produce and teach particular ways of thinking about and being in the world. They tell us the way things are, even when they operate pedagogically beneath the conscious level.

We have added wilderness, national parks and other environmental reserves to Gruenewald’s list of places. Despite appearances, ‘natural areas’ are also cultural products with complex historical, political and economic forces having influenced their current state and what they may become in the future. The case studies in the previous four chapters have illustrated how outdoor places, and our experiences of them, are shaped by historical events, contemporary land use practices, and current cultural expectations. Not only are these places a product of ongoing human intentions and actions but we come to them full of expectations and desires for what we want them to be. The process of becoming place-responsive has the potential to engage both educators and students in different ways with regards to thinking, knowing and being in places such as the River Murray, Maungatautari, Raak Plain, or coastal Mount Maunganui. Teachers and guides who wish to facilitate outdoor programs that develop place-responsiveness need to be committed to come to know their places deeply.

The educator whose aim is to guide participants towards a responsiveness to a particular place is engaged in what Michael Thomashow (1996) calls ‘ecological identity work’. Thomashow offers a perspective that requires
a response:

Ecological identity work requires the ability to overcome both internal and external distractions, achieving a state of mind, a way of being, an approach to life experience, and a philosophy of learning. The challenge is to experience ecological identity everywhere, not just in specific places – contained regions such as nature centers or parks – but in the various domains of everyday life. (p. 179)

Thomashow’s ‘ecological identity work’ is, of course, simultaneously cultural identity work. This is why place is such a powerful concept for educators. David Gruenewald (2003a) also makes a strong case for the ‘profoundly pedagogical’ importance of place (p. 621). He states that ‘places teach us about how the world works and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy. Further, places make us: As occupants of particular places with particular attributes, our identity and our possibilities are shaped’ (p. 621). We are suggesting that outdoor educators need to understand and pay greater attention to how particular places call us to learn and how this learning may be interconnected from one place to another. For example, from the outdoor journey to our everyday home, or from the school yard to the shopping mall. To rephrase Thomashow, we need to be prepared to do place-work wherever we are if the place is to have any significance for us and if we are to be involved in its future prospects. Otherwise we are just passing through.

We hope we have revealed how problematic some forms of outdoor education are, for both participants and places, when they are underpinned by ideals that stress difference, contrast and novelty from the everyday. The downside of some adventure education and even experiential approaches is that place is silenced as the mere backdrop to human action and this impoverishes opportunities for learning. Practices that promote the distinctiveness of learning and the essential self that will be ‘revealed’ in the outdoors remain ‘out there’ in the land of the exotic rather than in the-here-and-now, or in the felt (embodied) complexity of the everyday. The learning that is experienced as being ‘out there’ is potentially marginalised and tends to stay ‘out there’.

We have also demonstrated, through recourse to relevant literature and examples, that a place-responsive outdoor education philosophy and practice is eminently achievable. It involves little, if any, investment in high-tech equipment and reduces the emphasis on risky activities and therefore the cost of ever-increasing risk management compliance. The emphasis for the guide or educator shifts away from technical skills and credentials, to knowing one’s place(s) and developing good pedagogic strategies for introducing others to it/them. Outdoor programs could be conducted locally, or in familiar and readily accessible locales more often. As we have discussed, this does not necessarily negate travel to locations further afield. But it shifts the emphasis away from being the exotic visitor to getting ‘beneath the skin’ of a place by becoming an empathetic traveller. The empathetic traveller is one who also knows their home-place well, and so can judge the similarities and the particularities of places encountered via the journey.

Because place-responsive outdoor education is, by its very nature, specific to particular locales it is not possible to prescribe a generic program, sequence of events, or list of activities. However, we have attempted to draw together four signposts to a place-responsive outdoor education pedagogy that we believe might help point the way. As with the case studies, consideration of how these signposts might apply or need to be adapted to best suit other places, teachers and learners is best left to the reader, and ultimately must be negotiated within the experience of each different place and its peoples. The following signposts gesture towards new pedagogic pathways that bring together the embodied, sensory encounter and the interpretive lifeworlds of participants with outdoor places themselves. The four proposed signposts are:

  1. Being present in and with a place.
  2. The power of place-based stories and narratives.
  3. Apprenticing ourselves to outdoor places.
  4. The representation of place experiences.

