Time for ‘T-learning’ – transformative, transgressive learning in times of climate change


Still feeling very privileged and a bit lucky to be part of a very rich consortium of partners from 4 different continents – as one of 3 selected proposal out of more than 500 (!) original expressions of interest – to work on this ICSS-funded project on T-learning. The project just launched its website: http://transgressivelearning.org/ with the case studies form the 10 different countries. Here is what we are talking about:

Radical changes in society are needed for responding to climate change, and for transforming to sustainability. It is increasingly clear that people everywhere will need to learn to transform to sustainability in ways that are socially just, peaceful and ecologically sustainable.

It is now already widely known that transformations to sustainability can occur if people learn to make changes at niche level. This can drive wider social changes and regime shift transformations, especially if such forms of learning become more collective.

Transformations to sustainability do not come about easily because of ‘lock-ins’ in the system. Transformative, transgressive types of learning are needed to help ‘unlock’ the lock-ins and to strengthen wider forms of collective social learning.

Yet, we know little about the type of transformative, transgressive learning (t-learning) that enables such change.

Here’s the initial ‘academic’ paper we wrote: transgressiveSocialLearning (only to have a look, not for sharing with others).

Full reference: Lotz-Sisitka H, Wals AEJ, Kronlid D, McGarry D. (2015) ‘Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability , 16, 73-80, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.018

Go visit the website! http://transgressivelearning.org/ or here: Join T-learning form

Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice – now available!


Australian colleagues Ralphe Horne, John Fien, Beau Beza and Anitra Nelson edited a fascinating book on ‘sustainability citizenship’ to which I was priviledged to contribute a chapter together with Frans Lenglet. Urban sustainability citizenship situates citizens as social change agents with an ethical and self-interested stake in living sustainably with the rest of Earth. Such citizens not only engage in sustainable household practices but respect the importance of awareness raising, discussion and debates on sustainability policies for the common good and maintenance of Earth’s ecosystems.

The publisher’s website describes the book as follows:

Sustainability Citizenship in Cities seeks to explain how sustainability citizenship can manifest in urban built environments as both responsibilities and rights. Contributors elaborate on the concept of urban sustainability citizenship as a participatory work-in-progress with the aim of setting its practice firmly on the agenda. This collection will prompt practitioners and researchers to rethink contemporary mobilisations of urban citizens challenged by various environmental crises, such as climate change, in various socio-economic settings.

This book is a valuable resource for students, academics and professionals working in various disciplines and across a range of interdisciplinary fields, such as: urban environment and planning, citizenship as practice, environmental sociology, contemporary politics and governance, environmental philosophy, media and communications, and human geography.

The chapter Frans Lenglet and I wrote is titled: “Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning” and emphasizes the role of learning and cultivating diversity and generative conflict in co-determining what it means to be sustainable within the everyday realities people find themselves. It is argued that in order to brake with stubborn unstustainabel routines – that are heavily promoted and strenghtened in a market, growth and consumption-oriented society, citizens will also need to develop disruptive capacity and engage in transgressive learning (see my earlier post about transgressive learning and the work within the ICSS project on T-learning led by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes Univerity in South Africa). If you want to have a look at our chapter you can find it here: SustainabilityCitizenshipWalsLenglet2016 (for personal use). The full reference is:

Wals, A.E.J. & F. Lenglet (2016). Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning. In: R. Horne, J. Fien, B.B. Beza & A. Nelson (Eds.) Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice. London: Earthscan, p. 52-66.

If you want to get a hold of the entire book visit: https://www.routledge.com/Sustainability-Citizenship-in-Cities-Theory-and-practice/Horne-Fien-Beza-Nelson/p/book/9781138933637



The relevance of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom to urban socio-ecology

jane+in+news+slideshowJane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom were both giants in their impact on how we think about communities, cities, and common resources such as space and nature. But we don’t often put them together to recognize the common threads in their ideas.

