Place-based Self Education

1 Social Equity

Fig 1 The Vitruvian man

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci (Fig 1) depicts a man in two superimposed positions, with his arms apart, and legs both together and apart. His whole body is inscribed within a circle and square. The drawing is based on the notion of ideal human proportions derived from Euclidean geometry as applied to architecture by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise, De Architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion within the classical geometric schematics of architecture.  In short, da Vinci showed the human male body encased in Euclidean forms: the square, the rectangle, and the circle.  It stands for the concept that the ideal human form should be the basis for scale and proportion in the buildings where humans lived and worked. Vitruvian Man’s message is that our physical animal self is the measure of the ordered world we now describe as ‘The West’.  The model draws inspiration from Renaissance polymaths like Leonardo Da Vinci, who worked across disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of deeper knowledge through self-learning. 

Western culture, or Western civilization, is a term used to refer to the cultures of people of European origin and their descendants. It comprises the broad heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs (such as religious beliefs) and specific artifacts and technologies as shared within the Western sphere of influence. The term “Western” and “The West” are often used in contrast to the East, which defines the Asian, African, Native American or Arab nations.  

Societies of The West are geared to consuming goods and services. The emphasis is laid on gratifying spontaneous desires increasing year on year, rather than fulfilling basic needs in a steady state of supply and demand. The West’s model, however, is not sustainable, and especially not when copied globally.  The East-West contrast is sometimes criticized as relativistic. In some ways it has grown out of use, or has been transformed or clarified to fit more precise uses. Though it is in direct descent from academic Orientalism and Occidentalism, the changing usage of the distinction “East-West” has come to be useful as a means to identify important cultural similarities and differences that have to be addressed.  This is because tomorrow’s adults of all nations will have to solve existential global crises: especially the precarity of life on Earth.  Radical changes in society are needed for transforming to sustainability in ways that are socially just, peaceful and ecologically sustainable. In particular, social equity has to become the central feature of a syllabus of radical hope for learning to be fair and impartial in the distribution of Earth’s resources.                                                                              . 

Regarding inequalities in wealth, the distribution in the West is not uniform (Fig 2).  Europe stands as the most equal of all regions, with the top 10% receiving 35% of income in 2019. This can be largely explained by public investments in education and health (i.e. by predistribution policies), financed by a fair amount of taxes (redistribution mechanisms).  In contrast, the share of the top 10% in the US increased from 34% to 45% between 1980 and 2019. Half of the American population was shut from pretax economic growth.  

Latin America and the Middle East stand as the world’s most unequal regions, with the top 10% of the income distribution capturing respectively 54% and 56% of the average national income.

Fig 2  Global inequalities (Inequality Transparency Index).

To be clear, “equity” and “equality” are terms that are often used interchangeably, and to a large extent, they have similar meanings. The difference is one of nuance: while equality can be converted into a mathematical measure in which equal parts are identical in size or number, equity is a more flexible measure allowing for equivalency while not demanding sameness.  Equivalency, not sameness, is the essence of individualised equitable learning and its applications. This requires education to embrace a wider equity beyond traditional ecological sustainability.  In particular it has to include issues such as gender, race discrimination and sectarianism, which are problems for everyone to work on together across cultural and ecological boundares to hit 2030 targets for social equity. 

Social equity is impartiality, fairness and justice for all people in social policy.  It takes into account systemic inequalities to ensure everyone in a community has access to the same opportunities and outcomes. Equity of all kinds acknowledges that inequalities exist and works to eliminate them.  It is therefore the task of educators at all levels to present these changes as international targets for the 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy.  In particular,  instructors and institutions have a duty to point students towards efficacious actions they can take and groups they can join.  Social equity is the starting point, which includes not just equitable access to programs and services but the unhindered ability to engage in the political process, locally, nationally and internationally.  Thinking globally is important because it exposes people to new perspectives and things they have never known.  It means realizing that there are other ways to do even everyday things.  

