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Transformative Learning and Sustainability: Sketching the Conceptual Ground


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AbstrAct The paper serves as an introductory mapping of the idea of transformative learning in relation to the challenges that contemporary socio-ecological conditions of unsustainability, complexity and uncertainty present to educational purposes and practice. The work of key theorists is reviewed briefly, and differences and commonalities in their interpretation of transformative learning is analysed briefly. In particular, Bateson's concept and model of learning levels is drawn upon to help explain different qualities and depths of learning experience, and to illustrate the theory of paradigm change at individual and organisational scales. The paper then reviews the significance of transformative learning for higher education, and raises the question – drawing on examples – of how far mainstream higher education is able to provide transformative learning experiences, or whether it is inevitably associated with innovative learning environments outside the constraints of conventional education.
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Transformative Learning and
Sustainability: sketching the
conceptual ground
stePHen sterling
University of Plymouth, UK
The paper serves as an introductory mapping of the idea
of transformative learning in relation to the challenges that
contemporary socio-ecological conditions of unsustainability,
complexity and uncertainty present to educational purposes
and practice. The work of key theorists is reviewed briey,
and differences and commonalities in their interpretation of
transformative learning is analysed briey. In particular, Bateson’s
concept and model of learning levels is drawn upon to help
explain different qualities and depths of learning experience,
and to illustrate the theory of paradigm change at individual and
organisational scales.
The paper then reviews the signicance of transformative
learning for higher education, and raises the question – drawing
on examples – of how far mainstream higher education is able
to provide transformative learning experiences, or whether it
is inevitably associated with innovative learning environments
outside the constraints of conventional education.
Back in 1974, the economist E.F. Schumacher, whose work was
seminal to the rise and development of ecological thought in the
UK, wrote, ‘The volume of education has increased and continues
to increase, yet so do pollution, exhaustion of resources, and the
dangers of ecological catastrophe. If still more education is to save
us, it would have to be education of a different kind: an education
that takes us into the depth of things’ (Schumacher, written 1974,
published 1997). This quote illustrates a fundamental conundrum:
how far education, which for some decades has been identied as
key to resolving environmental and sustainability issues particularly
Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Issue 5, 2010-11
at international level, is (as David Orr has pointed out) part of the
problem. Orr (2004) dismisses the problems in education which
occupy much educational discourse, and, echoing Schumacher,
highlights the problem of education. He points out that there is no
necessary correlation between high educational achievement and
socially and environmentally benign sustainable behaviours, but rather
the opposite. It is because of these paradoxes and arguments that
educators interested in sustainability and social justice have, in recent
years, looked to learning theory for possible ways forward.
In particular, the concept of transformative or transformational
learning has aroused increasing interest, as a way of conceiving
and practising educational forms that might ‘take us to the depth of
There is an assumption in much learning discourse, in educational
conferences, and in university teaching and learning strategies, that
learning, per se, is self-evidently a ‘good thing’. On this assumption,
attention is often given to making learning effective, to learning to
learn, learning methods and so on. Outside of education for change
movements, which tend to be on the margins of the formal education
system, much less attention is given to the question of the purpose
of learning. Yet learning can be at the service of questionable values
and ends. As the organisational learning theorists Argyris & Schön
(1996) state:
The value we attribute to an increase in effectiveness or efciency
depends on how we answer the question ‘effectiveness or
efciency for what? …’ The crucial point is that, as we try to
understand or enhance organisational learning, we should keep in
mind the variety of ways in which any particular example of it may
prove to be invalid, unproductive or even downright evil.
(Argyris & Schön, 1996, p.64)
Hence, I would argue, in tandem with Schumacher and Orr, that
learning itself is a neutral process, which begs, in any particular case,
valuative questions of context and intent. Biologically speaking,
learning is to do with survival. The organism that is unable to adapt
to external change perishes, and all organisms ‘learn’ to some degree
and in some sense of the term. Now, on the global scale, social
learning is a matter of survival too given the very real threats to
our global environment (Wals, 2007). Yet, following Schumacher’s
argument, the quality of such learning needs to be ‘of a different kind’.
A great deal of learning, both everyday and through formal education,
makes no positive difference to a sustainable future, and may indeed
make that prospect less rather than more likely. More recently, a
report on world futures has suggested that:
Transformative Learning and Sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground
The shape of the global future rests with the reexivity of human
consciousness – the capacity to think critically about why we think
what we do – and then to think and act differently.
(Raskin, 2008, p.469)
So whilst learning skills, or ‘learning to learn’, may be important in
educational practice, this emphasis does not necessarily address the
critical dimensions of context or reexivity. Beyond ‘learning to learn’
is ‘learning about learning’, which raises questions about validity and
ethical defensibility of our theory and practice. It is thinking about
the sorts and qualities of learning we are involved in and for what
purposes. According to Williams (2004), writing in a New Zealand
report on learning and education for sustainability,
This century may well be one of relearning on a grand scale….
This learning … needs to be a core part of learning across society,
necessitating a metamorphosis of many of our current education
and learning constructs.
(Williams, 2004, p.4)
This report reects a growing realisation that not only do current
ways of thinking, perceiving and doing need to change in response
to critical systemic conditions of uncertainty, complexity and
unsustainability, but that old paradigms are the root of these
conditions. Similarly, Lord Stern’s Foreword in the HEFCE sustainable
development action plan talks about the ‘need for minds capable of
creating new possibilities’ and the need to ‘transform our current ways
of thinking and operating’ (Stern, 2009, p.1).
