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, or via Jac Niessen, science information officer at Wageningen UR, tel.+31 (0)317 485003,

“Saving the Planet hurts the local economy” – Climate Change makes its way into the world’s classrooms

Ok – it has taken up the whole 10 years of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development but the day before Earth Day, April 22nd, a global newspaper, The International New York Times, published a half page article on the role of and the need for education for sustainable development with a specific focus on teaching climate change in schools. Hundreds, if not thousands of articles have been published about climate change and sustainable development but rarely do they make a reference to the role of education, teaching and learning. As the world is confronted with major ecological crises leading to or amplifying major social crises (and vice versa as well) it is about time that the media begin to engage the question of ‘how should education respond?’ ‘what should people be learning and how?’ The article – which you can find HERE: ESDinIntlNYTimes210414 – includes an interview with Alexander Leicht, Head of UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development section a number of other informants from various parts of the world. While there is a growing awareness that there is a need of involving people meaningfully in what seem to be the greatest challenges of our time the article also notes resistance to doing so. In Wyoming, for instance, law-makers blocked the teaching of climate change saying that doing so could hurt the local economy. This painfully makes clear the difficult situation we find ourselves in.

Sustainability in higher education in the context of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

Sustainability in higher education in the context of the UN DESD: a review of learning and institutionalization processes” is a paper that was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 62, Pages 1-138, January 2014) as a part of a theme issue on:

“Higher Education for Sustainable Development: Emerging Areas”. This special issue is edited by Maik Adomßent, Daniel Fischer, Jasmin Godemann, Christian Herzig, Insa Otte, Marco Rieckmann and Jana Timm of Leuphana University in Germany.

The paper I contributed is grounded empirically in a review of UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UN DESD) I was commissioned to carry out by UNESCO. The review’s section on the learning processes taking place in the higher education arena forms the basis of this article. Particular attention is paid to the role of UNESCO ESD Chairs in advancing sustainability-oriented learning and competences in higher education.

The main conclusion that can be drawn is that Higher Education Institutions are beginning to make more systemic changes towards sustainability by re-orienting their education, research, operations and community outreach activities all simultaneously or, which is more often the case, a subset thereof. They are doing so amidst educational reforms towards efficiency, accountability, privatization, management and control that are not always conducive for such a re-orientation. Some universities see in sustainability a new way of organizing and profiling themselves. The UNESCO ESD Chairs mainly play a role in conceptualizing learning, competence and systems change.

The full reference is: Wals, A.E.J. (2013). Sustainability in higher education in the context of the UN DESD : a review of learning and institutionalization processes, Journal of Cleaner Production ( A preview can be found here! SustainabilityinHigherEducationWalsJournalCleanerProduction13

Back-alley sustainability and the role of environmental education

Source:  - careers in urban agriculture

Source: – careers in urban agriculture

Here’s another ‘old’ paper that resonates more today than it did when it appeared in the very first Volume of a very valuable journal “Local Environment” in 1996. What is interesting to note is that the neighborhoods in Detroit where the action research reported on took place have been transformed quite a bit: abandoned houses – often crack houses back then – have been torn down and the vacant lots have, in some instances, been ‘reclaimed’ by nature or converted into productive land for fruit and vegetables (see “Detroit Agriculture”). Perhaps, in a very modest way, educational initiatives like the one described in this paper have contributed to this transformation, although a question today is to what extend the Detroit schools take part in this transformation and whether schools are able to ‘localize’ their curriculum and educational processes to allow for this. Below you find the abstract of the paper which can be obtained in full by clicking on the reference at the end.


Environmental education can be a catalyst for sustainable development in local communities as long as it is recognised that communities have different challenges and needs. From a perspective of social change and sustainable development, environmental education can be broadly defined as the process that enables students and teachers to participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of educational activities aimed at resolving an environmental issue that they themselves have identified. What an ‘environmental issue’ is, then, depends on the perceptions and earlier experiences of the learner as well as the context in which education takes place. An illustration of such a participatory approach to environmental education is provided by the case of Pistons Middle School in Detroit, Michigan where teachers, students and outside facilitators combined action research and community problem solving.

Source: Wals, A.E.J. (1996). BackAlleySustainabilityWals 1996
Back-alley sustainability and the role of environmental education. Local Environment, 1 (3), 299-316.

Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development

“Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development” is the third journal paper I co-authored with former Master students and colleague at Wageningen University Natalia Eernstman who is currently a PhD student at Falmouth University/ London School of Arts in the UK. The first two – related papers focused on the introduction of IFOAM organic labelling schemes and the (negative) impact therof on indigenous farming practices in the North-East of India: Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. (2009) Interfacing knowledge systems: introducing certified organic agriculture in a tribal society. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 56(4), 375-390 and Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. (2009) Jhum Meets IFOAM: Introducing Organic Agriculture in a Tribal Society. International Journal of Agriculture and Sustainability, 7(2), 95-106.

