In search of healthy policy ecologies for education in relation to sustainability: Beyond evidence-based policy and post-truth politics


A new paper just came out in ‘Policy Futures in Education’ that I co-authored with Robert Stratford critiquing evidence-based approaches to policy making in the context of (re)orienting education towards sustainability in times of post-truth and alternative facts. In the aper we pose that there is a rational assumption built into some research projects that policy contexts are influenced by the quality of the evidence. This is, at best, only somewhat true some of the time. Through policy ethnographies, two education researchers working in the context of sustainability discuss their experiences with evidence-based policy. Central to both accounts is how critical messages about such issues as race, wellbeing and sustainability can become diluted and even lost. In the existing ‘politics of unsustainability’, and at a time of ‘post-truth’ politics, these accounts also show the limits of evidence-based policy.

We argue that those working with ‘the evidence’ need to be open about how evidence-based approaches can end up supporting the ‘status quo’. Moreover, while approaches such as knowledge mobilisation emphasise the relational qualities of policy contexts, and the importance of simple compelling narratives for decision-makers, they, like many other practices, do not sufficiently theorise the power structures surrounding knowledge and the policy context. In addition to the careful use of evidence, we argue that there needs to be greater emphasis on building healthy policy ecologies – including far more emphasis on building critical and creative policy alternatives, especially in areas like sustainability and education.

The paper can be found/downloaded here: Healthy Policy Ecologies Paper


Overcoming socio-ecological vulnerability through community-based social learning


A new paper was published in the journal Local Environment this month led by one of my recently graduated PhD-students, Daniele Souza. The paper investigates community-based initiatives and collective learning practices in sustainability transition processes. This paper presents the results of a participatory study that investigated a local initiative in the community of Lomba do Pinheiro in south Brazil to examine social learning processes in the context of socio-ecological vulnerability. In this community, a group composed of local residents and members representing the public sector and local educational institutions has promoted several learning-oriented actions aimed at restoring a degraded local watershed and improving residents’ livelihoods.

The study used social learning as a lens through which the initiative enacted by this group may be understood, and analysed how local conditions, determined by a context of vulnerability, have influenced local processes. We applied a multi-dimensional analytical framework that included individual, collective, and territorial dimensions. The analysis focused on the leading group, the individuals who comprise it, and their actions in the territory, while considering local constraints. Our findings highlight the importance of (1) shared values, mutual trust, and affective bonds for group cohesion as well as concerted action, equalisation of diverse languages within the group, knowledge integration, and initiative persistence; (2) a practical-reflexive approach based on a sequence of actions that catalyses group learning and facilitates advancement within the wider community; and (3) the role of inter-sectoral articulations and the establishment of partnerships to support actions.

This paper raises questions about the limits of an exclusively bottom-up approach to solve complex problems in the context of extremely precarious conditions.

The full reference is: Souza Tubino, D., Wals, A.E.J., Jacobi, P. (2019) Learning-based transformations towards sustainability: a relational approach based on Humberto Maturana and Paulo Freire, Environmental Education Research, 25 (x), 1-15.

A link to the journal here!

Transformative Sustainability-oriented Open Education


This new book published by Brill just came out and I am pleased to have been ablte contribute to its contents together with one of my colleagues from the University of Gothenburg, Anne Algers. Our chapter is part of a rich collection of chapters focusing on ways of opening education to allow for more dynamic forms of learning to emerge in a world that is trying to grapple with many of the existential and ecological crises that, both ironically and sadly, humanity itself has created. The chapter that Anne and I wrote (have look at the pre-print here: Sustainability_orientedOpenLearningAlgersWals2020) asks the question of “How can open education play a role in making academia more responsive and responsible in addressing ill-defined and ambiguous, but ever so urgent, sustainable development challenges?”  In our chapter, a case study from the field of sustainable development of food systems provides a narrative that illustrates the possible impact of open education; and the value of a culture of openness to individuals, to a community, and to society.

First, we provide a contextual background on the implications of openness in higher education. Second, we introduce the subject of sustainable development (SD) of our global food systems; and third, we discuss the concept of education for sustainable development (ESD). Fourth, by means of thick description (Geertz, 1973), we report a case study on open education which we discuss in light of learning theory, critical pedagogy, and sustainable development.

In the end we argue for a radical interpretation of open education which we refer to as transformative sustainability-oriented open education, where ”open” refers to inviting and expressing critique and marginalized perspectives in controversial societal issues, while transformative refers to enabling learners to bring about change.

Suggested citation: Algers, A. & Wals, A. J. (2020). Transformative Sustainability-Oriented Open Education. In: Conrad, D. & Prinsloo, P. (Eds.).  Open(ing) Education. (pp. 103-120). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Sense.