Transformative learning theory
In the context of this kind of debate, where there is a call for re-
examination of assumptions and values, critical thinking and new
creativity, the concept of transformative learning is coming more to
the fore. However, the term and evolving theory of transformative
learning was not, initially, linked to the big challenges of social change
and sustainability touched on above, but arose from the work of
the adult educationalist Mezirow (1978). It refers essentially to a
qualitative shift in perception and meaning making on the part of
the learner in a particular learning experience such that the learner
questions or reframes his/her assumptions or habits of thought.
Hence, Mezirow (2000) suggests that transformative learning:
refers to transforming a problematic frame of reference to make it
more dependable ... by generating opinions and interactions that
are more justied. We become critically reective of those beliefs
that become problematic.
(Mezirow, 2000, p.20)
Further, he says it refers to the process ‘by which we transform our
taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits
of mind, mind-sets) to make them more inclusive’ (Mezirow, 2000,
p.7). Mezirow’s view that transformative learning involves generating
a frame of reference that is more inclusive and dependable implies an
expanded consciousness, more in keeping with and cognisant of the
contextual reality of the learning situation. In this, Mezirow’s view of
transformative learning echoes others’ similar views. In particular, it
has some resonance with Freire’s (1972) concept of conscientization
which has been very inuential in critical pedagogy discourse and
emancipatory education circles. Both Mezirow’s and Freire’s work are
reected in the approach of the Centre for Transformative Learning
in Toronto which echoes O’Sullivan’s view (reected by Morrell &
O’Connor, 2002) that transformative learning involves:
a deep structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings
and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and
permanently alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift
involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-location: our
relationships with other humans and with the natural world.
(Morrell & O’Connor, 2002, p.xvii)
They go on to say that this involves a changing understanding of
power relations, of body awareness, of the possibility of alternative
approaches to living, and a ‘sense of possibilities for social
justice, peace and personal joy’ (2002, xvii). Importantly then,
transformative learning implies both an inner and outer dimension, a
shift in consciousness to embrace an extended sense of relationality.
Similarly, Reason suggests that it ‘implies an experience of self much
more fully in transaction with others and with the environment, a
participatory self or participatory mind’ (Reason, 1995, p.3).
At this point it will be useful to introduce the idea of ‘levels of
knowing’ (Sterling, 2003), which is based on a systems view of
thought (Bohm, 1992; Figure 1). This helps illuminate the point that
learning can involve and affect different levels of consciousness.
Transformative Learning and Sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground
Figure 1: Levels of knowing
This model of nesting systems suggests that deeper perceptions and
conceptions inform, inuence and help manifest more immediate
ideas and they, in turn, affect more everyday thoughts and actions.
A second point arising from this model is that the inuence of deeper
assumptions may not be consciously recognised. Our assumptions are
operative, but may lay largely unexamined. To give an illustration,
Lawton (1989) suggests that:
Every statement that a teacher makes in a classroom is value-
laden, connected with ideas about the purpose of education,
probably connected with more general values and beliefs, and
maybe with the purpose of life. So it is with educational planners
and curriculum developers, whether they realise it or not.
(Lawton, 1989, p.3)
I would suggest that this model is valid both at the level of individual
knowing and collective or cultural knowing. One of the important
implications of this model is that it raises questions about learning.
Whilst the word ‘learning’ tends to be used with the assumption that
discussants generally share the same perception of what it means,
Epistemic learning
this model raises an important and often missed dimension: that we
can learn at different levels of knowing and meaning. Transformative
learning is normally taken to mean learning which touches our deeper
levels of knowing and meaning, and, by so doing, then inuences
our more immediate and concrete levels of knowing, perception, and
action. At this point, it will be helpful to look at Gregory Bateson’s
work on learning, which does much to clarify what transformative
learning can imply. An illuminative theory was developed by Bateson
from Whitehead & Russell’s theory of logical types, and concerns
levels of change and learning. Bateson distinguished three orders of
learning and change (in addition to ‘zero learning’), corresponding
with increases in learning capacity, and these have been adopted
variously by learning and change theorists, particularly in the eld of
systemic learning and organizational change, such as Argyris & Schön
(1996; single and double loop learning), and Ison & Russell (2000;
rst order and second order change).
First-order change refers to doing ‘more of the same’, that is, change
within particular boundaries and without examining or changing the
assumptions or values that inform what you are doing or thinking.
In this sort of learning, meaning is assumed or given and relates
primarily to the external objective world. Second-order change refers
to a signicant change in thinking or in what you are doing as a result
of examining assumptions and values, and is about understanding
the inner or subjective world. In this sort of learning, meaning is
recognised and negotiated amongst those involved. Other terms
which theorists use and which distinguish between these two levels
are, respectively: basic learning and learning about learning; learning
and meta-learning; and cognition and meta-cognition. This two-level
model sounds very simple, but it makes a very important distinction
and has signicant implications for any person or group interested
in anything more than rst order change. From this distinction it
is possible to see that most learning promoted in formal education
in schools and higher education is of the rst order variety, being
content-led and externally focussed, and often delivered through
transmissive pedagogies within a consensually accepted framework of
values and purposes. It is concerned fundamentally with ‘information
transfer’ – learning about things – and does not normally challenge
the assumptions or beliefs of the learner. This is maintenance
learning – adjustments or adaptations are made to keep things
stable in the face of change; what Clark (1989, p.236) calls ‘change
within changelessness’. This is not of itself a ‘bad thing’ and may be
perfectly valid in many teaching and learning situations; however,
if the need for transformative learning is recognised by progressive
educators, an institutional tradition of rst order teaching and learning
is an obstacle to deeper change.