This new paper – based on Natalia’s PhD-work – is quite different in that it explores the utilisation of dialogic practices, site-specific theatre and a project conducted in a British village to generate processes of “context-based meaning finding”. It concludes that Education for Sustainable Development essentially starts with and revolves around re-embedding sustainable development in life and the act of living, engaging people in place through processes in which communities yield their own, context and time specific interpretations of sustainable development. The paper was published in ‘open-access’ journals Sustainability and can therefore be downloaded and shared for free! One interesting feature f the paper is that the some of the conversations with the participants in the study as they took place during walks in through the land(scape) can be accessed and hear. The editors insisted the links to the date were put in the notes in the end instead of as hyper-links in the text – which is regretable in my opinion. But here they are the links to the two excerpts provided (which make more sense when engaging with the full text first): “in the woods” (with Natalia narrating first about how she engaged the participants and used “walking” as a way to dig for meaning) and “on the bridge”

The full paper reference is: Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. “Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development”, Sustainability 2013, 5, 1645-1660; doi:10.3390/su5041645 It can be downloaded HERE. sustainability-05-01645

Milestone in an evolving field: International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education


2013 marks the year in which the world’s largest and most diverse educational research organization – the AERA – jointly with Routledge, published the International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education (Stevenson, Brody, Dillon & Wals, 2013). The field of Environmental Education has roughly existed for just under 50 years and has over time developed its own research, research networks and research journals. The AERA commssioned the editors in 2009 to compile this Handbook as a part of AERA’s Handbook Series on Education Research.

The International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education describes the important concepts, findings and theories developed by the research community and examines the historical progression, current debates and controversies, missing elements from EE research agenda, and the future.
The environment and contested notions of sustainability are increasingly topics of public interest, political debate, and legislation across the world. Environmental education journals now publish research from a wide variety of methodological traditions that show linkages between the environment, health, development, and education. The growth in scholarship makes this an opportune time to review and synthesize the knowledge base of the environmental education (EE) field. The purpose of this 51-chapter handbook is to illuminate the most important concepts, findings and theories that have been developed by EE research and critically examine the historical progression of the field, its current debates and controversies, what is still missing from the EE research agenda, and where that agenda might be headed.

You can find the orginal proofs of chapter 1 here: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J and Wals, A.E.J. (2012). International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education_Ch01_1pp In: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (Eds.) (2012) International Handbook of Environmental Education Research. London: Routledge, 1-12

The Handbook can be order through Routledge or any on-line bookseller. Here’s a link to the Routledge Handbook page which also contains the Table of Contents. Should you be working for a university you may want to recommend the Handbook for you library.

Why sustainability cannot and should not be taught: a call for reflexivity, transformation and deep learning in turbulent times

This academic year I have the honour of participating in the academic community of Gothenburg University as the Adlerbert Research Foundation’s Guest Professor. Gothenburg University, as does the other well-known university in Gothenburg, Chalmers University, aspires to integrate sustainability science and education in all its 7 faculties. The two universities already share a Centre for Environment and
Sustainability (GMV) and Chalmers has a special Sustainability Vice-Chancellor, John Holmberg who is also a UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainability in Higher Education. During my last visit to Gothenburg in this new role I participated in a workshop on Teacher Education for Sustainable Development? which was introduced with the following text:High expectations of formal education’s contribution to sustainable development are expressed in a series of policy documents from UNESCO, through the proclaimed Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). This is also highlighted in Swedish policy documents for education (National Agency for Education). The Swedish Higher Education Act states that “In the course of their operations, higher education institutions shall promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice”. What implications does this have for a higher education program such as Teacher Education?

Julie Davis of the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia and I were asked to provide input for the workshop by providing a ‘provocative’ introduction. Mine was titled: Why sustainability cannot and should not be taught: a call for reflexivity, transformation and deep learning in turbulent times

Needless to say that the title raised some eyebrows. But here’s what I tried to say. We cannot know what sustainability is. We don’t live long enough to be able to say that what we consider to be sustainable today turned out to be sustainable in the end. Also, what might be sustainable in Gothenburg, Sweden might not be sustainable in Kampala, Uganda. To complicate things further even when considering all the (scientific) knowledge available today there is no universal agreement about what, given what we know today, might be the most sustainable way of living.