Jacobs is rightly famous for her books, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and for her belief that people, vibrant spaces and small-scale interactions make great cities—that cities are “living beings” and function like ecosystems.

Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work in economic governance, especially as it relates to the Commons. She was an early developer of a social-ecological framework for the governance of natural resources and ecosystems.ostrombook

These streams of ideas clearly resonate together in how they bind people, economies, places and nature into a single ecosystem-driven framework of thought and planning, themes that deeply motivate The Nature of Cities. In this roundtable we ask sixteen people to talk about some key ideas that motivate their work, and how these ideas have roots in the ideas of either Jacobs or Ostrom, or both.

The natureofcities.com is a wonderful resource and platform for people interested in re-designing urban spaces to make them more liveable and sustainable. Every two months the site organises a Global Round Table that starts with input from scholars and practitioners from around the world. I was asked to provide an short input piece as well which can be found in the online discussion forum. In the past these roundtables  have been getting about 12,000+ readers, from 1000+ cities and 70+ countries and I encourage anyone to have go to visit and contribute at this roundtable by clicking on the link below.

Common threads: connections among the ideas of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, and their relevance to urban socio-ecology

For more of their ideas, directly from them, good places to start are:

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York, USA.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA

Transformative Learning for Sustainability: Special Issue

Ariane König and Nancy Budwig have edited a cutting edge Special Issue for the Journal Current Opinions of Environmental Sustainability on Transformative Learning for Sustainability and more specifically on ‘New requisites to universities in the 21st century’.


This Special Issue focuses on how universities engage in sustainability issues by staging transformative learning opportunities. The special issue features ten case papers from five continents illustrating the changing relationship of learning, research and practice in such programmes. The issue includes a paper on the Luxembourg Certificate in Sustainability and Social Innovation and an introductory overview by Dr König.to which I will contribute in May with a talk on “Sustainability transitions in society: changing science/citizen relations with citizen science for social learning“. The University of Luxembourg has made the entire special issue open access which means that anyone can download all the papers for free, including the one I co-authored with Heila Lotz-Sisitka, David Kronlid and Dylan McGary on Transgressive Learning which you can also download the paper here: transgressiveSocialLearning Transgressive Social Learning

Highlights from the paper are:

  • Pedagogies are required that are not constrained by current use of limited concepts, or by disciplinary decadence.
  • Concepts such as resilience are problematic if they hold unsustainable systems and patterns in place.
  • Disruptive capacity building and transgressive pedagogies are needed for a more sustainable world.
  • Transformative, transgressive forms of learning requires co-learning in multi-voiced and multi-actor formations.
  • Higher education should provide possibilities for engaged, lived experience of transformative praxis for students.

“Beyond unreasonable doubt – learning for socio-ecological sustainability…”


As my ‘special professorship’ has been converted into a ‘personal professorship,’ (I know this is confusing to academics from around the world but I don’t want to use up valuable blog-space to explain it) I was invited to give a second inaugural address titled: Beyond unreasonable doubt –  education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability in the anthropocene in the Aula of the Wageningen University on December 17th 

The special day happened to be the warmest December 17th on record… quite fitting for the talk and the cover of the accompanying booklet (with people sitting on an terrace a cold Fall evening in Gothenburg under so-called ‘space heaters’).

A short introduction to the new Chair has been placed on youtube:

Transformative Learning for Socio-ecological Sustainability in less than 3 minutes

Here’s the back flap text of the booklet is now available:

‘For the first time in history one single species has succeeded in living in a way on planet Earth that disrupts major natural systems and forces in such a way that our survival is at stake. A transition is needed to break with resilient unsustainable systems and practices. Such a transition requires active civic engagement in sustainability. New forms of education and learning, including ‘disruptive capacity building’ and ‘transgressive’ pedagogies are urgently needed to foster such engagement.’