Transformative Learning and Sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground
Second-order learning is more challenging and involves the learner (or
learning organisation) critically examining, and if necessary changing,
his/her/its beliefs, values and assumptions. Therefore, this learning
experience can be said to be deeper. It is more difcult and often
uncomfortable for the learner because it is challenging and, because
it involves reecting critically on learning and change that takes place
at the rst-order level, it generates an awareness and understanding
that goes beyond that level. Because of this, such learning is likely
to be more permanent. In shorthand, and applied to organisations,
rst-order learning and change is often said to be about doing things
better, that is, it is often concerned with efciency and effectiveness,
whether applied to the individual or to the institution. But it does not
question the ‘things’, the activities and the assumptions which lead to
those activities. Second-order change – by contrast – is concerned
with doing better things, that is, it raises questions of purpose and
values; it asks ‘efciency and effectiveness in the service of what?
Or to what end?’ Such change involves bringing the assumptions to
light that underlie rst order learning, and critically assessing them,
invoking questions of values and ethics. It is important to state that
some theorists use the term ‘transformative learning’ to describe
experiences which might be said to be equivalent to second order
learning. For example, Cranton (2009) suggests that ‘Exposure
to alternatives encourages students to critically question their
assumptions, beliefs, and values, and when this leads to a shift in the
way they see themselves or things in the world, they have engaged in
transformative learning.
However, Bateson’s model distinguished a third learning level,
which may said to be epistemic learning; that is, it involves a shift
of epistemology or operative way of knowing and thinking that
frames people’s perception of, and interaction with, the world. This
entails ‘thinking about and evaluating the foundations of thought
itself’ (Bawden & Packham, 1993, p.6); the experience of seeing our
worldview rather than seeing with our worldview so that we can be
more open to and draw upon other views and possibilities. The case
for transformative learning is that learning within paradigm does not
change the paradigm, whereas learning that facilitates a fundamental
recognition of paradigm and enables paradigmatic reconstruction is
by denition transformative. This level of learning, or third order
change, is consistent with O’Sullivan’s view of transformative learning
as a dramatic shift of consciousness. Similarly, many commentators
see this as involving perceptual change and coming to a transpersonal
ethical and participative sensibility. In brief, an expansion of
consciousness and a more relational or ecological way of seeing
arises, inspiring different sets of values and practices. Indeed, it is
important to state that, according to Bateson’s theory and others’
theories derived from the Bateson model, learning levels are seen
as nested systems with higher order learning affecting levels below
(Figure 2). Thus second order or meta-learning experience changes
thinking and action in the rst order domain, whilst epistemic learning
causes changes in the second and rst order domains. Put more
simply, as Fear et al. argue (2006),
transformations in the way things are done depend on
transformations in the way things are understood – in the
worldview or perspective assumptions that condition those
understandings. (Authors’ italics)
(Fear et al., 2006, p.189)
Both are linked, both important: as Fear et al. (2006, p.225) suggest,
while critical thinking and reection is an essential prerequisite for
transformative learning to occur, it is not by itself sufcient unless it
results in transformative, sustainable and responsible action.
Figure 2: Learning levels as nested systems
The three learning levels can also be represented as in Table 1, with
the arrow representing a shift towards higher order learning, (which,
perhaps confusingly, is also termed deeper learning by some).
Epistemic learning
Table 1: Levels of learning
Whilst a number of commentators interpret Bateson’s model
in different ways, it affords a potent and helpful insight on the
possibilities of, and constraints on, the higher order learning
experience that the crisis of sustainability suggests is necessary in
terms of calls for a change of worldview (Lyle, 1994). Not least, it
indicates that a shift of perception from rst order to second order
learning, or from second order to third order, often involves resistance
on the part of the learner, for it poses a signicant challenge to
existing beliefs and ideas, reconstruction of meaning, discomfort and
difculty, but also sometimes excitement. So transformative learning,
in the epistemic sense, is difcult – rst, to facilitate or design as a
learning experience, and second, as a felt experience for the learner.
With reference to the Figure 1 ‘levels of knowing’, it is clearly much
easier to affect change at the more immediate level, than at the deep
level of knowing. Epistemic learning can be deeply uncomfortable,
because it involves a restructuring of basic assumptions caused by
the recognition of ‘incoherence’ between assumptions and experience.
This crisis experience can be traumatic – although for some it is
inspiring – and can be a lengthy process over time as mental models
undergo radical change (Sterling & Baines, 2002). This, incidentally,
rather counters the simple adage that ‘learning should always be fun’.
As Ison & Stowell (2000) suggest that:
each learner goes through a period of chaos, confusion and being
overwhelmed by complexity before new conceptual information
brings about a spontaneous restructuring of mental models at a
higher level of complexity thereby allowing a learner to understand
concepts that were formally opaque.