Signpost 1: Being present in and with a place

Peter Hay poses a question of relevance to educators who take the challenge of place seriously. It is ‘How do we learn our way back into place’? Paraphrasing Bachelard, he states that the ‘real’ can only be approached ‘via a sub-linguistic process of uncritical, childlike wonder’ (2003, 273). To encounter the world with this sense of wonder, as if for the first time, is a formidable challenge. For those of us steeped in the Western tradition of enlightened rationalism it is tempting, and somewhat natural, to fall ‘back into the confines of [the] intellect’ (Lopez 1986, 250). Barry Lopez’s demanding questions to himself as a writer – ‘How can you occupy a place and also have it occupy you? How can you find such a reciprocity?’ (1996, 11) – attune us to this pedagogic challenge. The first step in developing reciprocity with a place involves re-engaging with a way of being in the world that perhaps, as adults, we have forgotten, fail to value, or have learned to treat with suspicion. As Lopez (1996) suggests:

The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place. If you open yourself you can build intimacy. Out of such intimacy will come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe. (p. 11)

It is unlikely that educators, guides or participants will allow themselves to become vulnerable to place(s) if they feel threatened by unknown hazards they imagine will be found there. The rhetoric of being outside one’s comfort zone, of danger and risk, is not immutable nor necessarily intrinsic to outdoor education. The present, taken-for-granted definitions of what constitutes outdoor education, are social constructions which can be replaced or complemented by other ways of thinking and acting. The case studies we have presented reveal the value of becoming comfortable in a place and being present. You may recall the response of undergraduate students to the slow, early morning drift in a canoe on the River Murray or Arthur Curl’s work with students on Raak Plain when they take the time to simply be with a belah tree (and its many occupants) and to listen to the music that it makes. Such experiences provide the opportunity for participants to become fascinated with the sounds, textures, smells and the shifting appearance of a place throughout the day and night. Certainly how learners are introduced to these types of activities and the timing of such encounters relies on judgement and attention to nuance on the part of the educator. Outdoor educators, when thinking about their students, would do well to consider the same questions that the literary critic Jonathan Bate asks about the eco-poets that he reviews in The Song of the Earth; ‘How are they influenced by climate? In what kind of landscape do they flourish? What are their modes of creating shelter, their relations to other species?’ (2000, ix).

As educators it is necessary that we first believe that what happens in an outdoor place is significant and meaningful. This is an education in the senses, a learning to attend to our immediate surrounds. The position advocated here reflects in part the call by some educators (Gardner 1999; Weil 1959, 2002) for greater focus within education for students to be given the opportunity to develop attentiveness. Tooth and Renshaw (2009) have recently summarised the work of several authors on the purpose and significance of educators working with learners to develop their perceptual acuity to their environment. Paraphrasing Gardner (1999) they suggest that the primary purpose of schools is to develop attentive citizens who have studied the world most carefully and lived in it most thoughtfully. They draw also upon the work of Simone Weil (1959, 2002) who claims that attention is the real object of education because only when human beings make the effort to connect to the social and material world around them do they grasp truth and gain deep understanding. Finally, they consider the ‘profound attentiveness’ proposed by the eclectic biologist Mary Clark (2004). We might add to this group John Cameron’s call for experiential educators to practice an ‘open attentiveness’ with their students.

It may be that encounters with outdoor places, when sensory awareness is heightened to its zenith, will be temporary, momentary, even fleeting. But this does not lessen its educative value. We may learn through repeated efforts to attend to the immediate, the first step in a journey towards connection. This is why philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and David Abram have written so extensively on the theme of perception. To experience a meaningful relationship with anything we must first perceive our connectedness with it. Perception, according to Abram (1996a, 52),

is precisely this reciprocity, the ongoing interchange between my body and the entities that surround it. It is a sort of silent conversation that I carry on with things, a continuous dialogue that unfolds far below my verbal awareness.

In the moment that we perceive our fundamental and constant reciprocity with the world it ceases to be a thing made up of objects. Instead, it becomes an unfolding phenomenon and we come to stand within it, alongside all the other beings, as integrated co-members within the land community (Leopold 1987). As the Canadian outdoor educator Bob Henderson says, we are released to return to the terrain itself.

What does it mean to be ‘OF’ a place? This is a question worth holding onto consciously. 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. (Henderson 1995, 33).