If you want to receive the booklet containing the accompanying text to the lecture then send an email to office.ecs@wur.nl with unreasonable doubt in the ‘subject’ and put your name and address in the body of the message and we will post you one.
 If you wish you can still attend, sort of,  the event by going to:
Here you can see the entire ceremony which starts at minute 9 with an introduction by our Vice-Chancellor (Rector Magnificus) Arthur Mol and with me starting the speech (battling the flu but hanging in there – I think/hope) at minute 15. Sometimes the animations I used do not fly-in on WURTV for some reason but fortunately they did in the auditorium). But it’s of good quality and you can advance the timer if you wish to.


Focus of the new Chair in transformative learning for socio-ecological sustainability

In short the new Chair in transformative learning for socio-ecological sustainability explores three important questions: 1) What sustain’abilities’ and responsibilities we need to develop in learners? 2) What learning spaces or ecologies of learning are most suitable in developing those abilities? and 3) How can the cultivation of these abilities, responsibilities and spaces be designed and supported? In other words, the main focus of the chair lies on understanding, designing and supporting learning processes that can help citizens understand complex socio-ecological issues through meaningful engagement and interactions with and within the social, physical and virtual realities of which people are part and the development of the capacities they need to contribute to their resolution.

The addition of ‘socio-ecological’ to sustainability is intentional, as much work done on sustainability nowadays tends to focus on economic sustainability, often without people and planet in mind. In a way sustainability has lost its transformative edge ‘sustainability’ during the last decade as the much of the private sector embraced it as a marketing opportunity. Adrian Parr (2009) even suggests that sustainability has been hijacked and neutered. While economics inevitably is part of the sustainability puzzle, the need to (re)turn to the ecological boundaries in which we have to learn to live together, as well as to the well-being and meaning of life issues for all, has prompted me to make the social-ecological more prominent in the description of this Chair. Therefore, I am particularly interested in understanding and supporting forms of learning that can lead to the engagement of seemingly unrelated actors and organizations in making new knowledge and in taking the actions necessary to address socio-ecological challenges.
Note 1: The booklet containing the inaugural address will be posted to you for free (as long as supplies last) when you email office.ecs@wur.nl with “Unreasonable doubt” in the subject area and your name and postal address in the body of the text).
Note 2: The inaugural address can be followed live via WURTV where it will also be archived: https://wurtv.wur.nl/P2G/cataloguepage.aspx


Education, Transformation and Sustainability – Sharing the stage with a president

Newspaper article covering Mugabe's speech the day after

When asked by good SWEDESD colleague Shepherd Urenje whether I would accept an invitation  to give a keynote at an Education Expo in Zimbabwe on “Growing Socio-economic Opportunity through Quality Education in the 21st Century” I accepted knowing that some excellent people I have worked with over the years are Zimbabweans who are working hard to improve education, learning and People and Planet (Kaleb, Tich Pesanayi, Shepherd, Soul Shava and Mutizwa Mukute). Once I accepted I got a little anxious when the communication about the event was rather limited and I could find little or no information on the Internet… But, two days for my scheduled departure I did receive my ticket to Harare. I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that my keynote was scheduled at 12:00 and my flight was scheduled to land at 12:20… Also, the organizers reserved the whole morning for ‘registration and opening’ without providing any further details. So I made the trip with somewhat tempered expectations. At the airport in Harare I was met by some of the organizers. My first question was – “Has my talk been re-scheduled?” The answer changed my expectation right away: “The President is still giving his opening address. He discarded his prepared written speech and is speaking from the heart”. Apparently the opening was done by President Robert Mugabe… My next question was: “How many participants do you have?” The answer added to my increasing anxiety: “Between 5 and 6 thousand educators, administrators, principals, district heads and some notables including our Ministers of Education, of Women Affairs as well as the Minister of Education from Namibia and the Deputy Minsters of Education from Botswana and South Africa…”

I don’t think I have underestimated and event the way I had done this time… What on Earth was I going to talk about… as the first key note (followed by a Director from Intel Southern Africa who would speak about ICT in Education).