So how then can we educate for sustainability? – a question already raised 20 years ago by my Canadian colleague and friend Bob Jickling.  In my contribution I problematized this dilemma from an education perspective by arguing that even though we do not and cannot know what sustainability is we have a moral responsibility to always be looking for ways of living that are more sustainable than our current ways.The current state of the Planet demands this. Given this dilemma it would be inappropriate or at least un-educative to use education to prescribe learners how to live their lives or to condition them to behave in a certain way.

Rather than focussing as educators on sustainability as a ‘destiny’ or an ‘end point’ it may be more fruitful and certainly more educational, to focus on the type of learning and the type of capacities that are needed to break away from unsustainable routines which are all around and generally known. Using concrete examples, I proposed strenghtening social and transformative learning in ‘cross-boundary environments’ seeking to develop people’s sustainability competence as an alternative. Some of these ideas can also be found in my inaugural address of a few years ago: Message-in-a-bottle-Learning-our-way-out-of-Unsustainability(pdf connected to the hypelink). I have attached the slides I used here: ESD-TE Workshop Gothenburg U November2012.

Julie Davis talked about: Working the system: Taking a systems approach to embedding education for sustainability in teacher education in Australia

Here’s how here contribution was listed in the workshop outline: Much has been written about the need to ‘re-orient teacher education towards sustainability’. Yet, research indicates that, generally speaking, teacher education institutions are not preparing pre-service teachers to teach education for sustainability. This presentation reports on a staged study that commenced in 2006 in Australia that has sought to understand how change is implemented and becomes ‘mainstreamed’ within teacher education institutions. Stage 1 involved an international literature review and interviews to examine efforts to re-orient teacher education towards sustainability; consequently, a systems-based model for change was developed. In Stage 2 (2008), this model was piloted across 5 teacher education institutions in Queensland, Australia, aimed at engaging teacher education institutions and a range of stakeholders within a teacher education system to work simultaneously to bring about change. Findings indicated that systemic change is enabled if there is both conceptual and personal capacity for change, and that trust, respect and ownership are central to re-orienting teacher education systems. Stage 3 (2009) involved another 5 teacher education institutions that used the model to begin the task of reorienting their teacher education systems. This stage identified 5 enabling actions: collaborative curriculum change; building a sustainability ethos; connecting disparate sources of sustainability education content; better support for integration between programs; and utilising experiential teaching and learning approaches. Stage 4 (2011) is underway, aimed at deepening and extending the change experiences, with an emphasis on building a national network to drive systemic change for education for sustainability.

Just out: The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology

About two years ago Susan Clayton invited me to contribute to a major handbook on environmental and conservation psychology (33 chapters, 780 pages!). She felt it was important to also have a chapter on the role of education and learning in connecting people with ‘nature’, ‘place’ and ‘environment’ but also in engaging them with ‘sustainability’ issues. It gave me the opportunity to write a, hopefully somewhat accessible and compehensive, introduction to the field of environmental education and the related emerging field of education and learning for sustainability. At the end of this post there is a link to the proofs of this chapter.

Environmental psychology studies the ways in which people perceive and respond to the physical environment, whereas conservation psychology  tends to refer to psychological research on the need and ways to protect the natural environment. What is conservation psychology, and what is its relationship to environmental psychology? This new Handbook answers those questions. From the Oxford University Press website:

“The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology includes basic research on environmental perceptions, attitudes, and values; research on specific environments, such as therapeutic settings, schools, and prisons; environmental impacts on human well-being; and ways to promote a more sustainable relationship between people and the natural environment. By presenting an extensive review of current research, the handbook serves as a thorough guide to the state of knowledge about a wide range of topics at the intersection of psychology and the physical environment. Beyond this, it provides a better understanding of the relationship between environmental and conservation psychology, and some sense of the directions in which these interdependent areas of study are heading. Research on the human-environment relationship is increasingly relevant to understanding and addressing the environmental challenges society is facing. This handbook should serve as a resource for professionals both within and outside of psychology who are trying to comprehend the human implications of environments, and to design programs, policies, and environments that are cognizant of human psychology.”

Here’s some background inforrmation about the chapter I contributed (for a full Table of Contents please go to the publisher’s website).

Wals, A.E.J. (2012) Learning our way out of un-sustainability: the role of environmental education. In: Clayton, S. (Ed.) Handbook on Environmental and Conservation Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 628-644. (by clicking on the title you can get to the proofs of the chapter).


