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A Pedagogy of Place


The American heritage farmer and poet Wendell Berry once said; ‘If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.’ This statement has a special resonance in countries like Australia and New Zealand. These post-colonial societies continue to wrestle with important questions and issues that relate to land, identity and community. There is a palpable sense that many of us are still searching for ways to connect with where we are, in both our personal and professional lives. Many people may experience a sense of placelessness in the hyper-mobility of present times where ‘globalising’ agendas are not conducive to gaining a sense of place in a constantly changing world.

We believe that it is vitally important for outdoor educators to understand and foster a sense of connection with the places where they live, learn and teach. These outdoor places are much more than mere sites for human activity. They make us and we make them. They are the sources of our identities.

Why is this important for outdoor educators? First, it involves an important step in participating in the ongoing process of reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of both countries. It includes becoming reconciled to the unique characteristics of the ‘land’ and learning to live in harmony with the ecological systems that sustain our communities. Second, it compels us, as professionals, to question taken-for-granted approaches to outdoor education that have often been based on ideas and practices imported from abroad. Finally, it is likely that the 21st century will bring extraordinary challenges to how we all live on the Earth. Climate change and social and economic instability will force individuals and communities to react and evolve. Even though these phenomena are global, their impact will be experienced locally. Outdoor education has the potential to play a significant role – but only if it can respond to these changing conditions.

Why place? Because place refers to a participatory and experiential phenomenon. Our experience of a place is always a combination of a specific physical location, our embodied encounter and the cultural ideas that influence the interpretations we make of the experience. This provides rich potential for outdoor educators who are already well-versed in experiential pedagogies. A participant learning about the significance of a place, and how their beliefs and actions impact upon it, will be well positioned to reflect on how their community may need to adapt to the challenges ahead.

Why Australia and New Zealand? The focus in this book on these two countries is not only a result of the fact that the authors live, work and call these respective countries ‘home’. It is also a recognition that we are located in specific places, with their own ‘identities’. It is important that discussions of this nature be located and grounded rather than abstract and generalised. Another reason is that a substantial body of material challenging ‘traditional’ approaches in outdoor education has come from Australia and New Zealand; perhaps because there is ongoing public debate about land and identity in both countries. We will discuss these contributions in the light of international developments throughout the book. As far-flung former British colonies, the countries share similar origins. But the fact that the different indigenous cultures and environments encountered there by the colonisers have elicited very different responses in terms of land practices and cultural identities is instructive when it comes to considerations about the centrality of place in our lives. Drawing on literature, cultural images, and outdoor education practices provides a richness and diversity in the book that encourages greater reflection and contemplation about what may be possible in outdoor education. But we certainly hope that outdoor educators in other countries will be receptive to the ideas we present. We have kept in mind the international character of our profession when planning and writing the book.

In the pages that follow we provide an overview of some problematic aspects of contemporary practice. We then provide examples of how some educators and participants are working and learning in quite different ways that respond to the particularities of their outdoor places. We do this via four research case studies of programs, each one revealing something different about the concept of place-responsiveness. Finally, we offer a series of signposts to a place-responsive outdoor education philosophy and practice that we hope will provide useful guidance to others considering the need for change in how they work with young people in outdoor places.

Our approach here is to invite reflection and consideration about why outdoor education and outdoor places matter. We want to encourage a subtle shift that takes the best that our profession has developed to date and then adapts and readies it for the challenges ahead. Our work here is inspired by the Australian academic John Cameron’s call for a place-responsive society: ‘because the word “responsive” carries with it the impetus to act, to respond’ (Cameron 2003a, 180). When we look to the challenges ahead, we see the potential for outdoor educators to make a significant contribution in developing an optimistic view for future generations of learners.

— Brian Wattchow, Trafalgar, Gippsland, Australia

— Mike Brown, Cambridge, Waikato, New Zealand

A Pedagogy of Place

   by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown