I was invited to give the closing keynote of the 2020 Annual General Meeting and Networking of Learning for Sustainability Scotland. The event was held online for the first time on 12th January 2021. More than 150 members gathered to explore the theme Building Forward Better: The role of Learning for Sustainability – What role does Learning for Sustainability play in making the world a better place, and how can we make this a reality? You can find a summary of the event and link to each of the programma elements here: https://learningforsustainabilityscotland.org/2021/01/28/report-from-the-lfs-scotland-jan-dec-2020-agm/
My talk titled ‘T-learning in Times of Transition Towards a Sustainable World’ presented an ultimately hopeful perspective on the role of new forms of learning and more ecological approaches of education in overcoming global systemic dysfunction – outlining some principles, perspectives and sharing international practice. You can see the 40 minute talk introduced generously by Rehema White, here: https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/1_gcmxxtyz The talk is followed up by some responses to questions raised by the participants.
The TESF Network tesf.netw has just released a background paper on Mobilising Capacities for Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures. Transforming education for sustainable futures requires coalitions and collaborations which span traditional boundaries – academic, professional, geographical and generational. A key point of departure in the paper is that sustainability is not something which can be discovered by scientists and disseminated through policy and practitioner networks, but rather something which must be created through processes of collective deliberation, questioning, negotiation, and experimentation. This requires opening spaces for examining entrenched unsustainable patterns, habits and routines which have become ‘frozen’, and engaging in collective action which includes experimenting, making and learning from errors, and celebrating progress towards more sustainable alternatives.
The key elements of mobilising capacities for achieving more dialogical, deliberative and co-creative forms of sustainability in and through education, can be summarised as follows:
Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures requires mobilising capacities in the form of knowledge, skills, agency, relationships and other valuable resources which are distributed across communities, organisations, professions and other stakeholder groups.
From a holistic or ecological perspective, capacities are relational, emerging through social interactions and relationships-in-action, rather than being individual properties or attributes.
Mobilising capacities which are distributed, and fostering capacities which are relational, requires reaching out and bringing together diverse groups to pursue shared goals within a wider coalition or network.
This requires creating, or opening up, spaces for dialogue, deliberation, experimentation, decision-making, developing relationships, and collaborative inquiry, action and learning.
Across these spaces, intentional structures and processes can support the learning of individuals and groups within the network, and facilitate learning by the network.
With schools and universities across the globe needing to find ways to share their knowledge without face-to-face interaction with students, many of my colleagues are having to resort to online lecturing. In order to make some of my own knowledge and insights easily available I made a collage of short lectures that are available for not just my own students but to anyone who is interested. Below you can find the links to 8 short introductions.
An Introduction to Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development (11 minutes)
2. Sustainability as an Attractively Vague Concept – a Competence Perspective (11 minutes)
3. An introduction to Wicked Sustainability Problems (12 minutes)
4. Intro: Transformative Learning in Relation to Sustainability (13 minutes)
5. Introduction to Social Learning and Sustainability – a short interview (4 minutes)
6. Introduction to Systems Thinking and Transitions (7 minutes)
7. Earth is Calling – Anybody Answering? How to use a smart phone as a teaching tool in education for sustainable development (21 minutes – note the actual lecture starts at minute 1 after a brief intro).
8. Three Strands of Research – a snapshot of research as ‘mining’, as learning and as activism (3 minutes)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Over the past three years I have been fortunate to be a part of an ISSC supported Transformative Knowledge Network (TKN) called the T-Learning Network (see: T-Learning Network Website). The network has yielded several highly cited academic papers but, fortunately, also more practical ideas, concepts and tools. Three young and talented people in the network -Thomas Macintyre, Martha Chaves and Dylan McGary – co-created a lovely guide in both Spanish and English introducing one of the networks most exciting ideas: the Living Spiral Framework. This guide is targeted at researchers and practitioners interested in sharing their research into transformative and transgressive learning in the field of sustainability, climate change, and social and environmental justice.