(Ison & Stowell, 2000, p.3)
Transformative Learning and Sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground
Orders of
Seeks/leads to: Can be labelled as:
First order change
‘Doing things better’
Second order change
Examining and
changing assumptions
‘Doing better things’
Third order change
Epistemic learning
Paradigm change ‘Seeing things
Similarly, O’Sullivan states (2002):
The breakdown, or crisis, motivates the system to self-organise in
more inclusive ways of knowing, embracing, and integrating data
of which it had been previously unconscious.
(O’Sullivan, 2002, p.4)
Journeying through learning levels, whether we are focussing on the
individual, or the institution, or society as a whole, entails a similar
difcult path. This journey through higher orders of learning involves
experience of:
• greater challenge/threat to existing beliefs/ideas – and so more
• greater ‘perturbation’ required to stimulate learning and the
emergence of new order;
• greater reconstruction of meaning;
• greater engagement and breadth of response in the learner;
• achievement of greater exibility and less rigidity of thought;
• higher order of consciousness or mindfulness;
• more emergence as a result of learning;
• the difference between ‘unwitting self-reference’ and knowing
self-reference and therefore the possibility of transcendence.
(Sterling, 2003, p.286)
Transformative practice
This rather theoretical model is borne out in practice by others.
Hence, a model of progressive change is reported by Hicks (2002),
drawing on the work of Rogers (1994) whose work with students on
global issues suggested a learning cycle over the period of a one-
year course. This research, says Hicks, suggests that learning should
involve ‘three awakenings – of the mind, the heart and the soul ...
(if) truly effective teaching’ is to take place (2002, p.102). Rogers
suggests that learning can involve the cognitive dimension (which
is traditionally seen as the core of teaching) which involves the
intellect; the affective dimension, when intellectual knowing moves
to a personal and connected knowing involving the emotions; an
existential dimension where students are faced with questioning their
values and ways of living and with the challenge of the reconstruction
of their own sense of self; an empowerment dimension, which, if
the existential crisis is resolved, involves a sense of responsibility,
commitment and direction; and an action dimension, which, if the
questions raised by the rst four dimensions have been resolved,
involves the development of informed choices at personal, social and
political levels.
Both Hicks (2002, drawing on Rogers’ work, and on his own work with
global futures students) and O’Sullivan (2002) point to the nature
of denial, despair and grief in relation to coming to terms with the
planetary crisis. The mainstream emphasis on cognitive learning,
with a little ‘values education’ thrown in, is simply insufcient to meet
this challenge. Indeed, Hicks (2002, p.108) contends that ‘many
educators often only make things worse for students by teaching
about global issues as this were solely a cognitive endeavour’. Rather,
Hicks seeks a holistic learning experience, and he quotes Joanna
Macy’s despair work which allows people to engage with their feelings
and pain for the world in order to reconnect with it. A true sense of
empowerment, says Hicks, must come from both head and heart, ‘but
this requires educators who have also worked through these issues for
themselves’ (2002, p.108).
This brings us to a key point, which concerns how far formal education
systems and educators working within them are able to design
learning systems conducive to transformative learning experiences,
even assuming that such experiences tted the curriculum goals of
the institution. An Open University systems practice network sums up
the challenges as follows:
To understand and deliver a pedagogy which enables and provokes
students to move across levels of epistemic competence is in itself
challenging. To do so requires an awareness on the part of the
curriculum designer and personal tutor so that they can facilitate
these changes … it is not always clear that academics and tutors
have these competencies themselves.
(SPMC, 2002)
To help facilitate transformative learning then, there has to be intent
on the part of the designers/teachers, born of their own learning, to
construct a learning system through which they can encourage others
to explore epistemic change as a collaborative inquiry. Thus, there
is a ‘two-level’ learning process involved: the new ‘meaning making’
of the designers/teachers facilitates the new ‘meaning making’
of others. This is what Roling (2000, p.52) refers to as ‘double
hermeneutics’. In brief, it appears that transformative learning arises
from the interaction between the state of readiness of the learner and
the quality of the learning environment to yield a particular learning
experience as an emergent property of that interaction.
Documented examples of educational settings where transformative
learning has been central to intent, and examples of research studies
on transformative learning practices, are relatively few compared
with the level of theoretical discussion (Taylor, 2007). One well-
known example outside the mainstream is Schumacher College,
Transformative Learning and Sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground
in Devon, a small independently-run institution whose strapline is
‘Transformative Learning for Sustainable Living’. On the basis of the
author’s long association with the College, and research undertaken,
this is a justiable claim. The 2002 evaluation (Sterling & Baines,
2002) suggests that transformative learning experiences – which
by their nature cannot be guaranteed – are commonly facilitated by
several factors including the College’s both overt and implicit ethos
and connectivity, so that virtually all aspects of its operation work
synergetically. This involves small group size, intensive residential
experience, and conducive environment, building and location.
Such conditions are hard to match or reproduce in mainstream
institutions, and it might be maybe that radical establishments such
as Schumacher College need to play an engaged role in advancing,
testing and mapping out new purposes, research and pedagogies
that higher education could bring on board more centrally (Blake
& Sterling, forthcoming). On-going partnerships relating to the
transition movement (<>) between the
University of Plymouth and Schumacher College are currently opening
up such possibilities.