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Imaginative Disruptions: Creating Place- and Arts-based Responses to Climate Urgency

Imaginative disruptions

The Video

Taking place in 3 countries (Sweden, United Kingdom and The Netherlands) three ‘collective residencies’ brought together an intergenerational group of people who played, ate, (re)imagined, learned and created together, to design alternative futures around a selected ‘glocal’ issue, and explore what needs to be disrupted to realise these imagined realities; what is working with us and what is working against us? Two hopeful examples of local residents and one from academia show the power of arts-based approaches and the importance of hope and lightheartedness. The research was initiated and led by former MSc and PhD-students of mine, Natalia Eernstman

You can find more information and a link to the video here: Imaginative Disruptions Video

The Research

Imaginative Disruptions was a two-year creative research project that explored the transgressive potential of art and making to engage groups of citizens and experts in imaginative conceptions of alternative environmental narratives.

Underneath the project is the assumption that the structures and mind-sets of our modern society have made unsustainable living the default and sustainable living the exception. Acknowledging that environmental issues occur in the every-day lives of people rather than on drawing boards of technocrats, implies that designing and transitioning towards a more environmentally sustainable alternative should include citizen, lay or situated knowledges.  There are some signs that such knowledge is recognized and demanded in both science and society (e.g. the push for citizen science and multi-stakeholder social learning). However, the practical realisation of processes that include public dialogue, in which citizens become critics and creators of knowledge, are fairly under-developed.

Here are some of the things we aimed to find out:

What arrangements and conditions are needed to disrupt daily routines and generate new ones?

Does the recognition and inclusion of situated knowledges generate radically different perspectives on how we can live well and environmentally, or do they represent the fine-tuning and, thereby, the maintenance of the status quo?

What happens if you put adults and children in the same learning arrangement and invite them to learn, play and experiment collectively? Chaos or…?

(How) is the knowledge produced through this heterogenous, vernacular, artistic, non-hierarchical and intergenerational process ‘useful’ to the community in question and a wider subject arena around it?  

What is the added value of creative / artistic techniques in the social learning that will take place?

The ‘data’ of the research project emerged from the residencies with people talking, creating and reflecting together. We aimed to collect what the residencies generate in ways that don’t disrupt the activities, and allow us record things that we didn’t know we were going to document in advance.

More background information can be found on our Imaginative Disruptions website here: Imaginative Disruptions Home Page.


The Funding

The project was funded by the Swedish SEEDBox small grant scheme for innovative approached to education and research aimed at realizing a more sustainable world.

Towards a Framework for Designing and Assessing Game-Based Approaches for Sustainable Water Governance – New paper (open-access)


Together with Alice Aubert and Wietske Medema I co-authored a review paper on the designng and assessing of game-based approaches for sustainable water governance. In the paper we try to map these approaches using a heuristic that is derived from work Bob Jickling and I did well over 10 years ago on the positioning of sustainability-oriented education and learning. The resulting paper you can find below. Here is the abstratc. Disclosure: The paper appears in the journal Water which is part of MDPI whose publishing model I critiqued in an earlier blog post.


Most of the literature on serious games and gamification calls for a shift from evaluating practices to using theories to assess them. While the former is necessary to justify using game-based approaches, the latter enables understanding “why” game-based approaches are beneficial (or not). Based on earlier review papers and the papers in this special issue of Water entitled “Understanding game-based approaches for improving sustainable water governance: the potential of serious games to solve water problems”, we show that game-based approaches in a water governance context are relatively diverse. In particular, the expected aims, targeted audience, and spatial and temporal scales are factors that differentiate game-based approaches. These factors also strongly influence the design of game-based approaches and the research developed to assess them. We developed a framework to guide and reflect on the design and assessment of game-based approaches, and we suggest opportunities for future research. In particular, we highlight the lack of game-based approaches that can support “society-driven” sustainable water governance.
Here is the link to the full paper which is freely downloadable.

Education for Sustainable Development in the ”Capitalocene” – Call for abstracts


There is still some time to submit your manuscript idea or abstract for this special issue Educational Philosophy and Theory (EPAT) that I am co-editing with my Swedish colleagues from the University of Gothenburg – Helena Pedersen, Beniamin Knutsson, Dawn Sanders and Sally Windsor. The deadline for – just the abstract – is May first. Go to the Routledge website for the details and see the description below!

Special Issue

ESD in the ”Capitalocene”: Caught up in an impasse between Critique and Transformation

Has Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) reached an impasse? Offering an application of Baudrillard’s thoughts to educational research, Paul Moran and Alex Kendall wrote in 2009 that education researchers are engaged in an act of forgery; a manufacture of presuppositions about what education is. Moran and Kendall argue that our research approaches, produce nothing but illusions of education, not because our approaches and methodologies are somehow flawed, rather that these illusions are what education is. Education, they claim, does not exist beyond its simulation.