In this chapter the role of education in creating a planet that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect will be discussed from two vantage points: an instrumental one and an emancipatory one. The instrumental perspective emphasizes the potential of education in changing human environmental behavior in predetermined and more or less agreed upon directions. The emancipatory perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes the potential of education in strengthening people’s capacities and confidence to enable them to help determine how to live together in ways that do not further undermine the carrying capacity of the earth. Whereas the former, more behaviourist vantage point tends to have more support among environmentalists with a strong concern about the rapid loss of biodiversity, climate change, depletion of natural resources, and so on, the latter, more human development–oriented vantage point, tends to have more support among educators with a strong concern for self-determination, agency, and democracy. The chapter ends with the introduction of “post-normal” environmental education.

Key Words

environmental education, sustainable development, nature conservation education, emancipatory learning, instrumental learning, agency, participation, post-normal science

Fifty Shades of Green – why the Green Economy cannot be business as usual and ESD cannot be education as usual…

The novel ‘Fifty shades of grey’ by British author E.L. James Critical has sold over 30 million copies since it appeared in 2011. The book went ‘viral,’ as they say, at least in part because of its sexual content. Reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey have been mixed to negative, with most reviews noting poor literary qualities of the work. Princeton professor April Alliston wrote, “Though no literary masterpiece, Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series”. [1] Jenny Colgan of The Guardian wrote “It is jolly, eminently readable and as sweet and safe as BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) erotica can be without contravening the trade descriptions act” and also praised the book for being “more enjoyable” than other “literary erotic books”.[2] However, The Telegraph criticised the book as “treacly cliché” but also wrote that the sexual politics in Fifty Shades of Grey will have female readers “discussing it for years to come.” [3]

Admittedly I have not read the book but the title, and the fact it went viral, might inspire: “Fifty shades of green”. This book – which also was part of a conversation at the last Frankfurt Book Fair between a representative of Wageningen Academic Publishers (publisher of Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating change – see below – and a representative of KNNV-publishers, a Dutch nature publisher) – would critically analyse the green-inflation, green populism and green rhetoric that is going on. It also, perhaps more importantly, would help people differentiate between what might be called deep green (suggesting a genuine transition to a more sustainable world built on principles, values, lifestyles and systems that are more sustainable than the ones currently demanded by the current dominant economic thinking) and shallow green (more of the same but with a nice green gloss that will make every-body feel good but doesn’t fundamentally change anything in the end and, in fact, amplifies unsustainability in disguise).

“Fifty shades of grey” apparently succeeds in what seems to be somewhat of a taboo, accessible to a huge audience and leads, in some ways, to a different conversation. Perhaps “Fifty shades of green” could accomplish that as well.

This morning, in a Skype meeting with Swedish Education for Sustainable Development teachers, I suggested such a book and people immediately seemed to start thinking about what such a book could be about. Please submit any ideas you may have about this in the comment box at the end of this post!

Below a wonderful cartoon by Singer that illustrates what might be called shallow green.

Green energy, green incinerators, green cars, green growth, green airplanes, green nuclear, green economy, plant bottles… , green growth, green mind-sets?

For those of you who are a bit concerned or skeptical about the green economy (a wolf in sheeps clothes?) and wonder whether education, learning and capacity building should be re-oriented towards such an economy – as if education only serves the economy… – I am inserting a link to a talk that was pre-recorded recently which was shown at The Swiss Sustainable Development Forum. Here’s the link which works with all main browsers I’m told. If it works well you can see both the talk and the slides used.

For those of you who would like to read about this I can refer to “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” – of which some chapters are now open-source including the introductory chapter co-authored with Peter Blaze Corcoran. You can click on the picture below – offering another peak into the green economy –  to get to the book.

Green Economy for All? (Source: google images)

Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability

Some people have asked me for a copy of a ‘think piece’ I wrote a few years ago as input for a World Congress on Environmental Education held in South Africa a few years ago. The paper – Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability – was published in the Southern Africa Journal of Environmental Education which is an important resources in the field of EE and one of the oldest journals in this field. Unfortunately the journal’s electronic distribution is somewhat limited still. Therefore I am making it available here as a pdf.

One key message – which is important just a few weeks for the Rio +20 meeting – is that Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development have a high familiy resemblance when taking the 1975 Belgrade charter on EE and the 1977 UNESCO-UNEP conference on EE held in Tiblisi as foundational to the field of EE.

The other key message is that the nature of sustainability challenges seems to be such that a routine problem-solving approach falls short. Transitions towards a more sustainable world require more than attempts to reduce the world around us into manageable and solvable problems but instead require a more systemic and reflexive way of thinking and acting with the realisation that our world is one of continuous change and ever-present uncertainty. This alternative kind of thinking suggests that we cannot think about sustainability in terms of problems that are out there to be solved or in terms of ‘inconvenient truths’ that need to be addressed, but we need to think in terms of challenges to be taken on in the full realisation that as soon as we appear to have met the challenge, things will have changed and the horizon will have shifted once again.