Experiencing being present, or even working on being present, does not necessarily involve activities such as drawing, reading, writing, or photographing. It does not involve trying to record or represent the experience in any way. These things come later. It simply involves making the effort to attend to what is meaningful in our immediate surrounds and to increase our levels of awareness. What it requires of participants is stillness, silence and patience. What it requires of educators is a sense of timing and a feel for the possibilities in our immediate surrounds. What it does suggest is the need to take time in and with place(s) rather than rushing or pushing through. This may have an impact on our mode of travel, our choice of activity in-place, and our revisiting of places in different seasons or cycles of learning (see Payne and Wattchow, 2008). What it does challenge is notions of quick ‘raids’ (Brookes, 1994) that disregard the pedagogical significance of place.

Signpost 2: The power of place-based stories and narratives

A heightened sensory awareness of our surrounds may be the first step towards connection, but experience is more than our sensory reaction to the world. Experience includes interpretation and reflection; the cognitive sense we make of our situatedness in the world. Our senses are filtered and conditioned through technologies and how we have been enculturated to make meaning from our experiences. Rather than diminish the value of the senses, which is the way of the rationalist, we argue that outdoor educators and learners should attend to them and strive to better understand the cultural meanings they are attaching to them. In relation to the experience of outdoor places an effective and appropriate way to do this, we suggest, is through the power of story and storytelling.

There are several ways that we can think about story and storytelling as outdoor educators. When we hear the word ‘story’ these days, many of us might imagine a news story ‘breaking’ in the daily paper or on the TV screen or the web. Or we might have an image of sitting quietly soaking up the narrative of a novel, biography or historical account in a book. Similarly, we might immerse ourselves in a story unfolding on the big screen in a darkened cinema. Story is fundamental to being human. These relatively modern versions of story may be distant relatives of the more ancient and enduring ways that storytelling has been used when people told and listened to stories face to face, passing on subtle cultural and educational messages from one to another.

It is for precisely this reason that stories play a significant role in the experience of places by participants in outdoor education. Lopez (1986) and Abram (1996a) believe that stories can hold the accumulated knowledge of peoples and places and that the act of telling a story, when one had earned the right to do so, is ‘to actively preserve the coherence of one’s culture’ (Abram 1996a, 181). Lopez and Abram have described the significance of story in indigenous oral cultures where lessons contained within stories are passed from one generation to the next. We contend that the use of story in outdoor education, while unable to capture the depth and quality of stories that sustain fully oral traditions, still has a crucial role to play. We are not talking about outdoor educators or guides providing written texts about a place so participants can read them for themselves while camping out. Rather, we are talking about outdoor educators taking up the responsibility to becoming storytellers in the outdoor places that they work.

What stories should outdoor educators tell? What should these stories be about? And, how should they be told? Two examples shed some light on this. First, we will look briefly at how two outstanding environmental historians we have drawn upon repeatedly in this book, George Seddon and Geoff Park, both recently deceased, handled this dilemma. Each faced choices about what to put in and what to leave out in their respective land histories of the Snowy River and the coastal forests of lowland New Zealand. They also had to search for a suitable way to construct their stories. Even though these are examples of written stories they provide some important clues. In the second example, we return to look again at how storytelling was used in some of the case studies as a way of making sense of encounters with outdoor places and as a pedagogic strategy by outdoor educators and learners.

The doyen of place writing in Australia, George Seddon, states in Searching for the Snowy (1994) that despite its mythic stature, the river had ‘no historical, social or political reality … There is not even an accepted name for the area’ through which it flows (p. xxi). Seddon (1994) credits Banjo Patterson’s iconic poem The Man from Snowy River as the source of the river’s mythic stature. In the poem an unnamed man, as wild and as untamed as the mysterious mountainous Snowy River country from which he came, outrides the horseman of the plains as he recaptures an expensive colt that has escaped to run with the mountain brumbies (wild horses). Of course the myth was further popularised (some would argue the narrative was modified inappropriately) when an interpretation of the poem was made into a feature film for an international audience. Later still, the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics commenced with a lone rider entering the stadium, galloping to centre stage and cracking his stockwhip astride his rearing horse in front of a television audience of many millions. Clad in his akubra hat and ‘driza-bone’ coat, he was the man from Snowy River reborn for the global stage. He remains, it seems, an evocative and quintessential story in the Australian consciousness.