 At the core of place-based education is the need for more equitable learning environments for all students.  These should be environments where students are seen, valued, and heard. In  such environments learning is designed with and for students as humans and individuals. It also means arranging equitable educational and economic opportunities for every learner to create their own body of knowledge to live sustainably.  This is deep and complex work to develop a radical syllabus. but it should be at the core of why people choose to become teachers and mentors. Utilizing the community served by the school as an outdoor laboratory is one way to do this. 

The first attempt to produce an equitable bottom up learning model was ’Rescue Mission Planet Earth’.  This is a syllabus of radical hope, youth-led and published by an international group, consisting of thousands of young people, from over 100 countries, who were invited to the 1992 Rio Environment Summit.  The core element of the syllabus is its use of poster pages, each illustrating an issue addressed in Agenda 21. The production team envisaged the syllabus would develop as a youth-led global network of communities as a democratic network for self-learning.  The modern approach would be to network locally and globally using digital whiteboards to compare and contrast place-based learning.

Place-based learning,  or place-based education, is a practical pedagogy that makes ‘place’ an educational resource. The place can be anything: a playground, trees in the street, kitchen garden, museum, arboretum, science center, parks, etc. It not only involves being in the place physically, but also using the place effectively, and all its elements in the learning process. In a school context, this involves utilizing the outdoors or places in the vicinity of the school to accomplish the curriculum goals.  Acting locally begins with a survey of the good and bad things in the community. Place itself actually acquires meaning through an action plan which works to improve the bad things and celebrate the good things. Through this methodology, communities forge identity even as they mobilise against threats to their well being.  A learning model  is the Green Guide, a UK spin off from Rescue Mission.  It is an example of how young people can become leaders by engaging with local plans for sustainable economic development.  

2 The cultural ecology pedagogy

From the 1990s place-based education has developed under the headings of ‘pedagogy of place’, ‘place-based learning’, transformative place-based learning (Fig 1), ‘experiential education’, ‘’community-based education’, education for sustainability, environmental education or more rarely, service learning,  The term place-based education was coined in the early 1990s by Laurie Lane-Zucker of The Orion Society and John Elder of Middlebury College.  It refers to those forms of pedagogy that seek to connect learning to the local ecological, cultural, and historical contexts in which schooling itself takes place.  It follows that a school committed to place-based education  should provide a route for learners to have a part to play in developing the syllabus and applying it to local governance.  In  this respect place-based learning challenges all educators to reflect on the relationship between the kind of education they promote and the kind of places they inhabit and leave behind for future generations.   In particular, C.A. Bowers advocated a critical pedagogy of place that acknowledged our enmeshment in cultural ecology and the resulting need for this to figure in school curricula.  Cultural ecology is the study of the adaptation of a culture to a specific environment and how changes in that environment lead to changes in that specific culture.  Cultural ecologists study how humans in their society and through specific cultures, interact with the larger environment.

In 2003, David Greenwood (formerly Grunewald) introduced and defined the term “Critical Pedagogy of Place.” In the years since, the general ideas of critical pedagogy of place have been incorporated into many critiques of place-based, land-based, and environmental education  According to this pedagogy students often lose what place-based educators call their “sense of place” through focusing too quickly or exclusively on national or global issues. This is not to say that international and domestic issues are peripheral to place-based education, but that students should first have a grounding in the history, culture and ecology of their surrounding environment before moving on to broader subjects. The salient objective is that place-based education seeks to help communities through employing students and school staff in solving community problems. Place-based education differs from conventional text and classroom-based education in that it understands students’ local community as one of the primary resources for learning. Thus, place-based education promotes learning that is rooted in what is local.  This is the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place, that defines the students’ own “place” or immediate neighborhood, town or community, with a reference to the bigger global climate change syllabus (Fig 3).

