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 Kö 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.

Global Environmental Education and Wicked Problems – free Online Course


What a global response!

There is still one week to go to: to register for this fascinating course that has already attracted more than 2500 students and professionals from over 130 countries. Just reading the short introductions of the participants on the Course’s Facebook site is educational and inspiring:

The registration closes on February 15th – have a look at the website to see how we are running the course – module one focuses on the meaning of wicked sustainability problems. Participants are sharing their own interpretations and examples of such problems.

Students who wish to take the course for credit can do so via the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point – check out the website to find out how.

Course overview

The goal of this course is to create an environmental education “trading zone”—an online space where scholars and students gather to learn about multiple disciplines that shed light on how to improve environmental quality and change environmental behaviors. Each of the lectures, readings, discussions, and case studies will focus on the implications of a particular discipline for environmental education, as well as what environmental education has to contribute to related disciplines and sectors. Learn about how environmental education, environmental governance, environmental psychology, environmental sociology and other disciplines can work together to address ‘wicked problems,’ not readily addressed by working in disciplinary silos.

Some of the ideas I will be sharing can be found here in a nutshell: Sustainability & Education in Two Minutes

But if you have more time… then you can read a recent open-access publication based on an inaugural address I gave in December of 2015 titled: “Beyond Unreasonable Doubt: Education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability  in the anthropocene” which can now be downloaded here: 8412100972_RvB_Inauguratie Wals_Oratieboekje_v02Complete Text Beyond Unreasonable Doubt Complete Text Beyond Unreasonable Doubt



“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 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 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:


Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction


This weekend (September 12-13, 2015) an new publication appeared that I was privileged to co-author with Heila Lotz-Sisitka (Rhodes University), David Kronlid (University of Uppsala) and Gothenburg), Dylan McGarry (Durban University of Technology)  for Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (Vol 16:7380). It is one of the first papers that I know of that begins to question the emphasis on adaptation and the development of   ‘adaptive capacity’ and instead introduces the need for transgression and disruptive capacity if we are to transition towards a new world based on alternative (including ancient ones) values and principles than current dominant ones. Here’s the abstract follow by some highlights in bullet form. The paper itself can be found here for personal use (not for distribution). Transgressive Social Learning The work was supported by a grant by the ISSC.


The nature of the sustainability challenges currently at hand is such that dominant pedagogies and forms of learning that characterize higher education need to be reconsidered to enable students and staff to deal with accelerating change, increasing complexity, contested knowledge claims and inevitable uncertainty. In this contribution we identified four streams of emerging transformative, transgressive learning research and praxis in the sustainability sciences that appear generative of a higher education pedagogy that appears more responsive to the key challenges of our time: 1) reflexive social learning and capabilities theory, 2) critical phenomenology, 3) socio-cultural and cultural historical activity theory, and 4) new social movement, postcolonial and decolonisation theory. The paper critiques the current tendency in sustainability science and learning to rely on resilience and adaptive capacity building and argues that in order to break with maladaptive resilience of unsustainable systems it is essential to strengthen transgressive learning and disruptive capacity-building.


  • The ‘learning modes’ needed for responding to and engaging the wicked problems of sustainability, require pedagogies that are not constrained by current use of limited concepts (e.g. the resilience concept), or by disciplinary decadence.
  • Concepts such as resilience can be problematic when they keeps hegemonic unsustainable systems, patterns and routines from changing.
  • Disruptive capacity building and transgressive pedagogies are needed to create a world that is more sustainable than the one in prospect.
  • Transformative, transgressive forms of learning require engaged forms of pedagogy that involve multi-voiced engagement with multiple actors as well an emphasis on co-learning, cognitive justice, and the formation and development of individual and collective agency.
  • Higher education institutions should provide space for transgressing taken-for-granted norms, existing ethical and epistemological imperialism in society and higher education itself, and in doing so provide possibilities for engaged, lived experience of transformative praxis for students as a necessary part of their education.

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  or through your library system

The educational appeal of vagueness: the case of biodiversity

Environmental Education & Biodiversity

Loss of biodiversity is back on the agenda having faded somewhat during the last 15 years or so with the rise of new urgent issues such as runaway climate change, loss of food security, the rise of micro-toxins in waters and soils, etc. With the renewed attention for biodiversity it might be useful to go back to the nineties when the topic was high on the international policy agenda and some effort was spent on making biodiversity meaningful for ordinary citizens. Two publications that I was involved in back then seem very relevant today.