Perhaps more provocatively, this implies that all critique of educational practice, from the revolutionary critical theory of Marx and the Frankfurt School via Foucauldian power analyses, as well as more recent ”new materialist” and post-qualitative approaches and beyond –are also part of the simulation of education process. These movements constitute an “improvement agenda” of education, and over and over again, more interventions are produced and critiques are repeated to foster improvements, pursued as if they were possible (Moran & Kendall 2009, p. 329).

We would like to take this Baudrillardian analysis of education as a springboard for thinking around ESD and capitalism. ESD is paradoxically positioned right at the nexus of looming ecological crises (”the Anthropocene” [Crutzen & Stoermer 2000]; the ”Capitalocene” [Malm & Hornborg 2014]) while at the same time the ESD field has been severely criticised for its presumed normativity (Jickling 1994). Quite regardless of the validity of this critique, embedded in the core idea of ESD is, arguably, a grandiose ”improvement agenda” – not only of education, but of the planetary condition as such. There is an asssumption that if we can find the appropriate way of ”doing” ESD, a sustainable world is within reach.

However, if there is nothing that may be called education “that exists independently of the methodologies, comments, curricula designs, testing regimes, forms of discrimination”, as Moran and Kendall (2009, p. 333) put it, what place is there – if any – for ESD under current conditions of predatory capitalism, exploitation of natural “resources”, transgression of planetary boundaries, and the destructive fantasy of infinite growth? Does ESD generate nothing but reproduction, much like capitalism itself (e.g. Hellberg & Knutsson 2018)? Is ESD an affect-organizing “comfort-machine” in the classroom (Pedersen 2019), sustaining the present order of things? Perhaps Bruno Latour (2004) captures the point most aptly: ”Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?” (p. 225) Latour suggests, that the critic “is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather” (p. 246). Such arenas, Giroux observes, need “an understanding of how the political becomes pedagogical, particularly in terms of how private issues are connected to larger social conditions and collective force” (Giroux 2004, p.62).

Stratford (2017) has recently called for education researchers to identify and respond to the challenging philosophical issues evoked by the current ecological crises. Our initiative is a response to Stratfords’s call; however, our starting point differs from how educational philosophy can “improve education in the Anthropocene” (p. 3) and is rather concerned with the “impossibility” of this claim.

We suggest that the idea of ESD as producing illusions of education rather than a sustainable world, does not necessarily lead to an impasse, but can, in Moran and Kendall’s (2009) words, be a very useful place to begin. We are looking for theory-, philosophy-, and empirically-driven papers that address the  ”impossible” position of ESD in ”the Capitalocene” at an urgent juncture in history.

Contributions may address, for instance, the following areas of inquiry;

  • Has ESD reached an impasse, and if so; how can it be understood?
  • Are there ”functions” of ESD beyond the improvement agenda, and beyond the cycle of Critique and Transformation?
  • Is ESD a form of simulation and, if so, what purposes might such simulation serve?
  • How can ESD effectively interfere with capitalism, its forces and threats to life-supporting Earth systems?
  • In what arenas of intervention and action can ESD assemble its participants?
  • How can we reimagine education in extinction and post-extinction narratives?

Submission Guidelines

Please send your abstract of 250-500 words, along with references and a brief bio, to both Helena Pedersen and Beniamin Knutsson, University of Gothenburg.

Final article manuscripts will be approx. 6000 words.

  • Abstract due: May 1, 2019
  • Notification of acceptance: May 20, 2019
  • Manuscript submission deadline: November 1, 2019

Guest Editors:

  • Helena Pedersen, University of Gothenburg
  • Beniamin Knutsson, University of Gothenburg
  • Dawn Sanders, University of Gothenburg
  • Sally Windsor, University of Gothenburg
  • Arjen Wals, University of Wageningen

Link to the publisher’s website is here!


Climate change, education and sustainable development – Podcast on FreshEd


What’s the connection between education and climate change? I was interviewed about this question by Will Rehm of FreshEd – a popular podcast on the future of education –  at the 2018 Global Education Meeting, a high-level UNESCO forum held in Brussels. The Forum reviewed the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. In our conversation, I raised the issue of the ‘hidden curriculum of unsustainability that is born out of schools focusing on preparing learners for the globalizing economy as workers and consumers’. I tried to move beyond providing a critique – which is relatively easy – to also sketch some hopeful practices and possibilities of whole school approaches towards sustainable development. In the interview I call for more freedom and dissonance in education systems to engage with every day and emergent challenges in relation to sustainability in general and climate change more specifically. You can find the interview here!

Citation: Wals, Arjen, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 144, podcast audio, January 14, 2019.