In Searching for the Snowy, Seddon (1994) attempts to tell the story of the river from its source in the Australian Alps to the sea. The Snowy River begins its 500km journey to Bass Strait high on the south-eastern slopes of Australia’s highest peak, Mt Kosciusko, at about 1700m above sea level. Within its first 50km it is dammed twice, at Guthega and Jindabyne, where water is redirected into the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme. Ultimately this water flows into the Murray. Downstream from the Guthega Power Station the river can run dry at the flick of a switch. Until recently, 99% of the original Snowy River flow did not make it past the Jindabyne dam wall. Beneath the dam wall, the river is a dry course for nearly half of its journey to the sea. Construction on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme began in 1951. It was Australia’s largest post-World War II nation building project, and continues to be celebrated as one of the country’s greatest engineering achievements. It aimed to simultaneously water the dry inland agricultural districts to the east of the Great Divide, to encourage industrial expansion, provide hydro-electric power, and to promote large-scale immigration from Europe to Australia in the post-war years. Much of Australia’s current multi-cultural diversity owes its origins to the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Seddon acknowledges that telling the story of the river is a near impossible task. In searching for the river he finds that there have ‘been almost as many rivers as there have been observers, and that is in the end why the river is “incoherent”. There can be no single view of it’ (Seddon 1994, xxxii). The widest gaps, perhaps, are between our stories of the river as a wild place and the ecological reality of a dammed, diminished and irrevocably changed river.

It says something for the flexibility of our sense of national identity that many people seem capable of maintaining both sets of values simultaneously regarding the Snowy: they can be proud of our great engineering achievement, and be thrilled by the grandeur of a wild river. (Seddon 1994, xxx)

Seddon (1997) later concluded that part of the problem he faced in telling the story of the Snowy stemmed ‘from the linearity of language, where I wanted a polyphonic account’ (p. 58). Stories can only be told one at a time. The geographic sequence, historic accounts, natural history, history of land use and even a history of how we have perceived a place might all contribute to telling the story of a place as complex and contradictory as the Snowy, but we cannot read or hear them all at once (Seddon 1997). Part of the reason for briefly introducing the story of the Snowy is to demonstrate the complexity of the challenge facing the storyteller. All outdoor places are full of stories. Some are settler legends or myths, others are the accounts of scientists and geographers, still others reflect national agendas, and so on. The anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1996, 18) reminds us that in a country like Australia ‘there is no place where the feet of Aboriginal humanity have not preceded those of the settler’.

The same holds true, of course, for Māori in New Zealand. Every place in these countries is full of stories, layer upon layer. Some are harder than others to uncover. Some are suppressed and silenced, almost gone. Others shout at us. We might stand, metaphorically, on George’s shoulders to get a clearer view of the story of the Snowy for example, but ultimately each individual must begin to construct a fuller sense of the whole, for a place, out of the pieces of its many stories.

Geoff Park demonstrates better than any writer we have come across the construction of place-inspired stories. In Ngā Uruora (The Groves of Life): Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape (1995) Park explores the meaning of New Zealand’s remnant lowland forests, most of which have been cleared, fenced and drained for farming and settlement.

Mention ngā uruora today is like raising something from the dead. Go into a lowland kahikatea forest in Autumn when its koroï are ripening, lie under the towering trees listening to the cacophony of birds and the constant patter of the inedible bits hitting the leaves around you, and you’ll know what ‘the groves of life’ mean. These are ecosystems now, like huia and kākāpō, vanished or down to a few survivors in need of intensive care, their wildness something to marvel at. What did it mean for Māori to lose them and their soils, their best soils, to Europe’s settlers? (Park 1995, 15)

The quotation above illuminates two of the three key components of Park’s storytelling style. His book is constructed around six journeys, one each to the remnant patches of lowland forest. In each case the story contains descriptions of the physical exploration of the forest, by foot or canoe. These places are of a human-scale, they can readily be walked and paddled. Park also uses only the Māori names for indigenous entities and patterns of life (such as different species of trees, birds, for Māori practices and so on). Park brings a third element into his stories; deep research into the historical records of each place. Each story weaves these three strands into patterns that take the reader deep into the forests themselves. Seddon (1996, 397) concluded that Park had achieved the ‘polyphonic account’ that he was searching for. The result is a sophisticated storytelling that is ‘for New Zealanders about becoming New Zealanders’ (Seddon 1996, 405). Park’s style encapsulates that fact that humans are, as Leopold asserts, co-members of the land community, standing with the other species. We are part of the ecology of a place. But humans are also different in so far as there are ‘spiritual, linguistic, historical, regional and national aspects of our senses of identity and belonging’ (Bate 2000, x). Stories such as those conveyed by Seddon and Park offer the opportunity to connect ecological sensibility with cultural understanding.