Fig 3 Concept map of transformative place-based learning

Place-based education is always interdisciplinary. It aligns with several popular pedagogies, including thematic, hands-on, or project-based learning, and  always begins with topics or issues from the local community . In his introduction to ‘Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Community’, David Sobel describes the context within which place-based education was developed,

In an increasingly globalized world, there are often pressures for communities and regions to subordinate themselves to the dominant economic models and to devalue their local cultural identity, traditions and history in preference to a flashily marketed homogeneity. Furthermore, at a time when industrial pollution, biodiversity/habitat loss, and aquifer depletion are becoming widespread and acute, such pressures often exacerbate the problems by encouraging unsustainable patterns of consumption and land use, weakening familial and community relationships that are deeply tied to the local environment. A process of disintegration occurs as basic connections to the land and communities become less resilient and less able to deal with the dislocations that globalization and ecological deterioration bring about. A community’s health—human and more-than-human—suffers.

Sobel’s path to a sustainable existence must start with a fundamental reimagining of the ethical, economic, political and spiritual foundations upon which society is based, and this process needs to occur within the context of a deep local knowledge of place. The solutions to many of our ecological problems lie in an approach that celebrates, empowers and nurtures the cultural, artistic, historical and spiritual resources of each local community and region, and champions their ability to bring those resources to bear on the healing of nature and community.  Schools and other educational institutions can and should play a central role in this process, but for the most part they do not. Indeed, they have often contributed to the problem by educating young people to be, in David Orr’s words, ‘mobile, rootless and autistic toward their places.’ A significant transformation of education might begin with the effort to learn how events and processes close to home relate to regional, national, and global forces and events, leading to a new understanding of ecological stewardship and community. This supports the propagation of an enlightened localism—a local/global dialectic that is sensitive to broader ecological and social relationships at the same time as it strengthens and deepens people’s sense of community and land.

Place-based education might be characterized as the pedagogy of community, the reintegration of the individual into her homeground and the restoration of the essential links between a person and the place where she lives. Place-based education challenges the meaning of education by asking seemingly simple questions: Where am I? What is the nature of this place? What sustains this community? It often employs a process of re-storying, whereby students are asked to respond creatively to stories of their homeground so that, in time, they are able to position themselves, imaginatively and actually, within the continuum of nature and culture in that place. They become a part of the community, rather than a passive observer of it.

3 Ecodharma

Ecodharma is a relatively new concept in place-based education.  Its meaning is by no means fixed because the term combines some of the cultural teachings of Buddhism and related spiritual traditions (dharma) with ecology or ecological concerns (eco).  Within this Buddhist perspective ecodharma it is a subset of cultural ecology.   In this respect, the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai has adopted the framework of cultural ecology to serve Chinese socialist society.  Thereby the monks express their devotion to the living planet through charity and community service, based on the modern ideology of Humanistic Buddhism, aiding the poor, caring about the aged, helping the disabled, and so on.  Delivering Buddhist charity is the central task of the urban temple, which advocates that giving should be the everlasting theme for human society.

The Sanskrit root of dharma is drh, meaning wear, that which is worn, that which protects and lends charm and dignity to life. Therefore, ecodharma is not something outside of ourselves, something we can buy. It is an intrinsic way of being that guides us to fulfill our human potential. Perhaps the most direct approach to dharma is for a teacher to encourage students to ask themselves regularly, “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the reason for my existence?  When was the last time I experienced authentic connections with others, truly felt that I belonged, and was surrounded by people who really understood me?  This is a new form of teaching, ‘Mindful Teaching’, that is shaped by Buddhist philosophy and its age-old dharma practices, creating a schooling culture of ‘mindful belonging’.

Even though many of us experience the power of deep connection much less often than we would like, this sense of true belonging is always available to us, regardless of our outside circumstances. Feelings of alienation, isolation, and loneliness can be reduced by simply choosing to foster feelings of unity and connectedness. The starting point is to become one with your local ecosystem to answer the bigger questions of true belonging, ’Where am I? and What do I love about being in this place?  The hope is that seeking answers to these questions will help learners explore their interdependence with all living things, treat themselves more kindly, and create richer connections with others to build a deeper-felt sense of belonging. Using mindfulness and meditation, the aim is to find true connection with others and greater compassion toward oneself, thinking and acting supported by the three pillars of ecodharma (Fig 4).

