Research Summary

Enhancing children’s literacy and ecological literacy through critical place-based pedagogy

Utilizing pedagogical literacy to establish early-onset agency with self-identity and the environment

Environmental Education Research
2020

The physical place is an essential aspect of facilitating learning in educational settings. A critical place-based pedagogy centers identity building and understanding through connection to place. Literacy is also important to critical place-based pedagogy; such that place-based experiences can promote critical thinking skills. The authors of this paper also present the need for post-sustainability thinking related to pedagogy; meaning innovative, new ways are needed to promote sustainability in education. In part critical to this student agency and cultural change. This study centered two case studies at two different locations and aimed to understand how to enhance literacy and environmental literacy, and explored the interactions between place, literacy, and student agency.

This study was made up of two case studies involving children from Sweden and exploring their literacy, ecological literacy, and agency. Case study 1 lasted two months at a residential school yard with 21 students (Grade 1, 7 years old) and 1 teacher. The teacher aimed to create relationships between the students and trees to build sustainable thinking and emotional connection with nature. Lessons integrated biology, the Swedish language, and visual art. Students were assigned different missions in which trees and plants were prominent. Students were given acting roles as characters to collaborate and solve problems; in this case, students played the roles of specific trees. Data was collected through observations, photos, semi-structured interviews with students, and through implementing activities.

Case study 2 lasted 1 year at a forest with 22 students (Grade 2, 8 years old) and 1 teacher. Students were asked to create two large books equipped with pictures about themselves and about a local festival. The creation of these books was an interactive way for children to both learn about their natural surroundings and enhance literacy and sustainability learning. It also allowed students to express themselves. Data was collected through observations, videos, photos, semi-structured interviews with students, and students work they created. Data was analyzed for common themes from both case studies, particularly looking at how students and their teachers interacted with the environment, and how meaning-making through literacy contributed.

The researchers identified three main themes after analyzing the two case students: 1) Meaning-making through literacy in physical places. This meant students were able to associate meaningful experiences with nature that in turn allowed for the digestion of new knowledge. 2) Spaces for meaning-making underlined creating new avenues for sustainability practices, such as the introduction of place-based experiences for learning purposes. 3) Place-based and literacy practices highlight the importance between place, self-identification, and literacy. The researchers also found, primarily through interviews, various physical spaces gave rise to new experiences for students which brought them closer to their natural surroundings. The researchers found the democratic approach successful, for example, using the books the students created to capitalize on their self-agency.

Limitations in the study occurred through the difficulties that arise when studying identity formation, as it required subjective interpretation. The restriction of literacy learning is highlighted by time and effort-intensive learning over long periods. This suggests that this type of learning relies on case studies and research that require significant preparation.

The study emphasized the importance of the living environment in enhancing literacy and ecological literacy development. Physical locations can help students’ build their identity and is intertwined with learning. The researchers suggest four concepts needed in learning, 1) student agency, 2) interactions between a student and place, 3) place-based learning and innovative pedagogies, and 4) sense-based teaching and connecting with emotions. Practitioners should consider embracing these ideas in their lesson planning, embrace relationships with a place, and really consider what students need to learn for a sustainable future.

The Bottom Line

The physical place is an integral aspect of facilitating learning in educational settings, as promoted through critical place-based pedagogy. Literacy is also important as place-based experiences can promote critical thinking skills. This study aimed to explore the interactions between place, literacy, and student agency in two locations. This study included Swedish students from grades one to two, ages seven to eight. The researchers ultimately affirmed that literacy could be enhanced from experiences outside of the classroom and showed the importance of place in learning. The study emphasized incorporating multiple innovative methods, such as artistic creation and interactive place-based learning to facilitate literacy and ecological literacy development.