(Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective

A new paper coming out of the EnRRich network LivingKnowledge & EnRRich seems ti get a lot of attention considering the number of paper downloads within the first 10 days the paper has appeared online. This is probably because many universities are struggling to find a good way to make education more relevant, responsive, responsible and reflexive in light of global sustainability challenges.


Here is the abstract and a link to Redesigning HE (open access, freely downloadable):

There is an urgent need to address the grand sustainability challenges of our time, and to explore new and more responsible ways of operating, researching, and innovating that enable society to respond to these challenges. The emergent Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) policy agenda can act as a catalyst towards the development of new and more responsible research and innovation efforts. Inevitably, higher education needs to be closely attuned to this need and agenda, by preparing students to engage in RRI efforts. This paper makes a first step towards guiding the embedding of RRI within higher education. It does so by bringing together academic knowledge with phronesis or practical knowledge about what should be done in an ethical, political, and practical sense. It draws on a literature review and on the reflective practices of partners in the European Commission funded project EnRRICH (Enhancing Responsible Research and Innovation through Curricula in Higher Education), as well as on interviews and case studies gathered as part of the project. The paper suggests elements, especially design principles and a competence framework, for (re)designing curricula and pedagogies to equip higher education students to be and to become responsible actors, researchers, and innovators in a complex world, and to address grand sustainability challenges. In addition, this paper proposes that contemporary higher education teaching and learning policies and strategies, especially those promoting neoliberal agendas and marketized practices, need to adopt a more responsible and responsive ethos to foster the renewal of higher education in times of systemic dysfunction.


Higher education Responsible research and innovation Grand sustainability challenges Curricula Competence 



Critical case-studies of non-formal and community learning for sustainable development

Together with UNESCO’s Alexander Leicht and Yoko Mochizuki I co-edited a special issue in the journal International Review of Education on Non-formal and Community Learning for Sustainable Development. Here you find a link to our introductory article.


I am pasting the final two paragraphs of the editorial introduction below:

“If there is any overall conclusion or pattern which might be drawn from all the contributions to this special issue, it is that boundary crossing is becoming a critical element of learning for, within and from sustainable development. This connects well with Vare and Scott’s (2007) notion of ESD 2, but also with the future directions for environmental and sustainability education highlighted in a recent edited volume on this topic by Peter Corcoran et al. (2017). By moving between perspectives, navigating force fields, handling diversity and stepping in and out of one’s comfort zone, new possibilities emerge for rethinking how we work, live, connect and organise our lives. This also implies working on topics and themes in more integrated ways, covering the nexus of, say, water, energy, food, health, equity and climate, rather than trying to zoom in on “just” one of those aspects. Similarly, the SDGs can only be meaningfully addressed when viewed in their relationship with each other. Boundary crossing between forms of learning will be necessary as well, blending formal, non-formal and informal forms of learning on the one hand, and, for instance, experiential, social, place-based and ICT-supported learning on the other. The result might be a learning ecology or an ecology of learning, a concept used by George Siemens (2005) which requires the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, complexity and self-organisation theories.”

“As the target year for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda with its 17 SDGs is approaching, new forms of governance, education, learning and capacity-building will need to be supported which will enable blended forms of learning in vital partnerships between societal actors seeking to live more lightly and equitably on Earth, using their own context (historically, culturally, economically, socially and ecologically) as a starting point. This also means investing in capacity building for boundary-crossing, brokering relationships and building trust and social cohesion, as these processes and properties seem critical for social learning and transformation within communities. The cases featured in this special issue are only a few of many that exist around the world, but most are not researched, documented and shared very well, and herein lies another challenge: making learning towards sustainability in communities more visible and explicit, and finding better mechanisms for sharing them, not just through special issues in a peer-reviewed journal, but also in ways which can more directly inform, or rather, engage, policy and practice.”

Environmental Education in Asia – Special Issue in the Japanese Journal of EE


This special issue edited by Shinichi Furihata and Sachi Ninomiya-Lim from Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology and Tokai University respectively,  is the result of a 2-year collaborative project involving environmental education (EE) societies/ associations from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, North America, and Australia. In the editorial introduction the following is stated:

“The aim of the project was to create a platform to share ideas, practices, and theories of EE in the Asian region, with English as the common language. The discussion was organized around five core themes: 1) Development, current situation, and challenges of EE in formal education; 2) Development, current situation, and challenges of EE in non-formal education; 3) Research trends in EE; 4) Insights for EE in Asia from outside of Asia; 5) Review, comparison, and synthesis of findings to go beyond a presentation of EE in various countries and instead highlight the recurring transversal issues. We hope this special issue will contribute to furthering dialogue among EE scholars and practitioners in Asia, and to building bridges between EE in Asia and other regions.