Fig 4 Three pillars of ecodharma

Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which the focus is on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.  Resilience is the process of effectively coping with adversity.  It’s about bouncing back from difficulties and the more mindfulness meditation you practice, the more resilient your brain becomes.

Compassionate wise communities or communal “village” life empowers individuals in their personal journey and creates much needed energy for collective strategic action. Unless we are part of faith-based groups, in modern times, we usually don’t appreciate the importance of communities at all.  

Strategic collective action asks us to study and deeply investigate the external root causes of our societal injustices, distractions and arrogance as well what comes in the way of us reclaiming our collective power. Without strategic action on the part of community leaders and members, it is not possible to create spaces where inner and outer transformations can take place.  If the actions are limited to building of meditation centers, which do not pay attention to ecological footprint, racial dynamics, participation in democracy, the actions are only supporting a lop-sided individual transformation. The transformation isn’t holistic without looking at systemic and institutional causes of our pain.

For most of us, it is not possible to engage deeply in “inner” psycho-spiritual practices and “outer” strategic actions over a long-term without a community background.  We need to focus on building wise and skillful communities that enable both of our inner and outer work. This community can be the school. Teacher/trainers promoting ecodharma as an educational framework have to begin with an understanding of their personal role in its practical outcomes because we are losing environmental features and promote it as a global educational movement towards a safe, healthy and just planet. The desired outcomes are joy, harmony, kindness and justice. 

Ecodharma also advocates intergenerational justice for future human generations that will suffer because of environmental inaction of previous generations. As a holistic educational framework it also includes inter-species justice between the human and the greator -than -human natural world, as well as harmony and justice between different castes, races, classes, genders and human ideologies.

Malcolm S. Knowles identifies several key aspects of ecodharma learning that are self-directed, rather than managed by others. In this definition he argues that individuals determine their own learning needs and how to achieve their individual goals. Self-directed learners identify the resources needed to learn and be successful, and develop their own strategies for doing so. In this context, self-directed learners also evaluate the extent to which they achieved their own learning goals.  In this respect, Knowles defines self-directed learning as a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs.  They, formulate their own  learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.  They formulate their own  learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes within a well-being economy with equity   A well-being economy takes a sustainable approach to economic development that addresses the social, environmental and health needs of a population by prioritizing wellbeing over exponential growth. It values indicators of wealth beyond gross domestic product, such as equity, happiness and environmental outcomes and can provide society with a more holistic and balanced approach to development. This is the Buddhist heritage of ecodharma.

4 Caring for wildlife in communities

Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. The pain of grief can also disrupt your physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are normal reactions to significant loss. But while there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.  Caring for wildlife in communities is the outcome of ecological thinking to cope with the grief of the loss of species and ecosystems that enrich our world.  It is a human behavioral response to the grief of losing part of a loved environment, which is crucial for restoring human wellbeing and prosperity. The caring response is conservation: a management plan  that acknowledges the interdependence between people and nature, vital for food production, maintaining clean air and water, and sustaining biodiversity in a changing climate.

Skies darkened by smoke! Streets flooded by rain!  People are now experiencing local extremes of weather and, “eco-anxiety” or “climate dread” have entered our vernacular. But they are more than catchphrases. Climate-induced anxiety is a real set of emotions that can require attention and treatment and for some, those emotions are a call to action.  Also known as eco-distress or climate-anxiety, eco-anxiety was defined by the American Psychological Association in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. This is a new social dimension for teaching applied ecology.

 “Ecology isn’t just about global warming, recycling, and solar power—and also not just to do with everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans. It has to do with love, loss, despair, and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis. It has to do with capitalism and with what might exist after capitalism. It has to do with amazement, open-mindedness, and wonder. It has to do with doubt, confusion, and skepticism. It has to do with concepts of space and time. It has to do with consciousness and awareness. It has to do with ideology and critique. It has to do with reading and writing. It has to do with race, class, and gender. It has to do with sexuality. It has to do with society. It has to do with coexistence. — Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought.

