By Alison Bledsoe, Early Childhood Education 

Why Consider Place-Based Learning?

If I stayed in a classroom…I would be thinking of the place (Lower Lonsdale), based on my own transitory experience only. I would not have noticed the eerily quiet neighbourhood streets where you are surrounded by sounds of construction and vehicles passing by. I also would not have noticed the signage in gardens and wonder why pets and children are not allowed to play in these areas. It was only by ‘walking the streets’ that I noticed details and began to ask questions that I otherwise would have missed. In some ways, I think this approach is similar to an exchange student traveling to another country. You learn about culture in books, but you get a different and much more enriching experience if you actually live in the place. (Student, personal communications, Oct 2, 2019)

How do I offer meaningful learning with and for students? One way is to consider a place-based approach to achieving learning outcomes. Inviting students to consider their learning in relation to the ‘places’ they live, work, play, pray, connect, conduct business, and/or travel through. Inviting students to take their reflections and ideas INTO these places – in respectful and ethical ways – and see what they notice. 

WHAT I DID & HOW

In the 2018-19 academic year, I introduced an assignment to my EDUC 281 Family, School & Community students that invited them to consider ‘place’ through many perspectives and in service to a greater ‘place-based’ social change strategy. We started by meeting with representatives of United Way of the Lower Mainland (UWLM), to learn about their emerging work with residents of the Lower Lonsdale neighbourhood. 

Through collaborating and sharing our perspectives with an external organization, we could experience the meaning of ‘teacher as researcher’. It was important that we could actually contribute to their projects, sharing various perspectives as the third viewers, as a student, as a resident, as a neighbour, and as a visitor. (Student, personal communications, Oct 4, 2019)

Working with the external organisation […] was very helpful, because I learned where they were coming from and heard their goals. When you are given a different lens to see things, you gain a deeper understanding because you actually live the experience rather than just reading about it. When you hear someone else’s perspectives and goals, you also begin to examine your own goals and views…and realise how important it is to speak up in your community because we have the responsibility to advocate for things that matter to us. (Student, personal communications, Oct 1, 2019)

In the course, I supported students to (a) explore data sources related to the neighbourhood, (b) situate their thinking within Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, and (c) work to see the intersections between data, theory, and ‘real life’. Students worked in teams to observe, document, and reflect on the physical components of ‘place’ and their potential impact on children, families, and society (if I had been able to get ethics approval, we would have explored relational components too!). At the end of the semester, the students and I collated their experiences, findings, and recommendations – and then we presented this to United Way of the Lower Mainland. 

IMPLICATIONS & LESSONS LEARNED

Feedback from students, at the end of semester, indicated that this assignment held particular meaning for them – that the learning came alive through hands-on experience in the neighbourhood AND that their learning and work would contribute to active social change efforts. Kim Winchell, Director of Social Impact, United Way of the Lower Mainland later reflected on the potential of partnering with post-secondary students and on how meaningful and reciprocal the experience had been for them as a community organization: 

 It was meaningful to have the students become the observers….their perspectives opened our eyes to some of our own assumptions, as experienced Community Developers. Assumptions we had been blind to. Their creative and innovative thinking was refreshing, compelling, and left us with tangible next steps.

Something that surprised me was how reciprocal the experience was – it wasn’t just United Way offering CAPU students a learning opportunity, it was these students offering opportunity to us too. It was powerful and it has opened us to finding additional ways of partnering our place-based social change initiatives with post-secondary students. The potential is endless. (Kim Winchell, personal communication, Oct 11, 2019)

As a faculty member, the learning for me continues to be steep and rich, leading to more questions than answers as I continue to grow my own thinking on offering meaningful learning with and for students. How can I become more intentional about place-based approaches and connect this to my commitment to Reconciliation? How can I explicitly link this work with the First People’s Principles of Learning? How do I come to honour the Indigenous places we all live and work in – and ethically embed this into place-based inquiry and learning? In subsequent semesters, I have been fortunate to teach other EDUC courses in both Sechelt and Squamish. Physically taking an entire course into ‘place’ is a whole other level of learning ‘in-place’ – one that I am intrigued and challenged by!