The Japanese Journal of Environmental Education (JJEE), published by the JSOEE/JSFEE since 1991, has provided EE researchers and practitioners with an important space to share their ideas, thoughts, methods, and evaluative analyses, and to participate in theoretical discussions, etc., similar to many EE journals published in other countries and regions. However, since most of JJEE articles are written in Japanese (with summaries in English), its readership is essentially limited to Japanese language users, most of whom reside in Japan. Thus, although the JJEE has become a critical platform for communication among Japanese EE researchers and practitioners, there is a need to expand these discussions to a wider, global network, so that Japanese EE professionals may participate in international and transnational debates on issues of wider relevance in EE. Similarly, EE research in different journals published in Asian countries, including Korea and Taiwan, is mostly written in the local language and is therefore largely inaccessible to people who do not read these languages. The aim of this special issue, therefore, was to create a space where such discussions may be shared and connected. In addition, we decided to invite several prominent international researchers to provide their insights, ideas, and suggestions on developing EE in Asia, increasing Asian participation in the global EE arena, and promoting collaboration on EE with different countries and regions around the world.”

I was asked to write a reflective response paper together with Peter Blaze Corcoran and Joseph Weakland in which we look ahead to the future of EE in the region and beyond. Our paper titles “Preparing for the Ecocene: Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education” is based on the introduction to the recent book we edited for Wageningen Academic Publishers (see elsewhere in this blog). All papers are available as open-access and can be found here: Link to the entire Special Issue  You can find our closing paper in which we introduce the notion of the imaginary Ecocene here: Preparing for the Ecocene: Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education

Radical ruralities in practice: Negotiating buen vivir in a Colombian network of sustainability – new article!

The Journal of Rural Studies just released a new paper on the conceptualisation and realization of buen vivit in a Colombian sustainability network. Martha Chaves as a part of her PhD-work (see earlier blog posts on this) led a team of authors that also included Thomas Macintyre, Gerard Verschoor and myself.


This paper explores the emerging concept of buen vivir –  interpreted as integrative and collective wellbeing  – as it is being envisioned and practiced by a network of sustainability initiatives in Colombia. As an example of a transition narrative currently taking place in Latin America and beyond, buen vivir represents a turn towards a more biocentric, relational and collective means of understanding and being in the world. Yet despite the many discourses into buen vivir (many of which tout it as an alternative to neoliberal models of development), there is a general lack of research into its varied forms of application, especially in terms of lived experiences. Drawing on the new ruralities literature, this paper explores the extent to which buen vivir visions and practices represent radical new ruralities e so-called alternatives to development. Data were collected from individuals and ecological communities in predominantly rural areas who are members of the Council of Sustainable Settlements of the Americas (CASA), a
network which promotes many of the principles of buen vivir. Through participatory methods, results demonstrate that CASA visions are based on constructing territorial relations through intercultural knowledge exchange and experimentation into alternative lifestyles. Despite the substantial challenges and contradictions of putting these visions into practice, we argue that lived experiences promote processes of self-reflection on what buen vivir really is or could be. We hold that the inclusive nature of buen vivir offers opportunities for diverse peoples to cohere around shared meanings of the ‘good life,’
while providing the freedom to live variations depending on social and ecological context.

Here’s the DOI: //dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.02.007

For a sneak preview you can also have a look here: Chavesetal2017RadicalRuralities

Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability

Just before the end of the year a fascinating paper appeared in the journal Sustainability authored by a multi-author team led by Martha Chaves who just completed het PhD in Wageningen last month.

Chaves, M., Macintyre, T, Verschoor, G & Wals, AEJ (2017)Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability. Sustainability 2017, 9, 21; doi:10.3390/su9010021  Link to the paper.

Abstract: In line with the increasing calls for more transformative and transgressive learning in the context of sustainability studies, this article explores how encounters between different ontologies can lead to socio-ecological sustainability. With the dominant one-world universe increasingly being questioned by those who advocate the existence of many worlds—a so-called pluriverse—there lays the possibility of not only imagining other human–nature realities, but also engaging with them in practice. Moving towards an understanding of what happens when a multiplicity of worlds encounter one another, however, entails a sensitivity to the negotiations between often competing ontologies—or ontological politics. Based on an ethnographic methodology and narrative methods, data were collected from two consecutive intercultural gatherings called El Llamado de la Montaña (The Call of the Mountain), which take place for five days every year in different parts of Colombia. By actively participating in these gatherings of multiplicity, which address complex socio-ecological challenges such as food sovereignty and defence of territory, results show how encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially transgressive learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate un-sustainability. Although we argue that a fundamental part of the wicked sustainability puzzle lies in supporting more relational ontologies, we note that such learning environments also lead to conflicts through inflexibility and (ab)use of power which must be addressed if sustained socio-ecological learning is to take place. Keywords: ontological politics; transformative learning; transgressive learning; sustainability; Colombia; narrative methods.