In other words an environmental interactive platform is required for communication and exchange of scientific expertise and experiences.  It is important for people to collaborate in  new research activities, combining the expertise of different stakeholders (researchers and scholars, teachers, policy officials, NGOs, etc.) in a framework to learn about environmental citizenship.

In the UK’s first Strategy for Sustainable Development, the idea of a ‘citizen’s environmental network’ was proposed as a way of helping communities make action plans and tell others about their ideas and achievements. Factors that limit action are that community-led environmental improvements are often limited by the lack of:

  • a logical management structure which links objectives with grass roots operations, particularly with regards  monitoring the success in achieving practical targets;
    • a recording system for maintaining year on year momentum, which also has an integral reporting system for  keeping all members of the community up to date;
    • access to standard methods and procedures which have proved successful in the past;
    • the inadequacies of paper systems to centralise management, recording, and communication.

To remove these limitations requires the national collection of feedback from communities who are developing ideas and methods (see case histories in the Appendix)

One of the key figures in shaping a modern educational movement to end the lonely, often desperate, isolation of Homo  sapiens from other species was the American Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1971). “We are all in this together,” he  concluded in 1949, not long after he finished writing a biography of Henry Thoreau. Once a rather melancholic humanist,  Krutch now became a kind of  pantheist or ethical mystic, caught up in the joy of belonging to “something greater than one’s self.”.  

5  Imagination in place

A UK outcome of these deliberations was the provision of opportunities to encourage the development of the cross curricular theme of imagination in place, defined as a secular breviary for meditations on ecological meanings’  The theme was actually the centerpiece of  the Going Green Directorate, which grew from a 1994 gathering of school teachers and academics in Wales who came together under the Chairmanship of Denis Bellamy, head of the Department of Zoology in the University of Wale to consider how schools could help their communities move towards sustainable development. The meeting was sponsored by the Countryside Council for Wales, Dyfed County Council,The Conservation Management System Consortium is now CMSi: Talgarth. and the local Texaco oil refinery. This partnership was based in the St Clears Teacher’s Resource Centre. From here, a successful award-winning pilot was led by Pembrokeshire schools to create and evaluate a system of neighbourhood environmental appraisals, and  network the local findings from school to school.

The scheme adopted the acronym SCAN (schools and communities Agenda 21 network). SCAN’s aim was to help teachers create systems of appraisal within the National Curriculum to evaluate ‘place’ (historical, geographical, biological, and notional). The practical objective was to address environmental issues which emerged from the appraisals in the context of their community’s Local Authority Agenda 21. Therefore the objective of the GGD was to promote environmental appraisal and the long-term management of neighbourhood historical assets, green spaces and home and community services to promulgate a sense of place, improve quality of life, reduce environmental impacts of day to day living, and enhance biodiversity.  A comprehensive mind map dealing with planning and operating appraisals and management plans was produced by the GGD.  

6 Internet References

Rescue Mission

Green Guide

Teaching for Understanding

Place-based Learning

Managing the Biosphere

ECO-learning Networks

Community Action Plans





Appendix 1

Active case studies for  place-based Learning

Weelsby (Grimsby, UK)

Garw Valley: (South Wales, UK)

Tredegar: (South Wales, UK)

Deep Place

Two Indian Towns: (Indian State of State of Gujarat)

Youth-led Rural Change

Indian State of Tamil Nadu:

Tribal Islands

Panna Biosphere Reserve: (Indian State of Madhya Pradesh)

National Green Corps

Kuala Selangor: (Malaysia)

Integrating social inclusion and sustainability science

Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve: (Borneo, Indonesia)

Natural Capital Partners

Rhos Llawr Cwrt National Nature Reserve (Wales: UK)

Brownsea Island

Skomer Island

The Levant: A Syllabus Of Radical Hope

A logic for making community action plans

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