Arthur Curl spoke at length, in the interviews conducted for the case study presented in the previous chapter, about using stories as a pedagogical strategy in outdoor education. The stories that he and his colleagues share are always told in situ and face to face with students. A story is only drawn from the well of stories if, and when, it is appropriate to do so. It might be something as intimate as the life of a singular shell clinging to a basalt reef. Or it might be something as vast as the inland night sky. Background material for some of the stories is gathered through reading historical and contemporary accounts of the places. But many of the stories are also sourced from the many repeated visits through listening to others who know the past and present ‘happenings’ in a place in detail, and from attending to the place intently. Every opportunity to revisit a particular outdoor place is a seen as a chance to deepen one’s knowledge and sense of connection. The River Murray historian Paul Sinclair (2001, 22) wrote; ‘stories bring nature into culture and ascribe meaning to places, species and processes which would otherwise remain silent to the human ear’.

In place-responsive outdoor education telling stories, or facilitating others’ stories, that connect nature and culture becomes part of the responsibility of being with people in outdoor places. In chapter six we also explained how a community of outdoor learners, including staff, can collaborate to uncover and tell stories about the places they are experiencing. As adult learners they are capable of recognising the ethical considerations and responsibilities that comes with relaying stories about colonisation, dispossession and land use conflicts. We suggest that younger learners are capable of this as well. It must first be modelled sensitively by educators and leaders and then younger learners should be inducted into the role of transmitting cultural knowledge in this way. Storytelling is not a frivolous or fanciful endeavour, it is a serious attempt to connect and make sense of where we are and who we are.

Geoff Park opens Ngā Uruora: The Groves of Life with a quotation from Frank Gohlke, the American landscape photographer; ‘A landscape whose story is told is harder to dismiss … At its best, telling the landscape’s story can still feel like a sacred task’ (Park 1995, 11). There is no hard and fast guide as to what stories to tell and how to tell them. Each story needs to be felt by the educator, or storyteller, to be accurate and worthwhile. A story contains something to be learned that cannot easily or readily be instructed or summarised. Intense interest in the place on the part of the educator will reveal, over time, stories of its history, geography, ecology, land use, and so on. Characters will emerge who encapsulate a story that tells a part of the larger whole. Yet, equally, outdoor educators need to realise that ‘every storyteller falls short of a perfect limning of the landscape – perceptions and language both fail’ (Lopez 1988, 69). It is a realistic goal for outdoor educators and their students to aspire to work towards understanding the places they experience as much more than the simplistic versions of playgrounds, arenas or backdrops for human action. The power of story has an important role to play here.

When we cease to demand the truth and realize that the best we can have of those substantial truths that guide our lives is metaphorical – a story … that the interior landscape is a metaphorical representation of the exterior landscape, that the truth reveals itself most fully not in dogma but in paradox, irony, and contradictions that distinguish compelling narratives. (Lopez 1988, 71)

Signpost 3: Apprenticing ourselves to outdoor places

The third signpost to a place-responsive pedagogy involves combining the first two. Neither alone is enough.

What is needed is both a felt, embodied encounter with a place and an engagement with knowing the place through various cultural knowledge systems, such as history, ecology, geography, and so on.

According to Abram (1996a), many indigenous hunters would apprentice themselves to the animals that they would track and kill. We would draw a contemporary parallel and suggest that in order to ‘know’ a place there is a vital need for people to become an apprentice to that place. James Raffan (1992) has a phrase for this, which he terms ‘land as teacher’. In such an apprenticeship people draw into balance the tensions always existing between the pre-discursive ‘sensorial present’ and the interpretive worlds of rational and conscious thought. The division in Western culture between embodied experience and rational interpretation must become reconciled in a place-responsive society. That is, the two aspects which are commonly held apart, need to be brought into correct relationship with each other. To do so would be to enact the legacy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (1987), which models for us, again and again, the elegant human tension between poetic response and rational description. The experience of place is neither one nor the other, but both.

James Raffan’s (1992) doctoral thesis, discussed in chapter four, explored how the land may act as teacher in shaping both personal and communal responses to place. 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 Thelon Reserve as a place for these various diverse 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. We discussed these at some length in chapter four, but it is worth revisiting these four concepts here, albeit briefly.

This first component that Raffan refers to is the experiential component of a sense of place as the personal link to the land itself through experience. He 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. He 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.

The influence of Raffan’s canoe journey (mirrored also in Park’s explorations) and his poetic and artistic responses to the land and the participants in his study should not be underestimated. 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.

