“Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from”

“Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Place and identity are interconnected––who we are is shaped by where we come from.  From an education standpoint, students’ knowledges, beliefs, and values will be reflective of their sense of place––that is, their physical and social background. Many students, however, do not know where they come from.  Some students may have a lost connection to their family, to their homeland, etc.  In this sense, some students may lack a piece of their identity; they will not fully understand who they are.  On the other hand, some students may know where they come from but they may take their sense of place for granted, and as a result, they do not understand their place in society or how they are effected by their environment.  The article “Learning from Place” (2013) addresses the relationship between place and identity by discussing critical pedagogy of place, or place-based learning (PBL).

PBL aims to reconnect students with their environment by utilizing students’ physical and social environments as a medium for learning. The article argues that, in order to reconnect students with their environment, a critical pedagogy of place must work to “identify and change ways of thinking that injure and exploit other people and places” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p. 74).  This work is known as decolonization.  However, decolonization should not be limited to simply rejecting and transforming dominant ideologies; rather, “it also depends on recovering and renewing traditional … material spaces that teach us how to live well in our total environment” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p.74).  In this sense, decolonization and reinhabitation are connected processes.

The article describes a research project in which Cree youth from Fort Albany First Nation (Treaty 9 territory) took part in a 10-day river trip guided by Elders as a way of learning about Mushkegowuk Cree concepts of land.  The project was initiated as means of decolonizing Western beliefs about the land, as well as connecting students with the traditional land. For example, one of the focuses of the project was “bringing together Elders and youth so they could learn from one another about the role and meaning of the land … from a Mushkegowuk perspective” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p. 73-74). The Elders shared stories and knowledges with the youth about the historical, physical, and spiritual importance of the land.  These stories provided the youth with a different understanding of land and its utility: In contrast to the Western ideology that land is a resource to be exploited, from a First Nations perspective, land is sacred and to be cherished. Furthermore, the Elders’ stories also acted as a reinhabitation process.  The stories “reestablish[ed] among the youth a sense of connection to [the] land, culture, and life” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p. 76) that they had been separated from, and they evoked a sense of pride in the youth about who they are, and where they come from.

To me, PBL means to learn through place.  PBL immerses students in local environments, cultures, landscapes, opportunities, and experiences.  In doing so, PBL not only allows students to learn about the environment they are from, but it allows them to learn from that particular environment.  Furthermore, I believe PBL benefits minoritized students––students who are not privileged by our White, upper/middle class, Christian curriculum.  By allowing students to interact with their own personal environments, or by exposing students to different types of environments, minoritized students can more easily see their values, their beliefs, and their knowledges reflected in the curriculum. Essentially, PBL helps make curriculum relevant to all students’ lives.

For example, research shows that when Indigenous knowledges are incorporated into the curriculum, Aboriginal students are more likely to succeed in school because what they are learning shows relevance to their lives.  As a future math and sciences teacher, I have always struggled to find ways to incorporate Indigenous knowledges into the classroom in authentic ways. I have a hard time with this because schools focus solely on the study of European mathematics––the interpretation of numbers and symbols. After all, how do you incorporate Indigenous knowledges into a unit on chemical equilibrium or integration? Then in my second year of university, I read an article titled “Considering Indigenous Knowledges and Mathematics Curriculum” by Gladys Sterenberg (2013).  The article discussed one teacher’s approach to including Indigenous knowledges in the math classroom: During a lesson on ratios, geometry, and scale drawings, the teacher took the students to the nearby Sun Dance grounds to observe the circle of teepees.  Essentially, the teacher in this article used place as a vehicle for learning! This experience benefited Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students alike: The non-Aboriginal students were exposed to different ways of knowing, and the Aboriginal students, when they saw that they could relate mathematics to their own experiences and their own community, considered what they had learned that day as relevant. In fact, the teacher saw an improvement in the academic success of the Aboriginal students. (Sterenberg, 2013, p. 29-30). Not only did the teacher in this article incorporate Indigenous knowledges through PBL, but they also used PBL as a way for students to apply curriculum content to their real-world environment. Essentially, through the use of PBL, the teacher addressed the common question: Why is this knowledge important, and when am I ever going to use it again?

Above I have listed many benefits to PBL. However, I think that the most important aspect of PBL is that it does not take place inside a classroom. In my opinion, learning all too often takes place solely inside a classroom; therefore, students come to associate learning with school.  However, I think it is important for students to understand that learning does not take place inside a vacuum. PBL challenges this view.

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