Re-imagining The Role of Mapping and Place-Making:  Experimenting With Ideas and Collaborative Writing

Maps [are] clothespins—a tool for hitching children’s lives to their places.

(Sobel, 1998)


Human beings are “place-makers” (Gruenewald, 2003); we transform spaces into places through inhabiting them and developing emotional attachments that make our contexts meaningful.   We are also map-makers.  One of the ways our imaginations help us situate ourselves in the world is through the creation of “maps”—“pictures” or representations of place (in various modes).  Our maps can be profoundly important for us, tying together our knowledge of the world with our emotional lives.  Beginning this project I have two main aims in mind: one, I want to re-imagine mapping as a place-making activity and, two, I want to experiment with collaborative writing.   It is my hope and expectation that through the process of shared writing, thinking and imagining with maps (and with my thoughtful colleagues) these aims will expand in many unexpected directions.

Orientations—Beginning Ideas

David Sobel’s contributions to the field of Place-Based Education are extensive and his work on mapping significant.  Sobel describes in theory and indicates in practice how maps imaginatively and emotionally engage human mind and how they contribute to their cultivation of a sense of place.  While I have continually found myself returning to his books and many articles for insight and ideas as I investigate the imagination’s role in place-making—his books are some of the most worn on my bookshelves—I wonder what is possible if we examine maps/mapping from a different theoretical perspective than Sobel’s developmental one. Indeed, a central theme running throughout his work is the importance of developmentally appropriate curricula and, when it comes to maps, the different ways children create maps at different “stages” of their development and the different “developmentally appropriate” ways teachers can use mapping to engage their students as place-makers.    My aim is to re-imagine our propensity to create/use maps, their pedagogical value and the particular conceptions of developmental appropriateness that tend to dominate educational discourse.  Ultimately, I hope to complement Sobel’s work, adding another layer of support to his argument that mapping represents a powerful pedagogical, place-making activity.

I begin with the following ideas:  a) Mapping is a place-making tool tied to the body’s sense of relation, sense of musicality and ability to recognize and make meaning out of pattern. b) The value of maps for cultivating ecological understanding is that they connect knowledge and perception of/in place with emotion and imagination.  They also shape and influence these things.  Indeed, one often hears said that the map is not the territory; the map leaves things out, shapes that which is deemed important (worth noticing), etc.  In important ways, maps are snapshots in time of particular kinds of imaginative engagement.  As such, they invite imaginative engagement, opening up possibilities for re-imagination of place.

Orientation—The Writing Process

The project is designed to allow a group of us to play with ideas and the writing process.  I imagine a piece of writing that thoughtfully explores the idea of mapping through multiple experiences, perspectives, hopes and passions.  What will emerge, I hope, is a range of ideas about mapping, expressed through multiple voices.  As part of a larger web-based forum, the ideas expressed in this project will be paired with maps, lessons, photographs, research, questions etc.

In terms of process, I began the project by putting on paper what, for quite some time, I have been mulling over in my mind.  I have called these thoughts or questions “musings” and I offered tentative answers to my questions.   (I don’t think for a second they are “mine”.  Rather, they are the results of rich dialogue, shared walks and talks, reading and reflection.)  I included space for more “musings”.   I then invited Sean Blenkinsop, “Xavier” (Kieran Egan—identity revealed!), and Laura Piersol to write with me.  Each person received this introduction and an invitation to answer and ask questions.

Shared Writing & Thinking With Maps in Mind

Musings—How do maps help us to think?

(Gillian) From a Vygotskian perspective, cognitive and imaginative development is shaped by the cultural tools we use to make sense of the world.  What Vygotsky calls “psychological tools” are inventions that we encounter in our everyday lives.  We then, in Vygotsky’s sense, “internalize these tools, and they become for us thinking tools, mediating for us the sense we make of the world and contributing significantly to our cognitive abilities and development. Maps/mapping are an externalization of our ability to identify and make meaning of patterns in our surroundings.  They can capture many aspects of the world including re-presenting for us features of the natural world that engage our emotions.

(Sean)  I wonder if we might ask the question how do maps help and hinder us to think?  Was wondering if we should think about adding “feel” as well? I note that the sets of tools offered (either psychological or cognitive) are cultural (anthro) in nature whereas I think place-making is biological (a tool the world offers us to assist in our sense-making process … if I am right then the map becomes a cultural response to the eco-tool offered to us by the world … this would then explain the cultural variance of maps (e.g. the Polynesian string and bead maps, etc.) … thus the desire to make place (the eco-tool) is responded to by culture which has a range of options (mapping being one of them … forts obviously being another) … these options are adopted and shaped by cultural such that particular things appear and disappear depending upon how the cultural adopts/adapts the available range of tools which might assist the place-making process …

(Xavier) Some people love maps. They have a romantic feeling whenever they look at a map. IN part, of course, it is a sense of power over what is otherwise unknowable and somewhat threatening: maybe the world goes on for ever, or maybe there are obstacles ahead of us. Maps give us control and enlarge, then, our sense of what is realistically possible for us as we plan journeys. Detailed maps of distant places can be full of discoveries; less wonderful that exploring the real place, of course, but perhaps a prelude to that exploration which has its own distinct pleasures. Maps help us plan realistically and they introduce new possibilities to our thinking.