One of the best documented accounts of experiments to foster
transformative learning is the 20-year case study at the Centre for
Systemic Development, Hawkesbury College, Australia (Bawden,
2005). The leaders of the Hawkesbury College work approached this
by developing what they termed ‘methodological pluralism’, which was
a conscious attempt to transcend ‘the epistemologies of positivism
and reductionism’ (Bawden & Packham, 1993, p.4), which they
saw as dominating mainstream educational thinking and practices.
Informed by learning level theory by a number of writers including
Bateson (1972) and Salner (1986), the team sought to effect an
holistic educational paradigm, drawing consciously on soft systems
methodology, experiential learning and systemic action research.
Bawden (1997, p.1) writes, ‘together we would learn how to see the
world differently, and in the process, discover just how difcult a
transformation this is’.
Also working in Australia, Cochrane et al. (2007, p.335) were directly
inspired by Bawden’s work at Hawkesbury and used Bateson’s learning
levels model to help them, as curriculum designers, to develop a
course on agricultural education ‘with the potential to create holistic
thinkers who were well equipped to play a signicant role as ecological
agriculturalists’. Course components were therefore designed to
address the three levels: for example, understanding ecosystems and
management (Learning I); interpersonal skills, change management,
ecopsychology (Learning II); and the empathetic relationship between
humans and environment, value systems (Learning III). Importantly,
the pedagogies employed changed through the levels, to support
the qualities of learning sought. Commenting on the Learning III
component, Cochrane et al. state:
The pathway to this end could not be achieved by the rational and
analytical modes, but through their opposite – imaginative and
intuitive – modes.
(Cochrane et al., 2007, p.361)
In the UK, one example, known to the author, where transformative
learning is explicitly striven for is that of the Sustainable Development
programme at the University of St. Andrews, an innovative and
award-winning interdisciplinary initiative where varied pedagogies
are employed to help the students experience and articulate different
forms of knowing including but beyond intellectual knowing (Heron,
1996). The Programme Handbook (University of St. Andrews, 2009)
states that the programme is designed ‘to encourage you, and us,
to develop as ‘whole people’ as well as to meet ‘teaching targets’
– recognising the paradox that this represents…. There are times
when learning in this way will be more challenging than merely
receiving and regurgitating information.’ In this way, the approach
adopted by the University of St. Andrews is consistent with Taylor’s
view that transformative learning is typically associated with learning
experiences that ‘are direct, personally engaging, and stimulate
reection upon experience’ (Taylor, 2007, p.182).
It is clear that transformative learning is challenging for the individual.
It is also clear that designing transformative educational experiences
and leaning systems is also challenging, both in the immediate
learning situation but also in the context of dominant educational
paradigms and structures that essentially are not themselves
transformed or sufciently critically reexive. Not least it challenges
predominant norms in teaching and learning policies and practices.
Indeed, Moore (2005) asks whether higher education is ready for
transformative learning, and whether students are mentally and
emotionally prepared for this type of learning – and ‘whether the
academic institution has the ability to foster and nurture these type of
experiences’ (p.86). By contrast, Cochrane et al. (2007, p.363) state
that, in their experience, ‘making allowance for the emergence of the
emotional and spiritual in people is not difcult. The difculty lies in
convincing others that this has to happen in the rst place’.
Transformative Learning and Sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground
One way forward might be to look beyond the connes and purview
of the higher education sector to what is going in the ‘real world’.
Homer-Dixon (2006, p.29) points to current trends and concludes
that ‘surprise, instability, and extraordinary events will be regular
features in our lives’ and that such events will ‘transform our outlook
forever’. Put another way, transformative social learning – albeit
reactive – whether precipitated by energy price shocks, health scares,
terrorism or global warming for example, is already with us, shaking
public assumptions. Under such conditions, it behoves academe
to be anticipative, to re-examine how it can move towards more
transformative, more socially engaged and future oriented models of
teaching and learning that can nurture positive personal and social
development. As Bawden (2008) challenges:
higher education is duty bound to do all it can to transform
prevailing epistemic assumptions and to liberate human and
social development in the further pursuit of the considered and
inclusively responsible life.
(Bawden, 2008, p.65)
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About the Author
Stephen Sterling is Professor of Sustainability Education, Centre for
Sustainable Futures (CSF) at the University of Plymouth, and Senior
Advisor to the Higher Education Academy Education for Sustainable
Development (ESD) Project. His research interest is in advancing
the interrelationships between ecological thinking, systemic change,
and learning at individual and institutional scales to help meet the
challenge of accelerating the educational response to the sustainability
agenda. His work at the CSF involves leading the research team,
whilst his work for the Academy centres on advising the ESD Project
on programmes and strategy in supporting curriculum change across
the higher education sector.
... In view of a transformation of society towards sustainability, ESD has embraced transformative learning (TL) to overcome a conventional approach and support learning that leads to transformation and adopting a paradigm toward sustainability (Boström et al., 2018;Balsiger et al., 2017;Sterling et al., 2018;2011;Blake et al., 2013). TL evolved from the concept of perspective transformation into an established learning theory based on concepts from constructivism, humanistic, and critical social theory (Tisdell, 2012). ...
