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.”


Sustainability by Default: Co-creating Care and Relationality Through Early Childhood Education


The above illustration comes from the new Harvard MOOC on Early Childhood Development and Sustainability

This new paper will be part of a special issue on early childhood education and sustainable development. I wrote the piece  based on a keynote address presented at the 68th OMEP World Assembly and International Conference held in Seoul in July 2016. In the paper I argue that children are more in tune with sustainability than most adults and that both adults and children can benefit from intergenerational dialogue and expanded learning opportunities in so-called ecologies of learning. First the idea of growing up in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch that is shaped by one single species, home sapiens, is introduced. What does growing up in the Anthropocene mean for today’s children? A short critique is provided of the neoliberal forces that increasingly influence what happens in education and care settings and that essentially make unsustainability the default in our society. Drawing on Martin Buber’s ideas of relational ways of being in the world; Nell Nodding’s notions of care; and George Siemen’s ideas about learning ecologies, some suggestions are offered for co-creating early childhood education and care with people and the planet in mind.

The paper ends with the following: “What seems critical is that children encounter a multiplicity of different worlds by crossing boundaries, both individually and together, and having bodily experiences that strengthen their relationality with the human, the non-human and the material. It is through these encounters that agency, care and empathy can develop. All three of these qualities are foundational for a world that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect.

Citation: Wals, A.E.J. (2017) Sustainability by default: Co-creating Care and Relationality Through Early Childhood Education, International Journal of Early Childhood Education doi:10.1007/s13158-017-0193-5

Note that this is an open access publication that can be downloaded for free here: Sustainability by default

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.


‘Science as community — Sustainability-oriented trans-disciplinary research’

Recently I contributed to the 5th Living Knowledge Conference which was held in Bonn, Germany last May with a talk on “Science as community: Sustainability- oriented trans-disciplinary research”. The entire talk has now been uploaded on youtube as have been several of the other talks held at this energizing event. The talk can be found here. Since the slides I used are not always (clearly) visible you can find the slides I used here: WalsBonnLivingKnowledge.

The conference covered the following teams: 

A. Setting shared research agendas by CSOs and Research Institutes 

B. The role of Higher Education in creating knowledge with communities
C. Communities and students learning together
D. Evaluation and quality improvement: New lessons learned on measuring   the value of community engagement and  collaborative research
E. Developing  partnership working for research – civil society engagement
F. Policies to support collaborative research relationships

My talk related mostly to theme B which is described on the conference website as follows: Research and education are going to play a central role during the transformation process towards a knowledge society, as the realisation of the necessity for restructuring the world economy has been triggered mainly by scientific knowledge. Society should therefore decide on actions that are not a direct response to recently experienced events, but motivated by foresight and precaution. For this purpose, the debate between science, politics and society should be far more structured, more obligatory, and livelier, to ensure a constructive discourse about the best ways to achieve sustainability.

Key questions:

  • How can problem-based approaches and transdisciplinarity be encouraged?
  • How can a relation of mutual trust between researchers and CSOs be developed?
  • How can career opportunities for young researchers engaging with communities be improved?
  • How can universities and research institutions give researchers and students more opportunities to reflect about the societal consequences of their work?