In the introduction the guide states:
“We can understand transformative learning as transformations in beliefs, values and practices in a way that helps us live a more socially and ecologically responsible way. Delving deeper into the intricacies of transformation, we arrive at the emerging field of ‘transgressive learning,” a critical and action-oriented form of learning which challenges normalised systems which have become oppressive and detrimental to life.
We believe questioning our unsustainable beliefs, worldviews and practices as well as offering alternatives, is needed for such deeper learning to occur and transgress. To achieve this we need voices and narratives from actors within and outside of academia: from social learning facilitators, to indigenous shamen; from the city-based sustainability practitioners to the rural farmer, to have different perspectives on understanding transformation towards sustainability.
This guide provides a step-by-step guide for discovering how and to what extent, personal and collective learning journeys result in transformations towards sustainability, including the challenges and tensions experienced along the way. Moreover, it will allow you to follow the process cautiously to find your own indicators of transformation, unexpected results and opportunities, as well as other experiences along the way.” (Macintyre, Chaves, McGary, 2018 – p. 8).
The journal Environmental Education Research recently published its third regional special issue covering trends and research in environmental and sustainability education in the BeNeLux countries. Together with Katrien van Poeck (UofGhent, Belgium) and Katrien van Poeck (UofLuxembourg, Luxembourg, I was a co-editor. Earlier regional special issues focussed on the Nordic countries (Scandinavia) and on Germany. Here you find a link to the introductory paper we wrote: BeNeLux Special Issue and here is a link to the Special Issue itself: Routledge Link to SI
This afternoon of June 8th, one of my PhD students, co-supervised with Dr. PJ Beers of DRIFT in Rotterdam and Prof Peter Feindt of the Humbolt University in Berlin, successfully here beautiful dissertation in the Aula of Wageningen University. You can download the dissertation and the 4 published papers that are a part of the work via the Wageningen University Library shortly. You can also watch the defense still via WUR-TV Getting to the defense and the thesis
My former PhD-student Le Thi Hong Phuong now has a fourth paper from her dissertation which she only defended a few months ago, accepted in Local Environment a T&F journal on justice and sustainability (one of the oldest journals in this area!). Here is the abstract: ABSTRACT
Social learning is crucial for local smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve their adaptive capacity and to adapt to the current and projected impacts of climate change. While it is widely acknowledged that social learning is a necessary condition for adaptation, few studies have systematically investigated under which conditions particular forms of social learning are most successful in improving adaptive capacity of the most vulnerable groups. This study aims to design, implement and evaluate a social learning configuration in a coastal community in Vietnam. We make use of various methods during four workshop-based interventions with local smallholder farmers: interviews with key farmers and commune leaders, farmer-to-farmer learning, participatory observations and focus group discussions. The methods for evaluation of social learning configuration include in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and structured survey interviews. Our findings show that the social learning configuration used in this study leads to an increased problem ownership, an enhanced knowledge-base with regard to climate change impacts and production adaptation options, improved ability to see connections and interdependencies and finally, strengthened relationships and social cohesion. The results suggest that increased social learning in the community leads to increase in adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers and improves both their economic and environmental sustainability. We discuss the key lessons for designing learning configurations that can successfully enhance adaptive capacity and smallholder farmers’ agency and responsiveness to the challenges posed by climate change impacts.
Together with my former PhD-student, friend and colleague in the T-Learning project (www.transgressivelearning.org) Martha Chaves I co-authored a chapter on the Nature of Transformative Learning for Social-Ecological Sustainability for this new book edited by Cornell University colleague Marianne Krasny. The vignette from the publisher’s webpage featuring the book states:
Addressing participatory, transdisciplinary approaches to local stewardship of the environment, Grassroots to Global features scholars and stewards exploring the broad impacts of civic engagement with the environment.
Chapters focus on questions that include: How might faith-based institutions in Chicago expand the work of church-community gardens? How do volunteer “nature cleaners” in Tehran attempt to change Iranian social norms? How does an international community in Baltimore engage local people in nature restoration while fostering social equity? How does a child in an impoverished coal mining region become a local and national leader in abandoned mine restoration? And can a loose coalition that transforms blighted areas in Indian cities into pocket parks become a social movement? From the findings of the authors’ diverse case studies, editor Marianne Krasny provides a way to help readers understand the greater implications of civic ecology practices through the lens of multiple disciplines.