I had 20 minutes to make the point that education is not there to only serve the economy, but also people and planet, that ICTs can be helpful but can be a distraction from the things that really matter as well (I had to be diplomatic knowing the Intel-keynote was after me), and that we need to dare to ground teaching and learning in real issues that cannot be captured by the traditional subjects but demand a more holistic and localised approach. I also was able to squeeze in that the persistent emphasis on testing kids, measuring performance and ranking schools, teachers and pupils, can kill deeper learning.

I quickly learnt in the discussion afterwards that ICT is more ‘ sexy’  than sustainability and that Education for Sustainability does not resonate among most of the audience members (I should point out that most participants had left by the time the keynotes started, as had Mugabe who had to go to parliament that afternoon to open the new session (what energy for a 91 year-old…). What does resonate is: relevance, quality education, teacher’s professional development, and using ICTs but also empowering learners to make change. Very little about climate change, food and nutrition security, agriculture, biodiversity, inequity, poverty reduction. In fact it was Robert Mugabe who came closest of all speakers… Here’s an excerpt from the newspaper article covering his speech:

Excerpt Robert Mugabe's Speech from

Excerpt Robert Mugabe’s Speech from “The National”

The other, even more encouraging sign that there is a transformation in education going on – in the margins – came from one of the many exhibits at the conference (90% of them related to ICTs run by commercial companies). It came from an exhibit by a local Primary school where young pupils ran projects on seed diversity and nutrition. The young man on the left in the picture below was extremely articulate and passionate about this project and had a bigger impact on me than all speakers together (which is not to discredit the speakers, many of them were very interesting). And so was the young man on the right who developed a self-refilling drinking water supply mechanism for animals using the same float ball mechanism as used in toilets to regulate water.

On the left: Ziyanda Moyo, Form 1 (first form in secondary school education, immediately after completing Grade 7); Pumula High School. On the right: Muziwandile Moyo, Grade 7, Senzangakhona Primary School

On the left:  On the left: Muziwandile Moyo, Grade 7, Senzangakhona Primary School. On the right: Zivanda Moyo, Form 1 (first grade in secondary education, Pumula High School.

All in all this was a remarkable experience that I will need to reflect on some more for sure.

Let me end this post with the latest publication by PhD student Joana Ameyaw from Ghana who works on ‘responsive curriculum development’ for creating a more sustainable forestry sector. She shows in her work that these new, grounded and interactive forms of curriculum development are not only possible, they are happening!

Her paper was published recently in Forestry and Economics and is titled: “Challenges to responsible forest governance in Ghana and its implications for professional education” Here you can find the AmeyawArtsWals(1) paper for personal use.

Strengthening ecological mindfulness through hybrid learning in vital coalitions

New article written by Jifke Sol & Arjen Wals published in a journal called Cultural Studies of Science Education

DOI: 10.1007/s11422-014-9586-z  /  Online Date: 6/11/2014

In this new paper a key policy ‘tool’ used in the Dutch Environmental Education and Learning for Sustainability Policy framework is introduced as a means to develop a sense of place and associated ecological mindfulness. The key elements of this tool, called the vital coalition, are described while an example of its use in practice, is analysed using a form of reflexive monitoring and evaluation. The example focuses on a multi-stakeholder learning process around the transformation of a somewhat sterile pre-school playground into an intergenerational green place suitable for play, discovery and engagement. Our analysis of the policy-framework and the case leads us to pointing out the importance of critical interventions at so-called tipping points (see the figure below) within the transformation process and a discussion of the potential of hybrid learning in vital coalitions in strengthening ecological mindfulness. This paper does not focus on establishing an evidence base for the causality between this type of learning and a change in behavior or mindfulness among participants as a result contributing to a vital coalition but rather focusses on the conditions, processes and interventions that allow for such learning to take place in the first place.

Tipping points in transitional learning

Figure: Tipping points in transitional learning

Keywords: Ecological mindfulness – Vital coalitions – Hybrid learning – Place-based education – Reflexivity

The full paper for personal use – under the condition that is not shared – can be obtained by emailing arjen.wals@wur.nl  or through your library system