The paper therefore calls for reflexivity (Reflexively fumbling towards sustainability) and offers social learning as a form of learning that is particularly suitable for promoting reflexivity in diverse groups of learners.

The pdf is linked to the full citation of the paper below:


The full citation for the paper is:

Wals, A.E.J. (2007). Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education. 24 (1), 35-45.

The Big Tent Rio +20 Communique on Sustainability, Knowledge and Higher Education

Recently I contributed to the 5th Living Knowledge Conference which was held in Bonn, Germany with a talk on “Science as community: Sustainability- oriented trans-disciplinary research” and by providing input to a drafting process that resulted in a communique on higher education’s role in moving towards a more sustainable world. This communique is to be presented and discussed at the Sustainability Summit in Rio which will be held in June (also known as Rio +20).

The “Big Tent” Group – also known as the Higher Education Treaty Circle – is a collaboration of regional and global networks of civil society and higher education networks with a total membership of over 5,000 universities and civil society research organizations. The group was created to make a joint contribution to the RIO + 20 United Nations Sustainability Summit and the parallel Global Civil Society conference on Sustainability taking place in June in Rio de Janeiro.

Via an on-line contribution platform I was able to include a few lines myself including one that states that “Universities have a responsibility to look after the well-being of the planet, not as stand-alone beacons of knowledge, but as places where wisdom of communities, eco-systems and the academy work together in partnerships for a world that is more sustainable and just”.

The focus of the communique is on how civil society and universities can co-create radically new knowledge together.

Canada’s Budd Hall from the University of Victoria says, “This is the first statement agreed upon by so many higher education networks calling for a deep examination of the need to re-examine whose knowledge counts and how we can co-construct new disciplines for a new world”

I am pasting in the current communique for you to read, comment on and, if you like, to share with others who might be intrrested and/or might need to know.

RioCommuniqueOnSustHEI-Final-May 20

Communiqué on Sustainability, Knowledge and Democracy* (Released on May 12 in Bonn, Germany at the 5th International Conference of the Living Knowledge Network)

This statement is the product of a global dialogue and discussion process hosted by the Living Knowledge Network.

It is an initiative of the ‘Big Tent’ Group of international networks which includes: Asia Pacific University Community Engagement Network, Centro Boliviano de Estudios Multidisciplinarios, Commonwealth Universities Extension and Engagement Network, Community Campus Partnerships for Health, Global Alliance on Community Engaged Research, Global University Network for Innovation, Living Knowledge Network, PASCAL International Observatory, Participatory Research in Asia, and the Talloires Network with additional contributions participants at the 5th International Conference of the Living Knowledge Network.

We begin by expressing our deep concerns about:

The continued destruction of our common home, our planet Earth, Our over dependence on technological solutions that may result in misleading claims about positive impact on the environment, Ways that the dominant global economic system with its unitary focus on economic growth results in increased inequality, loss of jobs, alienation from both land and each other, The persistent exclusion of the dreams, potential and contributions of the socio–‐economic bottom billion people of our world, and Stressful and unhealthy lifestyles leading to physical and mental health problems;

We are witnesses to massive expressions of aspiration and deep change as seen in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements.

We are aware and supportive of work being done to engage with civil society and its organisations in the co–‐construction of new knowledge in many spaces such as the Science in Society Programme of the European Commission, UNESCO and the Global University Network for Innovation.

We are also aware that while certain developments in science and technology have been complicit in the creation of planetary problems, evidence shows that communities and research institutions working together play a significant role in the attainment of sustainable development.

We respectfully contribute our ideas to spaces for engagement and action on issues of planetary survival, including, but not limited to the United Nations Rio + 20 events Higher Education Treaty Circle process and the Horizon 2020 programme in Europe

We call for action to:

1. Challenge existing paradigms, structures and practices, by: a) Recognizing that knowledge and expertise exists outside of the institutions of higher education. Communities and the earth itself are intellectual spaces where knowledge is created. Decolonizing our minds and our institutions is one significant step to acting on this awareness, b) Acknowledging that ‘community’ or ‘civic’ engagement, has to mean more than just people. Community includes the environment and all the rest of nature, c) Promoting the concept of an ‘Ecoversity’ whereby higher education institutions themselves are transformed into integrated holistic communities and where research, teaching and action functions are no longer separate, d) Breaking down the silos of knowledge creation and moving to co–‐creation of knowledge between the university and community–‐new approaches for a new world, e) Being open to ideas such as appointing community scholars, and creating smaller universities, and f) Increasing policy and funding for collaborative research between civil society and higher education institutions.