Aniruddha Abhyankar, Martha Chaves, Louise Chawla, Dennis Chestnut, Nancy Chikaraishi, Zahra Golshani, Lance Gunderson, Keith E. Hedges, Robert E. Hughes, Rebecca Jordan, Karim-Aly Kassam, Laurel Kearns, Marianne E. Krasny, Veronica Kyle, David Maddox, Mila Kellen Marshall, Elizabeth Whiting Pierce, Rosalba Lopez Ramirez, Michael Sarbanes, Philip Silva, Traci Sooter, Erika S. Svendsen, Keith G. Tidball, Arjen E. J. Wals, Rebecca Salminen Witt, Jill Wrigley
This guide for trainers, educators and facilitators, compiled/written by Femke Gordijn, Natalia Eernstman, Jan Helder, Herman Brouwer and published by Wageningen UR’s Centre for Development Innovation (CDI), summarises methods that can be used to facilitate the process of reflection on the knowledge and experiences people acquire during a capacity development trajectory or training event. The authors believe that by explicitly integrating reflection in the learning process the learning will become clearer and better articulated and will contribute more strongly to meaningful change. They advise facilitators to deliberately include reflective learning sessions in their process design and implementation. This handbook can inspire you to do so and provides many methods which help to facilitate this. I was asked to write a Preface in which where I suggest that dealing with complex and even ’wicked’ sustainability challenges, above all, calls for learning individuals, learning organisations, learning networks and even a learning society.
“But not just any kind of learning, the kind of learning that is able to make explicit and question our assumptions, values and ways of seeing the world, learning that invites us to continuously reflect on the tensions and contradictions between them, learning that reveals the powers and inequities that tend to keep things the way they are or force us in directions we may not want to go. In other words, learning that questions the taken for granted, the normalised, the hegemonic and the routine. But also learning that enables us to make change and to transform others, and ourselves while learning from trying to do so.” (From the Preface, p6)
Sustainability Science Key Issues Edited by Ariane König (Université du Luxembourg, Luxembourg) and Jerome Ravetz (Oxford University, UK) is a comprehensive textbook for undergraduates and postgraduates from any disciplinary background studying the theory and practice of sustainability science. Each chapter takes a critical and reflective stance on a key issue of sustainability from contributors with diverse disciplinary perspectives such as economics, physics, agronomy and ecology. This is the ideal book for students and researchers engaged in problem and project based learning in sustainability science.
I co-authored Chapter 2 with Michael A Peters titled: Flowers of resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm. Here’s a short intro to our joint effort. “When democracy can be hijacked, power corrupts and capitalism penetrates deeply into society, including into our schools, what prospects still exist for education for a more sustainable world? Democracy is painfully slow and open to manipulation: the question must be asked whether it is up to the task in the new global environment where action is through agreement of interest-based states. And yet in a post-truth world there are important issues that yoke science as empirical truth with democracy that we might christen ecological democracy which provides the warrant and justification for civil action, and demonstrates the new power of citizen science groups that can act autonomously in the interest of their local communities. In this paper we seek comfort, inspiration and support from emerging forms of ecological democracy, civic science and transgressive education. The latter invites conflict and disruption as mechanisms to break with stubborn, unsustainable routines, that encourage people to leave their comfort zone. The resulting discomfort can be generative when it invites people to explore other options, to build new alliances or to re-think what they always thought to be normal or true. Learning on the edge of one’s comfort zones amidst a plurality of ideas, can help us interrogate and rethink the way we frame – or are made to frame – our experiences, as well as our cultural narratives and associated encultured and embodied ontological pre-dispositions.”
Full reference: Wals, A.E.J. and Peters, M.A. (2017) Flowers of Resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm König, A. & Ravetz, J. (ed.). 2017. Sustainability Science: Key Issues. London: Earthscan/Routledge.