About arjenwals

Arjen Wals is a Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development. He also is a UNESCO Chair in the same field. Wals has worked at Wageningen University since 1992 in various departments. He is a guest professor at IDPP at Gothenburg University since 2014. His research focuses on learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. A central question in his work is how to create conditions that support new forms of learning that take full advantage of the diversity, creativity and resourcefulness that is all around us, but so far remains largely untapped in our search for a world that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect. Wals has been involved in a number of projects in Africa that seek to make curricula more responsive to current societal and labour market needs and challenges posed by (un)sustainability. Popular books include: 'Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability (Kluwer Academic, 2004) and Social Learning towards a Sustainable World (Wageningen Academic, 2007).

Short Intro Video – Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF)

Wageningen UR is one of the partners in the Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF) Network. TESF is a GCRF funded Network Plus, co-ordinated out of the University of Bristol, working with partners in India, Rwanda, Somalia/Somaliland, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The network undertakes collaborative research to Transform Education for Sustainable Futures.

TESF just released a short video outlining the mission and way of working of the network. The coming months the four hub countries will launch their innovation grant scheme which will allow local partners to apply for funding to engage in educational reform towards sustainable development at different levels of education.  Please go to the TESF-website for more information.





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. doi.org/10.1163/9789004422988_006


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

Entering the Transition Twenties – 10 critical years left for deep change and transformation


This morning I received a heart-wrenching email from an Australian colleague of mine who lives and works in Sweden but went home for the holidays to spend time with her family.

I write this letter with a very heavy heart to briefly outline the terrible bushfire crisis that continues in my homeland of Australia. I have (thankfully and gratefully) been on leave for a couple of weeks, but I fear when I return to work I will have trouble talking about this when, and if, people ask. So this note is to let you all know what I can tell you-without choking up/bursting in to tears.

She then went on describing the unfolding tragedy of the run-away wild-fires and the completely inapt, near criminal response from the government and dysfunctional culture that has been created over the years to make sure that ‘business-as-usual’ is not at risk.

Clearly, ‘business-as-usual’ is not an option; even conventional economists will agree that there are no jobs on a dead Planet. What is now desperately needed is a deep and meaningful repsonse that can unite people, rather than polarize them. Sadly, the latter continues to be happen and, even though I tend to ignore conspiracy theories, seems to be even cultivated to maintain current power and wealth distribution.

As we are entering a new decade, the twenties, I was reminded of the last twenties: the Roaring Twenties.

The Roaring Twenties – as a break in the normalized and a turn to something else

It is now 100 years when many people in the, granted, Western world, experienced the so-called Roaring Twenties. The following description is a synopsis Wikipedia.

The Roaring Twenties refers to the decade of the 1920s in Western society and Western culture that marked a period of economic prosperity with a distinctive cultural edge in the United States and Europe. In France, the decade was known as the “années folles” (‘crazy years’), emphasizing the era’s social, artistic and cultural dynamism. Jazz blossomed, the flapper redefined the modern look for British and American women and Art Deco peaked.

In many major democratic states, women won the right to vote. The right to vote had a huge impact on society.

The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a general feeling of novelty associated with modernity and a break with tradition. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technology. New technologies, especially automobiles, moving pictures, and radio, brought “modernity” to a large part of the population.

Arguably, the Roaring Twenties also planted the seeds of unsustainability as (again borrowing from Wikipedia):

this period saw the large-scale development and use of automobiles, telephones, movies, radio, and electrical appliances being installed in the lives of thousands of Westerners. Aviation soon became a business. Nations saw rapid industrial and economic growth, accelerated consumer demand, and introduced significantly new changes in lifestyle and culture. The media, funded by the new industry of mass-market advertising driving consumer demand, focused on celebrities, especially sports heroes and movie stars, as cities rooted for their home teams and filled the new palatial cinemas and gigantic sports stadiums.