... According to the author, TL essentially refers to a change in an individual's perception and constructing meaning in a learning experience, such that the actor questions or reformulates his assumptions or habits of thought. For Sterling (2011), TL is learning that reaches our deepest levels of knowledge and meaning and, in so doing, influences our most immediate and concrete levels of knowledge, perception, and action. Mezirow (1981) described key characteristics of such learning, focusing on learning processes (how people learn), conditions (how best to support their learning), and outcomes (what they learn). ...
... The learning process was analyzed from first-, second-, and third-order changes based on Sterling (2011) and Bateson (1972). The respondents' reflections that showed only addition of new knowledge were coded as first-order learning; those that suggested that the student had reflected on their practices or their pre-existing knowledge were assigned to second-order learning, and when students reflected and appeared to change a previous belief system (at least at that point in time), it was categorized as third-order learning. ...
Purpose: This study aims to analyze how transformative learning (TL) theory has contributed to sustainability practices in management and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and what kind of strategies can direct future practices in the field. Method/design/approach: An exploratory and inductive study to synthetize primary qualitative case studies was conducted. After screening 241 articles extracted from the Web of Science database, we identified 13 empirical papers highlighting TL theory and sustainability. Then, a meta-synthesis of these qualitative case studies was conducted based on the key characteristics of TL. Results and conclusion: Six theoretical propositions were elaborated, showing that the TL theory has contributed to sustainability through some influential factors on process, conditions, and results. In addition, based on these dimensions, the study provides some strategies for future practices. Research implications: The findings of this study have both theoretical and practical contributions, which can direct organizational and educational politics and practices. Originality/value: Sustainability and ESD are current topics in the academy in favor of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, there is a lack of studies on the development of theoretical strategies towards sustainability practices in management and ESD from a transformative learning TL approach. Thus, this study shed more light on the topic.
... IHLs have also begun to develop formal sustainability curricula (see Barlett & Chase, 2004), inspiring some scholars to envision what an exceptional sustainability education might look like. Although consensus is lacking in the literature, many agree that emancipatory and transformative learning are essential components that sustainability education requires to be effective (Moore, 2005;Sipos, Battisti, & Grimm, 2008;Sterling, 2011;Wals, 2012;Summerfield & Wells, 2017). Emancipatory learning challenges power structures (both inside and outside the classroom) through a praxis of dialogue and action (Freire, 2007). ...
... (p. xvii) This is the kind of education sustainability scholars are calling for (e.g., Moore, 2005;Sipos et al., 2008;Sterling, 2011;Wals, 2012;O'Brian & Howard, 2016), an education of a different kind. As Wals summarized in his 2012 review, "as the DESD progresses, so does the realization that ESD needs to move beyond the transmissive to a transformative mode" (p. ...
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Although the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) was a period of rapid pedagogical revitalization and innovation, much sustainability education today is still delivered using transmissive and instrumental pedagogies common across higher education. Now that the field has integrated many of the insights from the decade, students and facilitators should continue innovating along themes consistent with the goals of sustainability: transformation and emancipation. Yet, more clarity is needed about pedagogical approaches that will transform and emancipate students, allowing them to become innovators that change existing structures and systems. This paper presents a framework combining four interacting (i.e., complementary) pedagogies (transmissive, transformative, instrumental, and emancipatory) in sustainability education, helping to reify pedagogical concepts, rebel against outdated curricula, and orient facilitators/learners on their journey toward transformative and emancipatory learning. The authors begin by reviewing the evolution of sustainability education and transformative learning theory prior to introducing the framework. The paper concludes with a vision of sustainability education that incorporates contemplative pedagogies as essential methods in a field in need of cultivating hope, resilience, and emergence.
... The personal sphere is also vitally important in sustainability education because severe sustainability related topics raise anxiety among young people (Ojala, 2013;Brundiers and Wiek, 2017). Scholars have approached and conceptualized these and other educational goals by framing the learning as transformative (Sterling, 2011) and by approaching the educational challenge as a question of competency building (Wiek et al., 2011;Brundiers et al., 2021). ...
... Transformative learning has caught increased attention in sustainability education research (e.g., Stuckey et al., 2013;Bell, 2016;Lange, 2019), but it has often been discussed at a shallow level (Aboytes and Barth, 2020). Mezirow did not create transformative learning for a reconstruction of the world (Sterling, 2011), but with a thorough theoretical focus. Transformative learning is an option in sustainability education (Boström et al., 2018), since it develops awareness of extensive power structures and strengthens agency to change society (Lange, 2019). ...
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An ever-growing number of scholars are developing and applying competency frameworks in the context of sustainability education. Despite the strong interest, most of the research has ignored the varying meanings of competency, which can be interpreted as a performed ability, but also as personality development. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) recently suggested self-awareness to be a central sustainability competency. However, the sustainability competency discourse is lacking a thorough analysis of how and if personality development related dispositions can be considered as competencies, how can they be taught in higher education, and how can the potentially transformative experiences resulting from such teaching be considered. This article aims at a deep understanding of the concept of self-awareness and its interpretations. We have reviewed the roots and analyzed the current interpretations of self-awareness in sustainability competency research and explored how the competency frameworks connect to transformative learning. In addition, we give tangible examples from art based and creative practices of design education, in which we have examined how self-awareness is defined and how it connects to transformative learning. The interpretations of self-awareness addressed two perspectives: awareness of oneself and awareness of one’s relation to others and a wider society. Based on our research, becoming self-aware is a process that nourishes transformative learning. We additionally understand self-awareness as a process of internal growth instead of only a performable ability. This needs to be considered when developing the sustainability competency frameworks and their applications in education.