Here’s the cover of Martha Chaves’ PhD-thesis which can be downloaded from the Wageningen University Library system.


NJAS Special Issue: Social learning towards sustainability: problematic, perspectives and promise

‘Social learning towards sustainability: problematic, perspectives and promise’ is the title of a special issue of NJAS which I co-edited with my (former) colleagues Romina Rodela and PJ Beers. The abstract of the introductory paper with the same title reads as follows:

A common thread throughout this special issue is that sustainability is not a destiny one can eventually reach, but rather a continuous learning path towards transformation that should be profound (e.g. affecting moral standards and value systems), transversal (e.g. requiring the involvement of individuals, groups and collectives) and counter-hegemonic (e.g. requiring the exposure and questioning of stubborn routines). From such a vantage point debates about sustainability likely require transdisciplinary to transcend a singular disciplinary view-point and to allow for the consideration of different perspectives and types of knowledge. The aim of this special issue is to assess the added-value of a social learning perspective on research and action from at least three different ‘disciplinary’ perspectives: systems innovation, natural resource management, and environmental education. Each of these offers a particular perspective on learning, on change processes and evolving understandings of sustainable practices.

The proofs of this introductory paper with the following citation: Wals, A.E.J. and R. Rodela (2014). Social learning towards sustainability: Problematic, perspectives and promise. NJAS. 69, June, pp. 1-3 can be found here: WalsRodelaIntroNJAS.

NJAS cover Special Issue

The table of contents of the Special Issue can be seen below:

Table of Contents NJAS Special Issue

Table of Contents NJAS Special Issue

Education and citizen science; the missing pieces in the sustainability puzzle, Science Magazine article now available

Front page of Science Article

Front page of Science Article[/caption]

In May of 2014  ‘Science’ published a paper on the importance of creating synergies between science education and environmental education with the support of Citizen Science. The article, which I co-authored with Justin Dillon, Bob Stevenson and Michael Brody, is based on the trends emerging from the International Handbook of Environmental Education Research (Stevenson et al, 2013)*. The article is available through most university library systems in the world and can be obtained for personal use by clicking: ScienceWalsetall2014.

There are a number of lessons to be drawn from the article but essentially we emphasize the importance of: Connecting biophilia and videophilia: that is, study ways in which ever-present technologies and cyberspaces can be used to help people (re)gain a deeper and more empathetic contact with each other and with the world (presently these technologies and spaces tend to lead to the exact opposite). Creating spaces for hybrid learning: that is, hybridized environments and new spaces are needed for learning about the sustainability challenges of our time (e.g. climate change, malnutrition, loss of food security and biodiversity) that embraces the authenticity of multiple voices and cultural and theoretical perspectives, new forms of representation, and more change-oriented and community-based approaches. Strengthening community-engaged scholarship with a planetary conscience: that is, with the increasing complexity of societies, the interdisciplinary nature of people-society-environment relationships, the problems faced at local and global scale, and the uncertainty of their solutions or resolutions, there is a need for new spaces for collaborative and transformative approaches to research. Supporting emerging forms of ICT-supported Citizen Science: that is, the active involvement of citizens, young and old, in the monitoring of local socio-ecological issues by collecting real data and sharing those data with others doing the same elsewhere through social media and on-line platforms, as a catalyst for realizing the first three points. Furthermore we suggest that future research address: • the importance of acknowledging different ways of knowing into educational program(me)s; • the importance of place-based education; • the need for EE to focus on community-based activities that lead to • the individual and group empowerment; • the need to factor in issues of identity in EE; • the need for a convergence of science education and environmental education; • the need for EE to address issues of life-long learning • the need for practitioners and researchers to address policy issues; • the need for inter- and transdisciplinarity in EE practice and research. On a critical note, not so much stressed in the Science article but noted in the Handbook, we plea for stressing the importance of education serving people and planet rather than just serving the economy. The current push for innovation, competence, and a lifelong of learning for work and competitiveness, is resulting in the marginalization in education of people and by squeezing out place-based learning, arts, humanities and the development of values other than those driving consumerism and materialism. Wals, A.E.J., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Stevenson, R.B. (2014) Convergence Between Science and Environmental Education, Science, 344, p. 583-584.  * Stephenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (Eds.) (2013) International Handbook of Environmental Education Research. London: Routledge. Below you will find today’s press release by Wageningen University & Research Centre.