The Roaring Twenties represented a significant rupture or discontinuity that triggered a whole new way of living (and, yes, we must acknowledge, not for everyone, everywhere, and yes, as we know now, at the expense of the carrying capacity of the Earth) and shows that radical shifts at a large scale can happen in a relatively short period of time.

Entering the Transition Twenties…?

As the world is burning and not just metaphorically, as exemplified by runaway climate change, extreme loss of biodiversity, collapse of fragile ecosystems and the ever more tangible consequences of all this in our daily lives (in terms of stress, fear, anxiety for those still having the possibility to sit down behind a computer and ponder this over and blog about it, but in very real terms for those who need to flee, run, abandon, resort to poverty, etc.,  as is the case for (hundreds of) millions of people elsewhere in the world), we need another rupture to overcome systemic global dysfunction.

Now that 2020 has begun, we have 10 years towards 2030, the year in which the  17 SDGs need to be realized, the year that runaway climate change needs to be ‘under control,’ to turn the tide.  The very resilient practices of ‘business-as-usual’ that normalise growth thinking, individualism, inequality, anthropocentrism, exclusion, and even catastrophes (there are so many catastrophes going on everywhere in one way or another, that it leads to a kind of acceptance and a kind of psyching numbing – which is not going to help dealing with them).

So let us start looking for, contribute to and build on all these niches, networks and innovations are fortunately also all around us, that seek to disrupt these normalized practices by not only questioning them but by providing alternative ones with (all) People and (the whole) Earth in mind. See as an example the figure below from Mark Beam’s ‘The World We Want Project’. For me, a key question is: how can education in all forms connect with these niches, networks and innovations? How can people learn from them, how can they contribute to them? How can we create sustainability-oriented ecologies of learning that can pave the way for a systemic transformation of the way ‘we’  (and ‘we’ is not all of us, I must say, either by force or by choice) we live on this Earth? Feel free to enter your response below!


Just before posting this I searched for ‘Transition Twenties’  on the Web and found that several others are talking about this as well! One blog post from a fellow 4TU-Colleague at Delft University blogged about this about this one week ago. See his blog here: Aldert Kamp’s Blog-Post on Entering the Transition Twenties in relation to Engineering Education but, for the Dutch readers, there is also a nice article available in the Volkskrant from December 27th by Wilma de Rek: De transition twenties breken aan – minder zal meer zijn

More ideas please via Twitter using #transitiontwenties


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.

Klimaatdepressie – de iets genuanceerdere versie van de Nieuwsuur reportage…


Onlangs zond Nieuwsuur een reportage uit over een nieuw fenomeen: eco-angst en klimaatdepressie. In de uitzending kwamen verschillende mensen aan het woord – helaas enkel vrouwen – die hun gevoelens uitten. Aan het eind van de uitzending interviewde programmamaker Jeroen Wollaars een ‘klimaatexpert’  uit de VS (een man) Michael Shellenberger die aangaf dat het allemaal niet zo’n vaart zal lopen, dat het smelten van ijsmassa’s pas over 1000 jaar echt een probleem zal worden in het minst gunstige scenario (volgens IPCC…), dat er nog nooit iemand is dood gegaan aan klimaatverandering, dat technologie, waaronder kernenergie, oplossingen biedt en dan mensen de bijzondere gave hebben zich aan te passen. Beweringen die deels onwaar zijn en deels kloppen en mensen makkelijk op het verkeerde been kunnen zetten.

De teneur was: we moeten nu niet hysterisch gaan doen want dat kan wel eens aanstekelijk gaan werken en dan zadelen we veel mensen op onnodig veel stress voor niets. Voor de mensen die hun zorgen uitspraken in de uitzending moet het een klap in het gezicht geweest zijn dat Nieuwsuur de reportage afsloot met climate crisis denier Shellenberger (een columnist van Forbes Magazine, en ook een lobbyist voor kernenergie – zie voor een kritiek op hem: kritiek op Shellenberg.