Part of the work of the outdoor educator then is to craft, through program design, a responsive negotiation between participants and place. Central to this task is the search for pedagogic opportunities or ‘moments’ that peel back the many masks we make for outdoor places. Outdoor educators are well placed to present a truly integrated curriculum for learners; one where teachers and guides know how to thoughtfully and tactfully combine experiencing particular places with the study of those places. Such a curriculum and pedagogy, one that is committed to an exploration of the ties between experience, interpretation and reflection, and between people and place, has the potential to position outdoor education pedagogy as an exemplar for other teaching areas to follow. A place-responsive pedagogy would require us to become more reliant on local places and peoples, to study a place’s histories and ecologies, and constantly couple this with experiencing places through our bodies. We find eloquent exemplars in the works of writers such as Leopold (1987) and Park (1995). It is likely that such a program would require more time for historical and ecological study and creative writing/artistic responses to place, meeting and working with locals who inhabit the region, greater reliance on the local community for resources and knowledge, and consideration of the interconnection between the outdoor place encountered and the participants’ home places of residence. We can then extend the questions inspired by Wendell Berry (1987) into a cycle of place-apprenticeship that compels us to respond to places wherever it is that we teach or guide learners.

  • What is here in this place? What can we seek to learn here through our senses and through our knowledge systems? How do we remain watchful, attentive and listening to this place whilst we are here? Who (human and non-human) lives here? Who relies upon this place? What was its past, how has it changed and what is it becoming?
  • What will this place permit us to do? What wounds does this place carry? Who cares for this place now? How can we insure that our experiences do not wound this place further? How can our actions help to heal this place?
  • What will this place help us to do? How does this place sustain us whilst we are here? How do we design an experience that is attuned with this place; that works with it rather than against it?
  • How is this place interconnected with my home place? How is this place influenced by my home place? How is my home influenced by this place? Can we reveal and experience the threads of these connections? Are there ways of experiencing and knowing this place that return us to the first question when we return to home: What is here in this place?

These are, of course, all rational questions that would seem to seek a rational response. But we have seen repeatedly in this study that this will not be enough. We must remain ever cautious about our propensity to colonise places with our own intentions, desires and rationalisations. We must remain alert to the numinous and the sensual moment when something of place may be revealed that completely surprises us and that we cannot reduce to words. Then, perhaps, we may experience those places that seemed fragmented and isolated as part of a richer, connected mosaic. It is a pedagogical approach where educators position themselves and their learners in the very heart of the tension between being and becoming.

Signpost 4: The representation of place experiences

As outdoor educators we should be experts in learners’ sensory engagement with the outdoor places, as we outlined above in Signpost 1: Being present in and with a place. We also should know how to uncover and cultivate a community of learners who tell worthwhile stories about the place they are experiencing. In Signpost 2: The power of place-based stories and narratives, we suggested that outdoor places are brimful of personal, geological, ecological, historical, economic and political stories. Outdoor educators and guides may not be experts in any of these fields. However, through their natural inquisitiveness in the outdoor places where they work, often returning to them repeatedly over the years, they can engage at a meaningful level in these topics with their students. The fact that outdoor educators may be more limited than a professional historian like Geoff Park in uncovering the near complete story of a place, does not diminish the educational value in experiencing the power of place-based stories. In Signpost 3: Apprenticing ourselves to outdoor places we drew together signposts 1 and 2 as ways of knowing outdoor places and discussed the questioning frame that we must take with us as we learn about a place with our students. But there is another dimension here in terms of how we encourage students to reflect on and express their subjective response to their experiences.

We wrote earlier about John Dewey’s educational vision. Dewey proposed a scientific method whereby students would be faced with a problem and develop a hypothesis in response. They would then test their hypothesis in action and reflect on the results. The final stage would see them develop a generalisable theory that could then be tested against similar problems in the future. Experiential educators have adapted the work of Dewey and others to come up with cyclical models of learning. We have outlined how certain aspects of a simplistic application of such cyclic pedagogies are problematic for a place-responsive approach. One of our chief concerns here was that the often rushed and guided articulations about an experience failed as worthwhile expressions of the participants’ subjective encounters. Subjectivity, the felt and imagined experience of the participant, is surely central to the work of outdoor educators.

Despite these problems we see considerable merit in the kernel of Dewey’s idea, which is for a sophisticated understanding of the pedagogic relationship between experience, reflection and the learner’s world. Considerable inspiration for the development of place-responsiveness has come from the visual and literary arts. In addition, place-responsive design is well supported within schools of thought and practice in architecture. The key to unlocking the potential of place-responsiveness as pedagogic practice extends the relationship of experience and reflection to include the representation of experience.

