Transgressive learning, resistance pedagogy and disruptive capacity building as levers for sustainability

Oddly, I was unaware of the Great Transition Initiative ( ) when I was invited to contribute to a dialogue with sustainability education scholars and practitioners from around the world. So, I went to the website at and looked around a bit and became more and more excited with every door I opened and space I entered. Apparently, the Great Transition Network has served as a visionary forum and advocate of new ways of thinking and acting that have challenged us to rethink the possible and respond to the critical deficiencies of incremental thinking and the need for bold change. The Great Transition Network (GTN) engages over 1,000 scholars and activists from scores of countries concerned about the global future. In recent months, we have featured discussions on topics like the human rights movement, nuclear abolition, and ecosocialism.

In the month of March (2021), Jonathan Cohn, the Managing Editor of the Great Transition Initiative site, hosted a discussion among the associated Great Transition Network on the topic of sustainability education and, the limitations of the current educational models and what we need to do to ensure that we are educating for the world that we want. Framing questions as well as the opening reflections for the discussion came from Stephen Sterling. The GTN is currently preparing an on-line collage of some of the key inputs provided during the month which should be available shortly via Below I have posted my own contribution. Feel free to comment!

Enough is enough – transgressive learning, resistance pedagogy and disruptive capacity building as levers for sustainability

By Arjen Wals (

If education is to make a significant contribution to the transition towards a more sustainable world it will need to build the kind of capacity that can break the resilient practices of ‘business-as-usual’ that normalise growth thinking, individualism, inequality, anthropocentrism, exclusion, exploitation and even catastrophes. Regarding the latter: there are so many catastrophes going on everywhere, in one way or another, that – unless, of course, you are in the middle of one and many people are – it leads to and psychic numbing and a widespread acceptance of their inevitability (Jickling, 2013) which is not going to help in dealing with them.

Before making my main point, let me first let me acknowledge and support the avalanche of propositions that currently take root in education across the globe that all seem to call for all or a combination of the following: ‘integrative and holistic approaches,’ ‘fundamental and systemic change,’ ‘empowering, action-oriented and reflexive forms of learning,’ ‘boundary crossing between the worlds of education, research, governance, business and civic society,’ and ‘deep engagement with sustainability-related ‘wicked’ issues’ around, climate, health, justice, equity, biodiversity, etc., many of which are captured by the SDGs. All these propositions have been made and elaborated upon in this dialogue series of the Great Transition Network.

Much attention in education is given to responsiveness, resilience and adaptation. At first sight this seems sensible but upon closer inspection this attention is, at least in part, fuelled by a neo-liberal agenda and a globalizing economy, sometimes masked under the umbrella of 21st Century Skills and, even of the SDGs. As an example of the latter, SDG 1 states: ‘No poverty’ and not: ‘Eradicate extreme wealth inequality’, while SDG 8 is about ‘Decent work for all and economic growth’ and not about ‘Decent work for all and a regenerative or circular economy’. This attention represents an ‘optimization frame’ that leaves the underlying values, principles and mechanisms that result in ongoing systemic global dysfunction untouched and, worse, strengthens them. Mainstream education currently stresses – using Biesta’s (2013) functions of education – ‘qualification’ (skills and competencies) over ‘subjectification’. The subjectification task of education has to do with engaging students in with existential questions regarding what it means to be human and about being and becoming in an entangled world. Such questions are critical in finding pathways to a more sustainable world. The denial of subjectification can, once again, be connected to the neo-liberal agenda that stresses commodification over what might be called ‘commonification’. Whereas the former is about creating economic value, accountability and efficiency, the latter is about creating community, serving the public good and preserving the integrity and well-being of the human, non-human and more-than-human world.

Given the urgency of the planetary crisis humanity finds itself in, not caused by all humans I must add, a radical response is needed, one that instead of the earlier mentioned optimization frame, requires a ‘transition frame’ that can break the maladaptive destructive structures and routines, and associated values and principles. This dismantling is needed for opening up spaces for alternatives that are healthier, more just and equitable and, indeed, more sustainable. Doing so requires more than cultivating often-mentioned sustainability competencies and qualities such as; dealing with complexity and ambiguity, anticipating and imagining alternative futures, taking mindful action, having empathy and agency, and so on. Rather, it also requires the capacity to disrupt, to make the normal problematic, the ordinary less ordinary, to provoke and question, to take risks for the common good, to complicate matters rather than to simplify them, to become uncomfortable – together – by asking moral questions and posing ethical dilemmas, and to learn from the ‘push back’ and the resistances from the normalized unsustainable systems all the above creates.

Transgressive learning (Lotz-Sisitka et al., 2016), disruptive capacity building and pedagogies of resistance can be characterized by learning processes and contexts/environments for learning that invite a counter-hegemonic response that unearths and uproots mechanisms of exploitation, oppression, extractivism, colonialization and marginalization. Yes, transgression, disruption and resistance will lead to tensions, conflicts, controversy and discomfort (Pedersen et al. 2019), but it is therein where critical consciousness and spaces for fundamental change can arise. When this disruptive work can be combined with participation in social movements and transition niches that provide concrete utopias and viable alternatives, more hopeful, energizing and regenerative cultures (Wahl, 2016) can unfold. There are some good examples of such forms of learning, so far usually outside of universities in loose intentional networks like the Youth Climate Strike movement, Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, but also in intentional communities seeking to go off-the-grid by creating more localized sustainable energy cooperatives, food systems and green urban renewal. Often these learning processes allow for community-building, socio-emotional engagement in the issues along side critical investigation of facts and myths, as well as the use of arts-based and imaginative processes that lead to creative and hopeful alternative practices and possibilities. Some principles, tools and examples can be found here:


Biesta, G. (2013) The beautiful risk of education. London: Routledge.

Bob Jickling (2013) Normalizing catastrophe: an educational response, Environmental Education Research, 19:2, 161-176, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2012.721114

Lotz-Sisitka, H., Belay Ali, M., Mphepo, G. ,Chaves, M., Macintyre, T., Pesanayi, T., Wals, A.E.J., Mukute, M., Kronlid, D., Tuan Tran, D., Joon, D., McGarry, D. (2016). Co-designing research on transgressive learning in times of climate change, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 20:50-55 · June 2016, · DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2016.04.004

Pedersen, H., Håkansson, J. Wals, A.E.J. (2019) Introducing critical animal pedagogies in higher education. In: Franck, O. (Ed.) Vetenskaplighet i högre utbildning, Stockholm: Studentlitteratur, p. 315-334.

Wahl, D. C. (2016). Designing Regenerative Cultures. Axminster: Triarchy Press.

REFERENCES (further elaborations, not cited)

Peters, S. and Wals, A.E.J. (2013) Learning and Knowing in Pursuit of Sustainability: Concepts and Tools for Trans-Disciplinary Environmental Research. In: Krasny, M. and Dillon, J. (Eds.) Trading Zones in Environmental Education: Creating Trans-disciplinary Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang, p 79-104.

Wals, AEJ, Peters, MA (2017) Flowers of Resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm. In: König, A & Ravetz, J. (Eds). Sustainability Science, London: Routledge. p.61-84.

Wals, A.E.J. (2019) Sustainability-oriented Ecologies of Learning. In: Learning Ecologies: Sightings, possibilities, and emerging practices Ronald Barnett and Norman Jackson (Eds.), London: Taylor & Francis. p. 61-78.

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