Omdat ik samen met Opleidingsdirecteur Climate Studies en Environmental Sciences) Marjo Lexmond van Wageningen UR ook in de reportage zat – met een wel zeer beknopte bijdrage over hoe we in het onderwijs omgaan met dergelijke gevoelens (die ook onder studenten spelen, zie Kari-Anne van der Zon in de reportage) – heb ik na-afloop per mail contact gelegd met de reportage maker Hans Kema.

Ik heb aangegeven dat de reportage op zich niet verkeerd was (alhoewel ik het opnemen van de collectieve huilgeluiden van een sessie bij Artis voor mensen die hun gevoelens willen delen hierover onnodig vond, ook omdat het onderwerp daarmee in een bepaalde hoek wordt gezet, terwijl de gevoelens rondom duurzaamheid en klimaar steeds meer mainstream worden) maar dat het afsluitende interview een klap in het gezicht was voor de mensen die zich toch aardig kwetsbaar hadden opgesteld in de reportage. Hij gaf aan alleen verantwoordelijk te zijn voor de reportage en niet voor het daaropvolgende studio-interview. Wel zou hij mijn reactie doorgeven aan Jeroen Wollaars, de presentator van Nieuwsuur die het interview hield.

Het siert Wollaars dat hij mij kort daarna terug mailde om de keuze voor Shellenberg toe te lichten. Kort gezegd – Nieuwsuur wil ook altijd ‘de andere kant’ van het verhaal laten horen en een onderwerp vanuit verschillende perspectieven belichten. Shellenberger is volgens hem een internationaal bekende expert op het terrein van klimaatwetenschap. Nu snap ik dat het goed is een onderwerp vanuit verschillende perspectieven te belichten maar toch slaat de redactie hier de plank volledig mis. Ten eerste is de wetenschap helder: de bedreiging is van een enorme omvang en betreft de hele planeet en we hebben niet zo heel veel tijd, schattingen varieren van 7 tot 30 jaar, om onze leefstijlen, productiesystemen, economieen, etc. zodanig anders in te richten dat we het tij nog een beetje kunnen keren. Ofwel, er is wat dit betreft geen ‘andere kant’, hooguit kunnen we verschillen over de wijze waarop we te werk moeten gaan. Verder zijn er grote vraagtekens te zetten bij de expert Shellenberger (zie link hierboven) – waarom hij is gekozen en niet een van de vele klimaatdeskundigen die Nederland rijk is vind ik vreemd. Ten slotte, als je dan andere perspectieven wilt laten zien, nodig dan een psycholoog uit die praat over coping-strategieen of laat initiatieven zien in huishoudens, straten, wijken en bedrijven die al bezig zijn met een transitie naar duurzamere energie, duurzamere voeding, etc. Het is niet alleen maar ‘doom and gloom’  er zijn ook hoopvolle handelingsperspectieven te vinden over de hele wereld. De laatste suggestie deed Wielaars af met iets in de trant van ‘we zijn geen goed nieuwshow en zoeken het debat op.’ (mijn interpretatie)

Tot mijn vreugde heeft Nieuwsuur, inclusief Jeroen Wollaars, nu, twee weken later, een remake gemaakt van de reportage, die genuanceerder is – mede door het goede begeleidende verhaal van Wollaars zelf en door het feit dat Shellenberger niet vrij spel meer heeft en beperkt wordt gehouden door de essentie van zijn mening.

Deze versie is hier te zien Re-make Nieuwsuurreportage Klimaatstress


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: http://www.transgressivelearning.org), 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: https://library.wur.nl/WebQuery/wurpubs/557436). 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.