There are two ways of working with learners in terms of how outdoor places are represented. First, as educators we should be developing learners’ critical capacities in interpreting how the place they are learning in has been and is being represented in various forms of cultural media. For example, how has the place been represented in historical documents and can those representations be contested? How has, and is, the place been represented in land management documents, on current maps and charts, in tourism advertising material, and so on? The second way that learners could respond, in terms of representation, is to create their own interpretive works inspired by the place. The representation of experience can take many forms; verbal articulation, prose, poetry, visual art, sculpture, film, song and music, drama, and so on. We have already written about this in relation to story, but other forms of creative representation have proved very effective in terms of shifting environmental values (e.g. Dombrovskis’ iconic photographs of the Franklin River or Brian Turner’s poetry and prose of central Otago) We have discussed the role of the romantic writers and artists and how they provided the ecological impulse that launched the environmental movement.

Why have outdoor educators largely limited representation of subjective experience to the spoken word in ‘debriefing’ sessions? In addition, how might outdoor educators engage with the practice of the arts to deepen participants’ understandings of their experiences?

When we talk about the relationship between experience, reflection and the representation of experience it is important to point out that we do not see these as discrete entities in a linear relationship. It is better to think of them as overlapping phases, with blurred boundaries, in the same phenomenon – learning to experience and be responsive to an outdoor place. We are already interpreting and reflecting on meaning when we are experiencing. We may continue to reflect later, after the active experience, but reflection on experience is an experience in its own right. Similarly, when we work from our notes or sketches, often long after the active phase of an experience, to produce a literary or artistic work, we are re-engaging and re-immersing ourselves back into the subjective experience of that place. We are not proposing that outdoor educators and learners are aiming to produce art, historical accounts or literary products only for their own sake (as might be the case in an Art or History or Literature subject). As we discussed under signpost 2, what is important here is that learners are experiencing doing history, geology, ecology, and so on, in the field when they draw on those knowledge systems. The same may be said for the creative arts. In doing art and creative writing, educators can guide learners in engaging knowingly with their subjective encounters with a place. Notes, working sketches, photographs and so on can be taken home and become the basis for continued exploration of the experience. Such an approach finds support in John Dewey’s (1915) recognition of the centrality and interconnectedness of experiences in learning. ‘Experience has its geographical aspect, its artistic and its literary, its scientific and its historical sides. All studies arise from aspects of the one earth and the one life lived upon it … We live in a world where all sides are bound together. All studies grow out of relations in the one great common world’ (p. 91).


There are those who might view outdoor education, as advocated through these signposts as simply a history, ecology or art fieldtrip, rather than as something distinctive with its own body of knowledge and its own pedagogical strategies. While this in its own way is not necessarily damning, it ignores the centrality of embodied experiences which we see as integral to outdoor education. A place-responsive outdoor education cannot be conducted in the classroom, nor can it be effectively implemented if one is in the outdoors and is only ‘being active’ – the simplistic binary of doing or reflecting on experience overlooks the nuanced, highly contextualised and interconnected webs of people, places and contested meanings
of experience.

It is the integration of sensory experiences, in community, and in places, coupled with reflection and representation that make the work of place-responsive outdoor educators distinctive in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. These points of distinction are not exclusive to place-responsive outdoor educators, but collectively they help frame a place-responsive pedagogy. First, the topic of study on any place-responsive outdoor education program is the connections between educators, learners and the place. This involves a sophisticated approach to place on the part of the educator and guides where they work as, at various times, a co-learner, a negotiator, a translator, and a storyteller with deep knowledge about that place, and so on. The objective for the educator is to facilitate an experience of place so that the learner’s connections with it might be fostered and they understand the interconnections between individuals, places and communities. People and place(s) are the foundation for curriculum development in this approach. What is taught, and learnt, emerges through interaction rather than being delivered through set activities with pre-determined outcomes. All participants ‘become creators of knowledge rather than the consumers of knowledge created by others’ (Smith 2002, 593). The second distinction returns us to the concept of experiential learning.