The first one appeared in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (I believe the only open-access EE journal): Dreyfus, A., Wals, A.E.J. and D. van Weelie (1999). The socio-scientific dispute character of environmental education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 4, 155-176. Download here: Canadian Journal of EE[

The second one is a book commissioned by the Dutch government titled “Environmental Education and Biodiversity” which I recently updated slightly to make it suitable for open-access publication. Full reference: Wals, A.E.J., (Ed.) (1999). Environmental Education and Biodiversity. National Reference Centre for Nature Management, Wageningen, 107 p.Download here: Book Environmental Education & Biodiversity

The book is more elaborate than the article and contains concrete stepping stones for making biodiversity meaningful. Here’s a brief abstract of the book which also applies – in part – to the article.

Despite all the confusion about biodiversity, one thing is clear: there is no one single perspective or definition of biodiversity that accurately describes it in all situations or contexts. Biodiversity can have different meanings depending on the user and the context in which it is used. Even within the scientific arena a great number of biodiversity meanings and interpretations can be distinguished. It is not uncommon to find that scientific, political and symbolic meanings are used interchangeably by the same person. Both the knowledge base and the value base of biodiversity are variable and to a degree unstable and questionable.

Although these characteristics of biodiversity can render the concept useless or reduce it to a rhetorical instrument, they can also add to its strength when handled with care. Certainly from an environmental education perspective, but also from a policy-making perspective, these characteristics offer some worthwhile advantages: 1) Biodiversity brings together different groups in society that are searching for a common language to discuss nature conservation issues in relation to sustainability issues. 2) This dialogue allows the socio-scientific dispute character of “science-in-the-making” to surface. Participation in such a dispute is an excellent opportunity to learn about a highly relevant, controversial, emotionally charged and debatable topic at the crossroads of science, technology and society. 3) Making such a concept meaningful to the lives of citizens requires a procedure that could be utilised when developing educational programmes that focus on similar topics (i.e. education for sustainability).

This book provides a justification and rationale for developing biodiversity as a leading concept for environmental education for human development. Furthermore it proposes a stepping stone procedure that recognises the socio-scientific dispute character of biodiversity and provides a tool for turning biodiversity into a meaningful and existentially relevant issue. The procedure includes the following steps: analysing meanings of biodiversity, determining one or more perspectives based on the general learning goals of environmental education, setting specific learning objectives, selecting (sub)themes for learning, contextualising biodiversity and establishing the value of biodiversity. The procedure is intended to help curriculum developers, teachers, educational support staff and environmental educators give specific meaning to biodiversity and to help learners critically analyse the way biodiversity is used in science, technology and society. The procedure is an intermediate product that offers direction in developing and implementing specific learning activities and materials for various groups of learners.

Abstract of the article in French
L’éducation relative à l’environnement dans un monde postmoderne devra être sensible à la nature mal définie des principaux concepts naissants, tels que la biodiversité et la durabilité. Malgré toute la confusion qui entoure ces concepts, une chose est claire : il y a plus d’une façon de considérer ces concepts ou de les définir. En d’autres termes, il n’existe pas une seule perspective ou définition de la biodiversité ou de la durabilité qui les décrive avec exactitude dans toutes les situations ou tous les contextes. Bien que cette définition approximative rende de tels concepts inutiles ou les réduise à un instrument rhétorique d’un point de vue moderne, elle les rend intéressants dans une perspective postmoderne. En reconnaissant la nécessité de respecter le pluralisme (respect des différentes façons de voir, d’évaluer, de comprendre, etc.), la présence constante d’éléments d’ambivalence et d’incertitude dans la prise de décision environnementale et la nécessité d’apprendre dans ce riche contexte, les éducateurs en environnement dans un monde postmoderne trouveront une valeur dans la nature mal définie de ces concepts naissants. En se servant de la biodiversité comme exemple, les auteurs illustrent l’attrait pédagogique de la définition approximative. La biodiversité réunit différents groupes de la société à la recherche d’un langage commun pour discuter de la conservation de la nature en relation avec les enjeux postmodernes de la durabilité. Le seul fait que ces groupes avec des antécédents divergents se concentrent sur un concept commun, bien que la signification du concept varie pour chacun des groupes, ouvre la porte au débat socioscientifique. Ce débat fournit une excellente occasion d’apprentissage sur un thème hautement pertinent, litigieux, émotif et discutable au carrefour des sciences, de la technologie et de la société. Une attention spéciale est accordée au rôle des connaissances scientifiques dans des débats de ce type.

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