tangata whenuatanga – placed-based education

Place-based education is, literally, beginning where students are at and adapting the curriculum to reflect and respond to their local environment in meaningful and relevant ways. Sobel (2004) describes place-based education as a process of engaging students in authentic learning contexts with their natural and social-cultural surroundings.

Developing an understanding of place-based education, and a pedagogical approach which supports it, requires teachers bring down the walls of the classroom, which are metaphorical and physical barriers to exploring the local community and the world beyond. Schools have traditionally been places of learning about canons of knowledge which have little relevance to the places students come from, play in and explore in their out of school time unless explicit links are made.

The doubt and uncertainty teachers can feel as they begin dabbling in place-based education is described by Foran & Olson (2008) who assert that assumptions about teaching, learning and classrooms can cause teachers to doubt the place-based process. Classrooms are the places were knowledge and skills are taught and learnt, and it can be difficult to disrupt the assertion that learning is somehow synonymous with the building in which it has traditionally occurred.

Foran and Olsen (2008) go on to describe situations in which place-based learning have been subverted by the assumption that abstract classroom based learning has more validity and authority than a student’s experiences. Penetito (2009) describes how this subversion was reflected in the dialogue Māori students, like himself, had with their parents, indicating that the, largely Pākehā-centric, school-learned knowledge was somehow more accurate and truthful than the views of the adults in the community and their histories.

Traditional education has trained students to separate themselves from the environment and communities in which they live, in order to view standardised learning content objectively and develop abstract thinking abilities. This disconnection has been experienced significantly by Māori students, and has been identified as a cause of academic underachievement. It has also been a focus of interest for scholars and iwi who seek to address this trend. Prioritising the establishment of culturally responsive learning environments where Māori students can engage in supportive relationships and authentic contexts is identified as a leading factor in rectifying Māori student disconnection in education  (MacFarlane, Glynn, Cavanagh, & Bateman, 2007).

Place-based education affirms student identity by providing the context where they develop understanding of themselves as an active citizen in connection with community, engage with concerns and customs of their community culture, and make connections to the history and ecology of their unique locality. Tātaiako describes the tangata whenuatanga competency, required by trained teachers, as the ability to affirm “Māori learners as Māori [by] providing contexts for learning where the language, identity and culture of Māori learners and their whānau is affirmed” (Ministry of Education, 2011, p. 4) and identifies place-based learning as an effective way of providing those contexts.

When stating the relevance of place-based learning Penetito (2009) refers to the tangata whenua relationships of ancestral connection, roles and responsibilities and the spatial metaphors adopted to illustrate how these concepts relate to the environment. Penetito’s statement that Maori practices of pepeha, ‘who am I, where am I and what is the nature of this place’, illustrate place-based ways of knowing is confirmed by the sentiments of Zucker (cited in Sobel, 2004) when he suggests the place-based process enables student to ask ‘where am I, what is the nature of this place’ and position themselves within the cultural and natural stories of that place.

Place-based education has clearly been identified as a culturally responsive pedagogy.

"Taupo carvings" CC image courtesy of Steve Gilham on Flickr

“Taupo carvings” CC image courtesy of Steve Gilham on Flickr

Foran, A., & Olson, M. (2008). Seeking pedagogical places. Phenomenology & Practice, Volume 2, No. 1, 24 – 48.

MacFarlane, A., Glynn, T., Cavanagh, T., & Bateman, S. (2007). Creating culturally-safe schools for Maori students. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education Vol. 36, 65-76.

Ministry of Education. (2011). Tātaiako: Cultural Competencies for Teachers of Māori Learners. Wellington, NZ: Crown.

Penetito, W. (2009). Place- based education: Catering for curriculum, culture and community. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 18, 5-29.

Sobel, D. (2004). Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.


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