... Such skills are essential, as are learning to learn, and expression skills. Yet, Sterling (2011) claims that although 'learning to learn' is an important educational practice, it does not necessarily address context criticism or reflexive learning. Consequently, how the 21st century skills are implemented, definitively depends on the values of the educational institutions . ...
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While the state of the world is becoming ever more unsustainable, transformation and transformative learning have become increasingly relevant and raised attention in various sustainability education discourses. This is obvious in both policy and research. As teacher educators, we have studied how this sustainability and transformative education trend is visible in education policy. We have first read international policy and research on sustainability education and transformation. In a more thorough study, our focus has been on two recent and fundamental policy documents outlining the Finnish teacher education. Our results show that even if several UNESCO policies documents for years have called for a transformation toward sustainability through education, the Finnish teacher education policy has not yet fully acknowledged sustainability issues and teachers’ transformative agency in addressing them, but emphasize other aims. Therefore, it is mainly up to the individual teacher educators and the leaders of their faculties to decide on how to prepare student teachers not only to deal with changes in general, but to particularly bring about changes towards sustainability.
... Manufacturing and production of building materials has an impact on the emissions, as well as during the construction and operation of buildings. There is adequate literature to make the case to integrate sustainability into existing curricula (see for instance Iyer-Raniga and Andamon 2014;Sterling 2010;Sterling and Thomas 2006;Thomas 2004), but there is not much in the literature to initiate, develop and implement lived experiences of students and staff in sustainability education in the built environment (Iyer-Raniga 2018. ...
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... Students engaged in transformative learning identify and question problematic (e.g. unsustainable) conditions or assumptions in the environment or society, with the aim to transform learners' attitudes, dispositions, and behaviors (Sterling 2011). As applied in environmental education contexts, transformative learning has been conceptualized in ways that embrace both embodied and aesthetic experiences that are experienced in subtle ways, rather than being associated solely with major life events ( Michel et al., 2020). ...
Teacher education is pivotal to advancing pedagogies, practices, and content knowledge that promote sustainability literacy in formal education settings. To explore preservice teachers’ (PST) readiness to implement transformative sustainability learning with elementary (i.e. kindergarten to 6th grade) students, we analyzed unit plans created by PSTs in a sustainability teacher education course. Within these units, we looked for evidence of content and pedagogy which (i) embraces the complexity of human-environmental interactions, (ii) advances sustainability literacy by enlisting both knowledge and engagement, and (iii) mobilizes action in local and global contexts to advance social and environmental justice aims. We describe the range of topics and analyze the rationales and learning activities through the ‘Head, Hands and Heart’ framework for transformative sustainability learning. We found that, though most PSTs integrated learning objectives and activities intended to engage students’ heads, hearts, and hands into their units, they struggled to embrace the complexity of sustainability issues and to engage students in justice-focused action. We provide three recommendations for preservice teacher education to increase PSTs’ readiness to implement transformative sustainability learning.
... Taken together transformative learning enables participants to individually and collectively examine taken-for-granted theories, concepts and ways of knowing through real-world action that is in service to a community (Moore, 2005;Sipos et al., 2008;Taylor, 2011, 2012;Sterling, 2011;Wals and Lenglet, 2016;Harmin et al., 2017). The EfS classroom must explore (and unsettle) our deeply engrained habits of mind and body behind because unsustainability is due to such destructive habits. ...
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In the interest of developing sustainability practitioners, this manuscript challenges the conceptualization of transformative learning for Education for Sustainability (EfS) in relation to single courses or programs. Conversely, I will argue that becoming a sustainability practitioner (i.e., someone who takes action in the interest of the sustainability movement) is life-long and life-wide commitment. Time and how and why it matters is addressed. To develop this point, this manuscript details a case study of an education for sustainability graduate program that I designed and currently lead. The purpose is to further theorize transformative learning as it links individual action(s) and collective change(s) in the border-like but permeable spaces that are in-between. It asks the practical question of the ways educators (and practitioners) might expansively and generatively work together in creating a lifetime of classrooms to continuously bridge individual action and collective change.
... We also note that in one case parallel governance processes provided adjacent forums and further topics on which to interact, and that the success of these forums depended on the beliefs and actions of key actors, either facilitating learning or promoting polarisation and stalemate. These observations resonate with insights from integrated coastal management, collaborative governance and social learning (Ansell & Gash, 2007;Sterling, 2001) deepening our understanding of policy-oriented learning. Trust, listening and learning and related enablers are emphasised in research on environmental communication (e.g., Senecah, 2004) and conflict transformation in conservation (e.g., Madden & McQuinn, 2014). ...