2. Increase the accountability of higher education by: a) Shifting accountability from authorities and funders to citizens, involving community at all levels of Higher Education governance, b) Linking our academic work with environmental social movements and to related movements against poverty, towards a solidarity economy, c) Ensuring that people have an understanding of the interdependencies between environmental, social and economic forces and the skills and abilities to meet sustainability challenges, and d) Moving beyond eco–‐branding by holding institutions accountable for the trademarks, brands and media around sustainability that they display.

3. Understand the connections of our local practices within a global framework by: a) Acknowledging that in this inter–‐connected world, ecological disturbances in one eco–‐zone can spread rapidly throughout the world, b) Promoting new mechanisms of global governance and democratic accountability with multi–‐stakeholder perspectives, and c) Supporting the development of higher education theories and practices that nurture a global public good.

In closing

We live in turbulent times; our world is changing at accelerating speed. Information is everywhere, but wisdom appears in short supply when trying to address key inter–‐related challenges of our time such as; runaway climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources, the on–‐ going homogenization of culture, and rising inequity. Universities have a responsibility to look after the well–‐being of the planet, not as stand–‐alone beacons of knowledge, but as places where wisdom of communities, eco–‐ systems and the academy work together in partnerships for a world that is more sustainable and just.

When citizens are re-framed as consumers and when developing countries are re-framed as emerging markets

Recently I was asked by some key-players in the Dutch Development Scene to give a keynote presentation “on Education and Sustainability that should trigger creative thinking and shed a light on sustainability”. The seminar “Toolkit for Sustainable Impact” took place on 6 December 2011 in the Dutch city of Utrecht and was organised by PIE and Nuffic for NPT&NICHE projectleaders (you can find more info. as well as a pdf of the slides I used here)

I was asked to do so with my role of Global Report Coordinator for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development as a backdrop. But also as someone having had numerous experiences in Africa and Asia working on projects seeking to make higher education more relevant and more responsive to the needs of communities and the demands of the labour market in a rapdily changing world.

Initially I challenged the sneaky conversion of Sustainable Development into Sustainability and questioned the ‘inflation of meaning’ of both concepts as people and groups from different ideological backgrounds seem to embrace the terms (Shell speaks of sustainable economic growth, for instance, whereas Greenpeace associates sustainability with quite something else). I reminded the audience of George Orwell’s cautionary tale in told in his book “1984” when refering to Big Brother’s language games used to manipulate and control people. He used “newspeak” and “double-think” to remove ambiguity and to unify opposites (compare for instance: clean nuclear energy, sustainable mining, etc.) and the “thought police” to prescribe how people should think and should life their lives (compare: to play their role as consumers and to continuously grow personally as lifelong learners in order to be mobile and flexible in a dynamic labour market).

Does this make sustainability and sustainable development useless? Possibly, when we don’t follow the use of the terms critically and when we fail to give it meaning in real contexts that matter to people and the communities of which they are part. The strength of these concepts, at least from an education perspective, lies in the fact that they require meaning-making and contextualization. What sustainability means in Burundi might be different from what sustainability means in Wageningen, The Netherlands where I am writing this. What we might call sustainable today, might turn out to be not so sustainable tomorrow. What is truly sustainable we simply cannot know as we don’t live long enough to determine that what we consider to be sustainable indeed turned out to be sustainable for ever..

So “sustainability” is a dynamic concept both in space and time that is marinated in uncertainty.. What we do know – with a whole lot more certainty – is that the way we live on this Planet can not be sustained for long (although the Planet will go on, certainly without us human beings being around anymore). And, indeed, we also know, or at least I think most of us will agree, that we have a moral obligation to ourselves, to other species and future generations to continuously be searching for ways to tred more lightly on the Earth and to develop lifestyles and values that are more sustainable than the ones we tend to currently support and promote.

NUFFIC, one of the Dutch development organizations organizing the event today, mostly uses “sustainability” as a term to indicate whether a project they support has impact – or, put differently, keeps on going when the external donor money is gone. This is a legitimate question but one that risks ignoring a more fundamental one which is: does the project contribute to sustainability that goes beyond the continuity of economic globalization to include the ecological, the environmental, the ethical, social-cultural – one that actually begins to question some of the underlying hegemonic principles of economic globalization and its inseperable cousin: consumerism. Perhaps another question that needs to be asked is: “what is it we are sustaining with our actions or with what – willingly or unwillingly – we are choosing not to do?”