Klimaat en duurzaamheid in het basisonderwijs – een voorbeeld uit Groenlo


EenVandaag maakte onderstaande reportage waaraan ik mocht bijdragen. Het is hoopvol dat van onderop scholen hier mee aan de slag gaan en dat vanuit Curriculum.Nu ons toekomstige onderwijs structureel meer ruimte gaat krijgen voor ecologische basisvorming en vakoverstijgende thema’s die van levensbelang zijn! Hier de link


The Potential of Serious Games to Solve Water Problems: Special Issue on Game-Based Approaches to Sustainable Water Governance

This Special Issue, to which I contributed, represents a worthwhile collection of properly reviewed scientific papers on a timely topic published by one of MDPI’s journals Water about the Potential of Serious Games to Solve Water Problems and the Use of Game-Based Approaches to Sustainable Water Governance. The Special Issue contains 12 full papers and an editorial introduction – all open-access and freely downloadable. Here is the link: https://www.mdpi.com/journal/water/special_issues/Game-based-Water-Governance

Full disclosure: I have been rather critical of publisher MDPI in the way it commodifies scientific publishing see: https://transformativelearning.nl/2018/12/04/publish-and-perish-how-the-commodification-of-scientific-publishing-is-undermining-both-science-and-the-public-good/.

Sustainability-oriented Ecologies of Learning as a Response to Systemic Global Dysfunction – new book chapter

EcologiesofLearning.pngEcologies for Learning and Practice edited by Ronald Barnett and Andrew Jackson, provides the first systematic account of the ideas of learning ecologies and ecologies of practice and locates the two concepts within the context of our contemporary world. It focuses on how individuals and society are being presented with all manner of learning challenges arising from fluidities and disruptions, which extend across all domains of life. This book examines emerging ways of understanding and living purposively in these new fluidities and provides fresh perspectives on the way we learn and achieve in such dynamic contexts.

Providing an insight into the research of a range of internationally renowned contributors, this book explores diverse topics from the higher education and adult learning worlds. These include:

  • The challenges faced by education systems today
  • The concept of ecologies for learning and practice
  • The role and responsibility of higher education institutions in advancing ecological approaches to learning
  • The different eco-social systems of the world—local and global, economic, cultural, practical, technological, and ethical
  • How adult learners might create and manage their own ecologies for learning and practice in order to sustain themselves and flourish

With its proposals for individual and institutional learning in the 21st century and concerns for our sustainability in a fragile world, Ecologies for Learning and Practice is an essential guide for all who seek to encourage and facilitate learning in a world that is fundamentally ecological in nature.

In the chapter I contributed I argue that the current sustainability crisis demands a radical re-orientation of the way we learn. I consider sustainability to be an emergent property of an ecology of learning that is reflexive purposeful cocktail of actors, perspectives, forms or learning, connections and support mechanisms, driven by an ethical concern for the wellbeing of people and planet both now and in the future. Sustainability-oriented learning then becomes an organic and relational process of continuous framing, reframing, tuning and fine-tuning, disruption and accommodation, and action and reflection, which is guided by a moral compass inspired by an ethic of care. Such learning implies or even demands a certain freedom to explore alternative paths of development and new ways of thinking, valuing and doing.

The chapter introduces sustainability-oriented ecologies of learning as a blended learning space where multiple actors, often having different backgrounds, co-create sustainability organically using a variety of tools, relations, and forms of learning. The concept of whole school or whole institution approaches is introduced as a way to enact such ecologies of learning in a systemic way (see the figure below from the 2016 Global Education Monitor Report published by UNESCO).

Full reference: Wals, A.E.J. (2019) Sustainability-oriented Ecologies of Learning as a response to systemic global dysfunction In: Learning Ecologies: Sightings, possibilities, and emerging practices Ronald Barnett and Norman Jackson (Eds.), London: Taylor & Francis. p. xx-xxx

Here is a link to the book on the publisher’s website!


An ecology of learning created by a whole school approach to sustainability (source Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO, 2016)

Two-minute pitch on the importance of education for sustainability made public again by Wageningen UR’s YouTube Channel

Two minute pitch


Recently I have been receiving messages that the short two-minute pitch Wageningen UR recorded a few years ago and which generated quite some interest, could no longer be found or reached when looking for it on the Internet via a browser or on YouTube. Strangely, I had no problem when clicking on the link I had stored in my laptop which is why initially I did not give it much attention until a few weeks ago I received three messages about this in one day. I could not figure out what the problem was but at last someone figured out that the two-minute pitch’s status was changed by the account manager of Wageningen UR’s YouTube channel (or someone with access to the account) from ‘public’  to ‘private’. Hopefully it works again for everybody… you can click on the image or the link above to check.

