The Transgressive Gardner: Cultivating Learning-based Transformations Towards Re-generative Futures – PhD Thomas Macintyre

On December 18th Thomas Macintyre successfully defended his PhD in the Aula of Wageningen University. His thesis is one of the most original one’s that I have been involved in. Thomas chose to decenter the published work in peer-reviewed journals by putting them in the appendix, instead focusing on a thick description of the key concepts, the living spiral model that emerged from the research within the context of the wider T-learning Network (see:, his personal journey, the three Colombian communities he worked with, his re-framing of Participatory Action Research into Transgressive Action Research, and the creative, unconventional methods used during the research (like Dragon Dreaming). The result is a highly accessible, richly illustrated, inspiring thesis which can be downloaded (including all the published work here: Below you will find a short summary of the work and an image of the Living Spiral. Thomas was also supervised by Education & Learning Sciences Colleague, Dr. Valentina Tassone.


This thesis represents a transgressive journey into the quest for answers in the nexus be­tween education, sustainability, and climate change. The point of departure is our shared planetary crossroads: In one direction we have the beaten path of the status quo, replete with, socio-ecological injustice, ephemeral prospects of technological salvation, and a highly probable end to the human race as we know it. Branching off to all other sides, however, are the more overgrown and uncertain paths representing alternative futures, some of which may lead to future prosperity for all. In a world seemingly spiraling out of control, the ques­tion of our time is whether we have the will and drive to step off the known but destructive path we are on, and break into unknown but possibly liberating terrain.

The contention of this thesis is that, yes, such a collective decision is possible, but depends on the need to ‘transgress’ – move beyond – structures, paradigms, and norms which maintain the status quo. This thesis argues that learning-based transformations are needed for such transgressions to take place, based on disruptive capacity building and action-based change across diverse sectors of society. The main research question is: To what extent can trans­gressive learning, as a more radical form of learning-based change, lead towards more regenerative transformations?

Addressing the need for more action-based narratives of grassroots resistance to climate change, this thesis is based on empirical research (2016-2018) in Colombia, as part of the international project called ‘Transgressive Social Learning for Social-Ecological Sustainability in Times of Change’ (acronym T-learning), funded by the International Science Council (ISC). Making up the Colombian case study of the T-Learning project, this research is an action research project involving various grassroots initiatives in Colombia, from which co-resear­chers from participating communities have actively participated in the investigation.

This thesis has four key findings. First, if we are looking to overcome deep, structural sustai­nability challenges, which are highly resilient and resistant to change, then forms of learning which engage multiple stakeholders in a critical, reflective, disruptive and regenerative way, are crucial. Second, engaging in such learning demands special researcher qualities of cou­rage, empathy, and reflection, as well as the ability to take a step back from a process and to reevaluate one’s purpose. Third, in terms of levers and barriers to transgressive learning, it is fundamental to be reflexively aware of what such learning may lead to, promoting a strong transformative process which can harness disruptions in a generative way through balan­cing disruptive and empathic elements. Fourth, transgressive learning requires careful design to insure there is a diversity of actors and perspectives present, as well as a facilitator with a toolbox of methods to insure the space is a safe and reflexive environment, which promotes collaboration and meaningful empathic communication between participants.

1 thought on “The Transgressive Gardner: Cultivating Learning-based Transformations Towards Re-generative Futures – PhD Thomas Macintyre

  1. Pingback: Blog post #17: Transformations – for change | Theres Konrad

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