Math and Place-Based Education

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

Place-based education (PBE) is based on the fundamental idea that places are pedagogical – they teach us about the world and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy. It began with community education and community-as-classroom – the idea that students could learn by paying closer attention to their community and doing work within it. The idea has since expanded to investigate the learning that happens in field-trips or long-term projects outside of the classroom, to examine the pedagogy of places of all sizes and locations, and to explore the meanings that different people attach to place. One can argue, that – to an extent – there is an activism component against the current state of the education system, which – in most cases – assumes that the school (and the classroom) is the place where learning occurs.

For Dr. David Gruenewald (2003) – who now goes by the name David Greenwood – place-based education (PBE) is in large part a response to standards, testing, and accountability, the threefold education reform movement of the last two to three decades (though grounded in some much older ideologies). As mathematics is the gatekeeper discipline to many careers and university programs – whether with a mathematics component or not – it is a discipline that, it could be argued, is the target of PBE’s response. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) expressed his skepticism about the possibilities of developing place-conscious mathematics. However, is mathematics – the very tool incorrectly used to assess students, and thus misunderstood by so many – the ideal vehicle to drive PBE’s response to misguided education reform?

Classroom, by evmaiden

Classroom, by evmaiden

Much has been written about cultural border-crossing in science education – challenges that students come to when negotiating between their life-world and the culture of the discipline of science (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Jegede, 1995). Similar arguments have been made by Boaler (1993, 1998) and Schoenfeld (1989) that a similar struggle, manifesting in difficulties in knowledge transference, goes on in mathematics education. PBE acknowledges the divide between students’ life world, and the culture of school and mathematics, and Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) cites it as a result of the disconnected place – the school and the classroom – that students are meant to learn in each day. So, PBE can contribute to mathematics education, and mathematics can contribute to the activist elements of PBE. I disagree with Gruenewald’s challenge that place-conscious math can’t exist.  Gruenewald/Greenwood (2003) himself says, “people make places and places make people” (p. 621). PBE embraces our agency to leverage the power of place in our lives and learning just as it acknowledges the influence that place has over our identity. While learning must take place in a physical classroom in most schools, with all the aspects of schools that this entails (timed periods, separate subjects, etc.), it does not mean that we should give up trying to transcend the barriers and isolation that schools can create. In the interview, Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) points out that in the process of “aligning” curriculum and standards, curriculum is treated as a means to an end (to meet the standards) and is forever altered. How do we mediate the two? If we can’t, what changes can we make to enable schools to connect students better with the outside world?

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

One could argue that the infusion of technology in our classrooms further removes us from our world – because technology forces us to perceive our world through a screen and interact with it through a machine. There are others who would argue that technology connects us – like I am connecting with you right now having made my ideas available for comment, or like many professionals and friends connect using Twitter and other social media.  In a different way, a framework like ethnomathematics is one way to enact PBE in mathematics – by inviting students to be aware of other places and cultures that surround us. Perhaps by being inspired by the mathematics embedded in others’ and our own cultural practices, students can transcend the classroom space and acquire the learning that we seek for them. Regardless of what solution is suggested, however, can we transcend place? Or does the fact that students are located in a classroom during the day completely undermine the ability to enact PBE? And, if we can transcend place – that is, if the place they are in (school and classroom) recedes from consciousness as teachers attempt to enact PBE – does this mean that we have enacted PBE successfully or failed to enact it?

I have more questions than answers about this at the moment. One of the purposes of PBE is to catalyze a dialogue about place and education, so perhaps finding “ways” to make it “work” isn’t really the point!


Gruenewald, D. (2003). Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-­‐conscious education. American Educational Research Journal, 40, 3, 619-­‐654.

Green, C. (2005). Selecting the Clay: Theorizing place-­‐based mathematics education in the rural context (Interview with David Gruenewald). Rural Mathematics Educator. ACCLAIM.

Smith, G. (2002). Going local. Educational Leadership, September 30-­‐33.

Boaler, J. (1993) The role of contexts in the mathematics classroom: Do they make mathematics more ‘real’? For the learning of Mathematics, 13(2), 12-­‐17.

Boaler, J. (1998). Open and closed mathematics: Student experiences and understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29, 41-­‐62.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1989). Explorations of Students’ Mathematical Beliefs and Behavior. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 20(4), 338–355.

Aikenhead, G. S., & Jegede, O. J. (1999). Cross‐cultural science education: A cognitive explanation of a cultural phenomenon. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(3), 269–287.

Jegede, O. J. (1995). Collateral Learning and the Eco-Cultural Paradigm in Science and Mathematics Education in Africa. Studies in Science Education, 25, 97–137.

Jegede, O. J., & Aikenhead, G. S. (1999). Transcending cultural borders: Implications for science teaching. Research in Science & Technological Education, 17(1), 45–66. doi:10.1080/0263514990170104