A sustainable development curriculum developed in collaboration with an Indigenous community increased students’ sense of place

Li, W.-T. ., & Shein, P. P. (2023). Developing sense of place through a place-based Indigenous education for sustainable development curriculum. Environmental Education Research, 29, 692-714. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2022.2098933

This study explored Indigenous students’ development of a sense of place through a place-based Indigenous education for sustainable development curriculum. The concept of “place” as used in this context refers to “not only a geographic location but also residents’ emotional and cultural attachment to that space.” The study was motivated, in part, by a concern that the life experiences of Indigenous students are often overlooked in formal education, thus making learning more difficult or less meaningful for them.

Primary participants in this study included six Indigenous Elders, two Indigenous teachers, three fifth-grade male students, and two researchers with extensive experience in Indigenous and multicultural research. The students were members of a small Rukai Indigenous community living in the headwaters in the high mountains of Taiwan. The researchers worked collaboratively with the Indigenous Elders, other community members, and the teachers in the design and assessment of a year-long place-based Indigenous education for sustainable development course. The course was co-taught by the research team along with a Rukai science teacher and supported by an Indigenous administrator. Throughout the course, the students participated in a variety of experiential learning activities addressing the cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral aspects of a sense of place. Topics addressed in the curriculum included mountains, plants, streams, air, water, and sustainable development. Assessment activities focused on improving learning outcomes rather than assessing students or teachers. Multiple assessment methods used included problem-solving cases, interviews, classroom observations, and student worksheets.

Data gathered from the assessments along with teacher feedback showed that the students’ gained increased familiarity with the local geographic environment and their sense of place improved through this one-year course. The local knowledge they gained and the sense of place they developed helped them “think about hometown issues in a broader perspective”. The course also increased students’ motivation to participate in class activities.

This research indicates that the use of a community-based participatory design approach is effective in promoting Indigenous students’ sense of place. A key step in the process involves the engagement of community stakeholders, including local Indigenous Elders who are knowledgeable in the traditional ecological knowledges of their community.

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