(Laura) I think it’s useful to think about why maps have been created historically eg. to delineate property/power, to aid in navigation/orientation. Then to contemplate the effects of such maps: enablers of colonization/exploitation,   facilitators of global trade/commerce … at the expense of what? This means acknowledging that for centuries maps have actually been used as instruments of ‘truth’, helping to reinforce a colonial mindset. Thus, we actually use them to excuse ourselves from thinking (“see it’s here on the map-how could it be wrong?”). Yet, as Korzybski says we are scarily accustomed to mistaking the map for the territory. The challenge is to realize how quickly the map supplants ‘reality’ and to learn to question what is/isn’t included. Then we can begin to use maps as political/educational tools to help us play with what is traditionally represented/portrayed/foregrounded/ backgrounded. In this way I think maps act as storytellers, and can actually be useful in shifting our preconceived notions of what is ‘seeable, thinkable, doable, possible’ as  Ranciere would say.

Musing—How are maps place-making tools?  How do they help us to grasp situation?

(Gillian)  Maps are cultural inventions that help human beings make sense of their contexts and figure out where they fit into these contexts.  They, like “cognitive tools” (Egan, 1997) are “good” for thinking; they help us make sense of situation as they combine epistemological, emotional and psychological dimensions.  By depicting particular features of place, situating them in space and also affixing them in our emotional lives, maps help us to grasp situation, offering us means to evoke and explore our emotional and imaginative connections to our contexts.  Like the other cognitive tools children acquire along with their use of language, maps are culturally mediated, shaped by the cultural contexts in which they develop and in which they are used.

(Sean) So, if we assume our culture is at best unconcerned with ecological questions (if not downright hostile to it) what are the implications of this final sentence for eco-imaginative teachers who are interested in using maps?  My sense is that there are good ways to respond … including offering a diversity of maps such that part of the decolonization process can occur (supporting the reader/learner to be more discerning/aware of the map as cultural object) … I am guessing that the teacher can also have students involved in mapping things that might somewhat unusual to current mapping projects such that different things are given priorities … take the kinds of maps that permaculturalists develop (flow of water through a space, movement of the sun/shade/rain, particular soil constructions, key gild presences, etc.) … thus, like all of the cognitive tools there is an eco-content twist that can be inserted … not just collecting whatever but collecting bird encounters or shells, etc. …

(Laura) I think the process of map making can draw us into awareness of our limitations to ‘grasp’ or ‘hold’ a place. To a certain extent they will always act as ‘the finger pointing at the moon’, maps can either help direct us/connect us to the place or they can remove us from it entirely, it depends on whether we mistake the map for the place or we realize that to truly connect with the place it’s necessary to gaze beyond the map. It’s possible to learn that although we can pattern things to our liking there is a wildness that escapes the page. I would like to use map making as an educative tool to help orient ourselves back to careful attending and as an agent to problematize traditional notions of property, worth and boundaries. So I see maps as essential tools in an ongoing process of what Greenwood calls decolonization and reinhabitation.

Musing—How do our maps reflect the different ways in which we imaginatively engage with the world around as?

(Gillian)  Sobel describes different “sensitive periods” we pass through as we develop.  Mapping should connect to these different periods if it is to be developmentally appropriate (e.g. for ages 4-7 the emphasis should be on empathy and identification with the natural world; for ages 7-11 the emphasis should be on exploring the natural world; for ages 11-14 the emphasis should be on social action).  Can we re-interpret the kinds of maps children make in terms of how different cognitive tools are shaping the sense they are making of the world?  Using Egan’s (1997) language around “kinds of understanding”—ways of making sense of the world shaped by the cognitive tools associated with different forms of language (oral, written, philosophical)—can we explain why maps engage kids and how they differently represent the world through maps? What are the implications for teaching?

(Laura)  I really like this question and think that the suggestions I was making at trying to embody the process of map making as place making tool were trying to get at this. I’m curious how each of us would approach a map of the same place. Maybe we could all create a map of Tynehead park and then discuss the process regarding how we each were imaginatively engaging with place. I also think that we could try out some activities with the Enviro School, we should brainstorm some potential ideas.