It appears that the clip is public again and can be used to help advocate the importance of re-orienting teaching and learning towards sustainability, which is needed today even more that 4 years ago when this was taped… Feel free to share or comment!


Should and Can Education Save the Planet? ECER2019 Keynote now online


Last month I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER in Hamburg this year. Around 3000 participants from over 60 countries attended the conference. Since the overall theme was ‘Education in an Era of Risk – the Role of Educational Research for the Future’ I had the honor of being asked as one of the plenary keynote speakers, as was my good colleague and friend Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes University in South Africa who, like myself, is a member of ECER/EERA’s subnetwork on Environmental and Sustainability Education (Network 30), one of the youngest and rapidly expanding networks.

The title of my talk was: Should and Can Education Save the Planet? In the talk I outlined the current global sustainability challenges form a learning perspective and I introduced the concept of sustainability-oriented ecologies of learning. I also introduced the notion of sustainability Bildung in which Biesta’s three tasks of education are reconfigured with Planet in mind to become eco-subjectification, eco-socialization and eco-qualification.

You can watch the full keynote here (also understandable for the deaf and hearing impaired as the talk was kindly supported with sign language).

Here is the official ECER2019 abstract of the keynote.

Education unwillingly has become a key mechanism for fostering economic development, innovation and growth. In the meantime, humanity is facing a range of sustainability issues that include: rising inequity, loss of democracy, runaway climate change and mass extinction. These issues can be so overwhelming that they can easily lead to apathy and despair which will only make them bigger. We appear to be at a tipping point where the decisions we make about how to live together will be crucial for the future of our planet. There is no better time than now to ask:  What is education for? What if education would serve people and planet rather than just or mainly economic interests?  Is this a role education should play? And, if so, what does such an education look like?

Based on emerging research and practices from around the world, I will sketch forms of education and learning that are: responsive, responsible and transformative in light of global sustainability challenges. Sustainability here is not seen as another subject to be added to an overcrowded curriculum, but rather as a continuous quest for finding ways to live more equitably, meaningfully and healthier on the Earth without compromising planetary boundaries and the futures of the coming generations. Such a quest requires a more relational pedagogy that can help establish deeper connections with people, places and other species. Such a pedagogy not only invites reflection on values and ethics, and the utilization of diversity, but also the critiquing and transgressing of the structures and systems that make living unsustainably easy and living sustainably hard.


Learning-based transformations towards sustainability: a relational approach based on Humberto Maturana and Paulo Freire


Recently a new paper I co-authored with lead author Daniele Tubino Souza and second co-author Pedro Jacobi appeared in Environmental Education Research – see: https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2019.1641183 or click:  Relational Pedagogy Freire & Maturana  

Here is the abstract. This paper is a part of Daniele’s PhD work at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil which Pedro and I co-supervise. The paper is a first attempt to link the thinking of Paulo Freire and Humberto Maturana to each other and to emancipatory sustainability-oriented transformations in urban area’s.


This article investigates the relevance of the work of the Latin-American thinkers Humberto Maturana and Paulo Freire to learning-based transformations towards sustainability. This analysis was inspired by a case study of a Brazilian urban community seeking to develop pathways towards sustainable living and was informed by a review of their key works. The paper aims to obtain a better conceptualization of learning-based transformations and provide insights into collective learning processes focused on advancing sustainable practices. We present notions of the transformative social learning approach that underpins the case study, using the concepts of Maturana and Freire as a lens. Our results indicate the importance of a relational approach in fostering collective learning processes. Finally, we derive three principles that can guide such processes: (1) facilitating transformative interactions between people and places, (2) enabling dialogic interaction within a climate of mutual acceptance, and (3) creating space for ontological pluralism.

One of the two key figures can be seen below – please go to the the publisher’s website to find the paper and the other figures!

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!