Sensory engagement with place, a critical reflection on the lifeworld of the learner, and attempts to represent the subjectivities of experience are the three foundations of the place-responsive experience. Collectively, they inscribe a circle that models best the pedagogic parameters of a holistic place-experience. Outdoor educators and guides work alongside students on this pedagogic journey. Rather than an experiential learning cycle whose centrifugal force spins the learner outwards into generalisations and abstractions, we see a gradual centripetal movement inwards as educator and learner continue to deepen their experience, knowledge and connection to particular places of significance and meaning. It is an active journey towards belonging. With belonging comes connection and the development of an ethic of care.

Along with Smith (2002), we would urge teachers to become the creators of curriculum that is responsive to their place rather than ‘the dispensers of curriculum developed by others’ (p. 594) in contexts that may have little or no relevance in the lives of our students. While a unit on rock climbing, as a means to develop communication skills, might be possible in Mount Maunganui or Melbourne (or Boulder Colorado) it fails to take into account the relevance of the varying places that students live. While climbing at the local indoor rock climbing centre might be viewed as a legitimate means to achieve skill advancement and an opportunity to interact with peers, we are left wondering how much is omitted from the experience when serious attempts to understand and respond to culturally-relevant activities are overlooked. By way of example, when writing the case study from Mount Maunganui College both Jane and Erin used terms such as waka ama and whenua; words that are part of the everyday vocabulary in New Zealand and that require no explanation. Both, however, are laden with meaning and significance, protocols and ritual. It wasn’t until Brian read drafts of the chapter that it became how apparent how distant and distinct two seemingly similar ‘down-under’ cultures can be.

As we have illustrated in the case studies, places have an integral role in the teaching and learning experience. They are the sites of meaning making, the centre of lived experiences. Failure to enact a place-responsive pedagogy in outdoor education has potentially profound implications. As Gruenewald (2003a) argues, a ‘lack of attention is disturbing because it impoverishes human experience, conceals from view the correspondence between ideology, politics, and place, and potentially leads to biological and cultural extinctions that we may regret’ (p. 645).

Place-responsive outdoor education holds the potential of situating learning within the learner’s community through locating activities in the local environment and by also altering the pedagogical approach to that of empathetic insider in journey programs. Admittedly this is no easy task but it does attempt to provide an alternative to the rootlessness, hyper-mobility and globalising forces of current times. As we said at the outset, significant environmental and social challenges will always be felt and responded to, first and foremost, locally.

For outdoor educators and guides this involves both a shift in priorities and expectations. Short term learning objectives based on an overly simplistic view of learners, learning and the places that they learn in will need to be replaced with a different kind of work. As Bate (2000, 23) concludes, ‘the practical consequences of that work – social, environmental, political in the broadest sense – cannot be controlled or predicted. They will be surprising, haphazard, indirect, long-term.’

Building a ‘better world’, through improved self-knowledge or social relationships, encouraging engagement in the democratic process, or countering the effects of environment degradation are all worthy aims for outdoor educators. The difficult question is how do we best go about achieving these? As we have highlighted, ‘traditional’ approaches to outdoor education, via novel activities in wilderness settings, is appealing but is only one, and we would argue somewhat limited, way to achieve these goals. A place-responsive pedagogy offers a counter balance and a different perspective for our field – a field of study and practice that has been constructed within specific historical, social and geographical contexts. A place-responsive pedagogy should not be dismissed as outdoor education ‘lite’ or ‘low strength’. It is not a call to abandon active embodied experiences of a challenging nature. It is, however, a reminder to be responsive to where we are educating and asking questions such as, ‘what will this place permit?’, ‘how is it connected to my home?’ It does call into question the placelessness of much outdoor education – both the traditional activity focus and ‘do-review-reapply’ pedagogy is under
the spotlight.

What we are advocating is a re-appraisal of how we conduct outdoor education programs. Rather than being prescriptive or formulaic we are suggesting that these signposts might help guide educators as they develop programmes that are responsive to their students, their community and their places. Becoming and being place responsive offers opportunities to enrich the lives of our students, our communities and our places. As Geoff Park (1995) noted, ‘How we inhabit a place can be the most telling expression of how we sense its worth, our intention for it and our connection with it’ (p. 21). As outdoor educators, developing a sense of connection with places is one of the greatest pedagogical challenges we face. We contend that the development of a place-responsive pedagogy is essential if we are to develop a sound and forward looking pedagogy that is able to respond to a
changing world.

Arid region of outback Australia

“As outdoor educators, developing a sense of connection with places is one of the greatest pedagogical challenges we face.”

Cite this chapter as: Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. 2011. ‘Signposts to a Place-Responsive Pedagogy in Outdoor Education’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 180–199.

© 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