(Xavier)  Abstract mapping, with symbols in place of things, seems almost by its nature a “philosophic” activity. “Romantic” maps seem more like those hybrids between a map and a picture of a place—such as those precisely drawn images of a town or historical site as though drawn from half a mile up and at an angle. They keep a pictorial relationship to the place, but also are concerned to give that control over it that abstract maps provide so well. There is a town in England called Burton-on-the-Waters (I think), in which there is a model of the twon in miniature, and in that miniature there is another even more miniature version. The model, like any model, has a similar attraction of letting us see in small the whole that would otherwise not be comprehensible as a unit to our senses. The model seems to share with hybrid maps a clear romantic appeal. I’m not sure what “mythic” maps would be like. Perhaps those impressionistic indicators of some narrative game or story? Such as the pictorial/impressionistic maps in Tolkein’s books—Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. Or the kind one might construct of a neighborhood—though I am not sure those typical mapping activities in schools engage children or expand their understanding of maps very well if they are abstracted from some events, or a narrative, or a story in which the children might have roles of be imaginatively engaged. But, basically, I don’t know.

Musing—How can maps be used to support place-making in schools?

(Gillian)  In The bioregional imagination:  Literature, ecology, and place (Lynch, Glotfelty, & Armbruster,  Eds., 2012) maps are described as tools for re-inhabitation.  That is, in a world where many people feel disconnected from their local natural worlds and communities, maps represent means to reconnect.  Through mapping projects of many kinds we can re-imagine our places and either create or remember our emotional connections to them. One idea… I wonder if schools might take on a collaborative mapping project that could, for students, contribute to their inhabitation of places and, for others who have lost a sense of place, support their re-inhabitation. I am imagining a Whole School Project (Egan, in which all students, over a three-year period, contribute to the creation of a school/community atlas containing student-created maps of the local community.  There would be a bound, paper “book” component as well as a mural (to be kept in perpetuity) and an online component.  Students’ representations of place could be detailed and informative—connecting to both social studies and science curricula by providing in depth representations of history, local flora, fauna, and other topographical/geographical data—as well as more metaphorical and artistic.  Layering of maps of all kinds would result in a rich representation of the local community and its meaning for students.

Musing—Sobel outlines certain “design principles” for place-based curricula.  How can place-making as an imaginative activity contribute to these design principles?

(Sean) The key for me lately has been how one moves back and forth between decolonization and reinhabitation … I think it is an ongoing process that requires constant vigilance … otherwise the map and as such the teacher/project is in danger of assuming re-inhabitation without actually having properly dealt with the colonization issue …

(Laura) Have I sent you my watershed paper? It talks about my experience mapping with the community of Lethbridge over a year. I would also like to show you the slideshow of some of the maps that were created. Essentially, I had 3 grade seven classes, adult community members and a group of 15 homeschool students work to create maps around the concept of “The Oldman River Watershed” over the course of a school year. I took all the groups out to various locations in the watershed and did place based learning with them and local community experts. At the end of the year the maps were exhibited around the community in art galleries, shops, city hall etc. I think that if we are serious about using mapping as a place making tool it requires time, so I love the idea of a multi-year, whole school project focused around it. Some nice elements of the project included not just involving the school itself but the larger community so that community experts could be involved in sharing their areas of expertise with the students. As well, I liked the interdisciplinary aspect of it, how language arts, science and math could all be tied together in a map identifying the local trees in the school neighbourhood for instance. The field trip experiences were key to fostering an in-depth connection and understanding of place. I found it helpful to have a specific theme to map under eg. watershed or forests or salmon…Nothing would excite me more than getting a project like this started in more schools.

Musing—How can we help develop students’ pleasure in maps and mapping, and their knowledge of the world through maps?

(Xavier) I knew a student whose “party” trick was to draw freehand a detailed and astonishingly accurate map of the world. In a school context in which most students are hard pressed to be able to identify continents or label correctly any country in South America, Europe, or Africa, this party trick seems even more extraordinary. It began as fun, maybe in response to a challenge, but it also stimulated interest in many of the countries he was able to draw. What kinds of classroom activities could help many more students develop a delight in maps? From my own schooling I can recall nothing much that engaged me particularly about maps and mapping activities. I do recall some pleasure from large-scale and detailed maps and learning to convert the flat map onto images of what the place looked like in reality. But that was a small pleasure, and about all I can remember. We ought to be able to do better. Suggestions?

Musing—Is it possible to reinhabit places (read:  reconnect, be whole, live ecologically) without story/the story-form?

(Gillian) In IE we talk about how we don’t realize the importance of the story-form for our lives and the meaning we make of our experiences.  Maybe I’m wrong but I feel like we talk about story as incidentally important or useful for eco understanding as opposed to necessary.  So… is it possible to reinhabit place without the same tool working?  Curricular idea—narrative reinhabitation (Sarenella I)—stories that have empathy/awareness/vision—combined with the maps.  A mapping and storytelling project…

Musing–Is there more of a connection between mapping and collaborative writing then appears in this description?  Is there something about mapping as place-making that might draw out or on the collaborative?

What are you thinking? Feeling? Imagining?