In my talk I refered to the wonderfull dissertation of Paul Kibwika from Uganda: “Learning to make Change: Innovation Competence for Re-creating the African University for the 21st century”

Paul and I wrote a paper on this for CTA that I like to share here in this occasion.

Extreme university make-over – descending the Ivory Tower and the re-making  of higher education in the era of (un)sustainability – 2015 & Beyond

Dr. Paul Kibwika, Makere University, Uganda & Prof. Arjen E.J. Wals, Wageningen University & Research Centre, The Netherlands

We live in an essentially ‘systemic world’ characterised by multiple causation, interactions and complex feedback loops, yet the dominant educational structures are based on fragmentation rather than connection, relationship and synergy (Sterling, 2000). Universities, confronted with 21st century challenges must therefore not only rediscover, build on and share indigenous ways of knowing and acting, but generate and or adapt new concepts and practices that will contribute to creating a world that is more sustainable. Academics who still believe that universities are Ivory Towers must be willing to make a paradigm shift so that universities become an integral part of the communities that support them. Hence, a challenge to those involved in shaping higher education in agriculture and life sciences is to revisit institutional practices, examine the disciplines and provide more synergy and become more accountable for economic and human development.

Learning and Competence

Education is a means for people to become self-actualized members of society, seeking meaning, contributing to developing their own potential and creating solutions together. A sustainable world without participation and democracy is improbable, and perhaps even impossible (Wals & Jickling, 2002). It cannot be created without the full and democratic involvement of all members of society. Universities therefore must engage their students not so much in learning for knowing, but rather in learning for doing and, indeed, learning for being (Table 1). Learning for being suggests learning that is not of a transmissive nature (i.e. teaching as reproduction) but rather of a transformative nature (i.e. learning as change).  The latter requires permeability between disciplines, university and the wider community, and between cultures, along with the competence to integrate, connect, confront and reconcile multiple ways of looking at the world.

  Scientia Techne Praxis
Focus Learning for knowing Learning for doing Learning for being
Knowledge produced Propositional Practical Experiential
Stucture Subject disciplines Crafts/Skills Issues/Competences
Teacher’s role Expert Master Facilitator
Teaching strategies Lectures on theory Practical instructionDemonstrations Real-world Projects
Research style Basic (Experimental) Applied (Developmental) Action (Participative)
Research goals Abstract-universal knowledge Workplace Solutions Contextual knowledge / Action for change
Basic philosophy Positivism Utilitarianism Constructivism
Focus of reflection What do I now know? What can I now do? Who am I becoming?

Table 1. Some distinctions between different traditions of knowledge and knowing (Adapted from: Bawden and Macadam, 1991, p. 4)

The struggle to find integrated solutions through participatory, multi-disciplinary, innovation systems seems important, but many ACP universities have not yet been very effective in developing the corresponding competences of their staff or students. In addition to their academic functions, faculty and students must develop a different form of learning, if  the university is to take on more societal and developmental functions, or more specifically, is to influence change in a complex environment. Most critical is the issue of the university’s  competence to provide training, research and outreach services that appropriately address real-life problems.

The university must skilfully identify competence gaps of professionals, farmers, policymakers and other agricultural stakeholders, through collaborative learning for change.  It is such engagement with stakeholders that results in innovations that are likely to liberate farmers and nations from the poverty trap and contribute to socio-economic development that does not compromise the future.  It calls for the development of innovation cross-cutting competences in which lecturers become facilitators of learning for development for influencing change in society. Linking and strengthening of competences therefore occur at various levels: university, development service providers and the grass-roots community. Figure 1 provides the key elements, functions and relationships that, when holistically considered, make up innovation competence.

Figure 1: Constructing innovation competence through higher agriculture education (source: Kibwika, 2006) (please go to original paper – see link at the end!)

Unlike academics, who communicate primarily with peers, practitioners find themselves at the interface of researchers, donors, governments, multi-lateral agencies, activists, NGOs, and poor communities, and thus need to be able to operate in multiple communicative modalities (Woolcock, 2006). This means that universities can no longer train students who can only communicate with peers.  Communication skills integrate professionals in society and allow them effectively to influence change as members of that social system through participating in rather than studying that system. Lecturers and students must become engaged in co-learning to co-create knowledge through greater interaction between the university and the community.