Here’s the press release of Wageningen University, no. 045, 9 May 2014 “Addressing climate change, requires a change of mind”

Sustainability needs link between theory and practice in education How can you ensure that people do not only spend time thinking about important global issues like climate change or world food supplies, but also roll up their sleeves and do something about them? Four researchers, including Professor Arjen Wals from Wageningen University, think that the education sector holds the key. Teaching processes around the world could be given more influence and meaning by making pure science subjects, such as biology and physics, complementary to lessons in nature, environment and sustainability. Their article on this new approach to teaching, which is based on citizen science, is published in the 9 May edition of Science. Throughout the world, ‘pure’ science subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, maths, geography and general natural sciences, which traditionally aim to build up knowledge and understanding, are seen separately from subjects such as nature and the environment, which together with the latest branch ‘sustainability education’ take a more practical approach. Although this certainly makes scholars aware of the current condition of our planet, their lack of practical perspective evokes a sense of powerlessness. For example, what can you do to prevent or respond adequately to forthcoming climate shifts? Affinity with politics, society and the economy are essential in this respect. Conversely, education in nature, the environment and sustainability (aka ‘environmental education’) does not equip scholars with the scientific insight they need to back up their proposed remedies. Convergence When taught separately, natural sciences and environmental education give a disjointed answer to society’s demand for a truly sustainable society. “It’s time these two schools converged,” says Arjen Wals, Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development at Wageningen University. “If we cannot create a firm link between these two educational areas, scientific education is in jeopardy of becoming purely a vehicle for enhancing the innovative and competitive potential of a country’s economy”, he says. “At the same time, without a firm link with the sciences, environmental education will never be able to find a responsible and realistic way of dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties that are raised in the scientific debate surrounding questions of sustainability.” The authors of the article in Science give a number of examples of environmental education, which cover the area where science meets society. Among them is the American concept of Edible School Gardens, whereby schoolchildren grow their own food in an educational garden while simultaneously learning about the things they grow in science lessons. The Dutch version is known as Groene schoolpleinen (‘green school grounds’). Another good example is YardMap, based on IT and citizen science. Citizens, both young and old, analyse biodiversity in their own neighbourhood by means of digital photos, special apps and Google Maps. The aim is to identify the areas with the greatest potential for boosting biodiversity. Action plans designed to ensure that the YardMaps are kept fully up-to-date are drawn up and implemented on the basis of studies and in consultation with scientists and local partners (including the municipal authority, garden centres and an NGO). The various YardMaps are linked via social media. The Dutch Natuurkalender works in much the same way. Creating closer ties between citizen science, scientific education and environmental education will help citizens and scientists to take a meaningful and practical approach to the pursuit of sustainability. Wals: “It’s not just about linking up the content; it involves developing new competencies such as dealing with complexity, uncertainty and confusion, and devising and implementing meaningful local solutions”. This method of learning may also help to restore the damage to public confidence in science. The government will have to put more effort into stimulating and supporting the ‘hybrid teaching environments’ that blur the boundaries between science and society, school and neighbourhood, local and global, and shift the emphasis to the wellbeing of mankind and the planet. Transition Calls for transition and another way of thinking are becoming more urgent, says Professor Wals: “At the end of the day, the climate problem is as much in between our ears, as it is between the North and South Poles”. He backs this up with a remarkable conclusion: to his mind, the role of education and citizen involvement has been seriously underemphasised in the climate debate. In fact he wonders if we will ever be able to bring about a transition without committed, critical and competent citizens, who aspire to values that are not purely based on the material side of their existence but also on care for fellow human beings and, indeed, other species, here and elsewhere, now and in the future. Join in the discussion on #CitizenScience Publication Wals, A.E.J., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Stevenson, R.B. (2014) Convergence Between Science and Environmental Education, Science, 344, p. 583-584. NOTE FOR EDITORS More information is available from Prof. Arjen Wals, Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development & Food Security, Wageningen University, tel. +31 (0)317 484184, arjen.wals@wur.nl or via Jac Niessen, science information officer at Wageningen UR, tel.+31 (0)317 485003, jac.niessen@wur.nl.