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This article deepens our understanding of the preconditions for policy‐oriented learning in conflictive marine conservation, provides an analytical framework for further studies and formulates recommendations for practitioners on what to consider when establishing protected areas. Our seas are under increasing pressure but lag behind in protection. Climate change, intensifying use and biodiversity loss challenge current practises and imply trade‐offs between conservation and use. While nature conservation ranks high internationally, national protection attempts often result in controversies, with actors aligning in opposing advocacy coalitions—for and against the proposals. Policy‐oriented learning is one way to overcome controversies. It involves processes whereby actors gain new knowledge and experiences, leading to changed beliefs about the problems and possible solutions. We aimed to explore and explain policy‐oriented learning through a comparative longitudinal case study of two Swedish national park planning processes with different outcomes: Koster Sea national park, established 2009, and Sankt Anna archipelago remaining without park. Which characteristics related to context, actors and processes influence policy‐oriented learning in conflictive marine conservation processes? The results suggest that a set of complementary factors explain the different outcomes. First, learning is facilitated by contexts where actors from both coalitions depend on the resource and its protection and have experience of collaboration, and where conservation planning is well integrated with other governance processes. Second, engaged key actors with moderate views facilitating interactions and able to identify common interests and deescalate conflicts are important — supported, third, by various forums allowing exchange of knowledge and learning across coalitions.
... Although the concept of SD started as a way of mitigating environmental problems, it has evolved to span across economies, societies, and cultures, and promote continuous development to meet present needs, without compromising those of the future. This expanded concept of SD provides a critical reflection of the development and growth of industrialization so far; it presents an alternative discourse of development, growth, and life, one that encompasses international economic and social systems [2]. ...
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Sustainable development (SD) refers to development that can meet present needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. For global citizens to acquire and understand SD-related knowledge and cultivate the ability to apply and practice the principles of sustainability, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is essential. This study examines how ESD can be promoted through the Olympic Value Education Program (OVEP)—an initiative by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for spreading the Olympic spirit. It draws inferences for addressing the shortcomings of the current ESD models. To that end, it analyzes the relationship between ESD and the OVEP, their relationships with SD, concepts, content, goals, and methods, by reviewing existing literature. The study found that the OVEP can act as a tool for ESD and has the potential to allow the effective acquisition of sustainability capabilities. Additionally, it found that since Olympic value education and SD have common goals, they can develop harmoniously to promote ESD.
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In this article, we reflect on our experiences of teaching sustainability in management education in an emergent context of increasing and pervasive eco-anxiety. Our collaborative autoethnographic enquiry stemmed from the tensions we experienced in our desire to present a realistic view of the future to students, while still maintaining their (and our) sense of hope and agency. While sustainability in management education has long acknowledged the need to engage learners' hearts and hands as well as their heads, the challenges of effectively integrating the emotional (heart) dimension in the classroom have remained under-explored in the literature. We develop the findings of our collaborative autoethnography into a framework that provides insights for educators navigating the range of emotional responses evoked in the sustainability in management education classroom. This framework acts as a roadmap, based around five spheres of practice, that will aid sustainability in management education educators in making more conscious and deliberate choices about their teaching practice within the complex context of eco-anxiety.
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This paper explores the impact of short immersive residentials at a radical institution for staff currently working in a mainstream one; in this instance, at Schumacher College for those at the nearby University of Plymouth (UK). Schumacher is an independent, alternative college offering residential courses in ‘transformative learning for sustainable living’. Using a qualitative research design, we explore the potential of a University staff Scholarship Scheme partnering with Schumacher to catalyse change towards sustainability in the university's curriculum and pedagogy. Our findings suggest that whilst many of the scholarships realised their anticipated potential to effect change, there was no simple correlation between the scholars' learning and experience at Schumacher and their subsequent personal and professional change. However, since the Plymouth–Schumacher route offers a promising pathway to bring innovation and fresh ideas into thinking and practice, the paper also explores how the mainstream and the radical could interact to better effect, drawing on wider thinking on the principles, challenges and tensions of pursuing sustainability, partnership, institutional learning and change.
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As universities begin to consider sustainability as a core value in education, there is a need to contemplate the role of transformative learning in higher education. Are current models of university education capable of facilitating action to promote ecological literacy and social change? This article outlines three models of group learning (cooperative, collaborative, and transformative) for use in higher education learning environments. It also examines the possibility (the potential benefits, drawbacks, and implications) of shifting university education from the current model toward a model for transformative learning and sustainability. Ultimately, this article raises a number of questions for academics to consider, including the possible outcomes and implications for implementing transformative education in university curriculum.
A discussion of a transformative vision of education will involve a diversity of elements and movements in contemporary education. A vision statement must attend to these diversities. I see my approach to transformative learning as an integral endeavor and thus call my approach integral transformative learning.1Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1986) gives as part of its definition of “integral” the following descriptors: “essential to completion, formed as a unit with another part, integrated: lacking nothing essential.”
While the science community continues to ask how its responsibility to society needs to be expressed in the modern world, higher education grapples with issues of its own, including issues embroiled in the perennial tug‐of‐war between principle and economic pragmatism. In this paper, the authors give an account of the origins and development of a new undergraduate course in ‘ecological agriculture’ at a regional Australian university campus. In this story, the tug‐of‐war is dragged strongly back to central issues of purpose and philosophy. Supplementary pragmatic information included are summaries from the feedback from students who have undergone the course and members of the relevant industry obtained through the course evaluations done in the years 2002–2005; moreover, a brief explanation as to how the obstacles faced were met in launching the programme has also been included.