Emerging strands of research

The scientists of the future must be able to break out of routines that reinforce the status quo and explore creative and unorthodox ways of solving complex problems. Through such engagement creativity will be unleashed, as scientists begin to rise to and relish the challenge of solving neglected and complex problems drawn to their attention through community engagement.  This will imply much risk taking as criteria for academic advancement may change from being based solely on peer refereed journals. ‘Research as mining’ may no longer be the prevailing mode of research but will be complemented with ‘research as learning’ and, even more radical perhaps, ‘research as activism’ (Table 2)

  Research as mining Research as learning Research as activism
Modus of understanding Nature of inquire Empirical analyticalReductionistObjectiveUniversal Hermeneutic-interpretiveHolistic-descriptive(inter)SubjectiveTrans-contextual Socially-criticalContextual-transformativeDynamic-intersubjective
Roles of researcher Good testerPassive-detachedNeutral-Expert Good listenerActive-detached or passive engagedExplicitly biasedLearner Good allyActive-committedExplicitly partisanCo-learner
Role of ‘participant’ Passive source of data Active informant Participant – learner
Noble purpose Improved efficiency, models, predictability, ‘truth’ Improved understandingPre-hypothesizingMirroring Transformation, systemic change
‘Real’ purpose Status, career development, publications Status, career development, publications Genuine transformation, systemic change?
Language used Exclusive, scientific – but simple and clear towards ‘ target groups’ Exclusive, scientific Contextual – co-created

Table 2 Conventional and emerging strands of research (adapted from Dillon & Wals, 2006).


When people find solutions that work for them they take charge of their own development and become entrepreneurial thinkers and doers: i.e. people who can cope with and take advantage of uncertainty and complexity. Universities will more and more be required to develop entrepreneurs rather than bureaucrats.  But entrepreneurship is not acquired by proclaiming it, or by teaching theory but by practical engagement.  To develop entrepreneurs, university lecturers must also become entrepreneurs, in the sense that they must also find workable solutions to problems in diverse contexts.  Action research and process consultancy provide mechanisms for enabling lecturers to become educational or research entrepreneurs. In this type of engagement, the focus shifts from getting tasks done to solving a problem or generating new products, which involves a lot of creativity and adaptation.

Didactical implications

Integrating aspects of economic growth, social stability and sustainability cannot be realised without thinking very critically about the re-structuring didactical arrangements.  These new arrangements pre-suppose a problem orientation and experiential and lifelong learning that are likely to trigger the following shifts in educational orientation (Wals, 2000):

  • from consumptive learning to discovery learning in open-source environments
  • from teacher-centred to learner-centred arrangements
  • from individual learning to collaborative learning
  • from theory dominated learning to praxis-oriented learning
  • from sheer knowledge accumulation to problematic issue orientation
  • from content-oriented learning to self-regulative learning
  • from institutional staff-based learning to learning with and from outsiders
  • from low level cognitive learning to higher level cognitive learning


In the future, ACP universities that adopt this new way of thinking and doing business will be given greater recognition as leaders in society where cutting edge new knowledge is generated that can break the cycle of un-sustainable development and consumption patterns tied to un-sustainable economic principles. They will constantly question and reform deeply entrenched unsustainable routines, structures and practices by taking advantage of their privileged position in society, utilising some of the brightest minds the world has to offer, perhaps most importantly, by engaging in a collaborative endeavour in continuously seeking ways to preserve the planet. Finally, the university and the university community as a place where people live and work, where energy is used, food is consumed, waste is created, housing is provided, etc., will have to have to mimic the kind of sustainable practices it seeks to promote in its research and education in the way it runs its own business. The university of the future lives and learns by example. Failing to do so will create a gap between rhetoric and reality and undermine the university’s credibility.

Note: Paper written for 22-02-08 accesible as a pdf via:

Also of interest this site at Wageningen International/CDI


Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable Education: Re-visioning and Change. Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Green Books Ltd.

Wals, A.E.J. & Jickling, B. (2002). “Sustainability” in Higher Education from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Higher Education Policy, vol. 15, 121-131.

Bawden, R. and R. Macadam (1991). Action Researching Systems: Extension

Reconstructed. Paper prepared for the workshop ‘Agricultural Knowledge Systems

and the Role of Extension’ held at theUniversityofHohenheim,Stuttgart,Germany.

21-25 May, 1991.

Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (2006) On the dangers of blurring methods, methodologies and ideologies in environmental education research, Environmental Education Research, 12(3/4), pp. 549 – 558.

Wals, A.E.J. & Bawden, R. (2000). Integrating sustainability into agricultural education: dealing with complexity, uncertainty and diverging worldviews. Gent:ICA, 48 p.

Woolcock, M. (2006) “Higher Education, PolicySchools, and Development Studies: What Should Masters Degree Students be Taught?”, Journal of International Development, Volume 19, Issue 1 , Pages 55 – 73.

Kibwika, P. (2006) Learning to make change: Developing innovation competence for recreating the African university of the 21st century. Published PhD-Thesis. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.