Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
30 SES 16 C: Symposium: Transformative Learning
Friday, 25/Aug/2023:
1:30pm - 3:00pm

Session Chair: Mandy Singer-Brodowski
Session Chair: Jannis Graber
Location: Hetherington, 317 [Floor 3]

Capacity: 20 persons


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30. Environmental and Sustainability Education Research (ESER)

Transformative Learning. Exploring the Potential of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning for Sustainability Transformations

Chair: Mandy Singer-Brodowski (Freie Universität Berlin)

Discussant: Jannis Graber (University of Koblenz, Germany)

Transformative learning has become one of the most important learning theories in the context of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (i.e. Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2015, Rodríguez Aboytes/ Barth 2020). Based on the work of Jack Mezirow and rooted in humanistic approaches, social-constructivist learning theories and critical theory explain the shift of deeply hold assumptions following several phases of reflection and discourse. On the one hand, the potential of transformative learning theory is to zoom into the process-like phases of individual and collective engagement with sustainability issues (i.e. Pisters et al. 2020). On the other hand, it enables a focus on long neglected adult learning (and in particular continuing education) - in contrast to the learning of young people, who have emerged as the drivers of global sustainability efforts. A particular potential of transformative learning is that it can explain the self-regulated shift of meaning-perspectives in regard to sustainability issues within learning environments that are less structured and not obligatory, and characterized by their informal communication and exchange processes within groups of learners or community of practices (Singer-Brodowski 2023).

Transformative learning theory can also be used to explain inner resistances to change or disruptions especially when it comes to emotionally triggered hindrances to critical thinking (Mälkki 2019). For this reason, it is an insightful learning theory against the backdrop of the increasingly polarized debates about transformation paths towards sustainability, the multiple conflicting goals in the sustainability context, the systemic inertias that are rarely addressed in the context of ESD (Boström et al. 2018), and the permanent ambivalences that even sustainability-affine people face if they try to contribute or foster sustainability transitions. Nevertheless, especially the linkage between individual and collective learning processes are under-researched and the question arises how these learning processes can be arranged, if they are driven by the individual. To explore these issues the symposium will focus on the following main questions:

Which potential does transformative learning theory has to explain individual and collective learning trajectories?

How do other, long-standing educational theory traditions approach transformation processes and what can we learn from this?

Which educational formats are suitable to enable transformative learning within the context of sustainability?

How can transformative learning processes be measured and evaluated?

The symposium will integrate three research projects that are focusing on the above-mentioned questions in different ways. Paper 1 by Katrien van Poeck and Leif Östmann will present a transactional perspective on learning and introduce transactional analytical methodologies. They use the LESTRA project to deeper explore three core ideas in transactional learning theory: 1) the concept of transaction, 2) the phases of habit, crisis, and creativity, and 3) the interplay of continuity and transformation ‘in action’.

The second paper of Alexandra Reith and colleagues refers to the work at the International Academy for Environment and Sustainability (TES) of the Federal Environmental Agency of Germany, which aims at identifying and fostering professional competencies for sustainability within innovative workshop formats. The research project TESACADEV (Development of an Evaluation Concept for Supporting the Competencies of the TES Academy) supports this endeavor through screening adequate evaluation approaches.

The third paper by Lily Ann Wolff and colleagues sheds light on theoretical developments of Mezirow transformative learning theory. It highlights the connection to the concept of Bildung und discusses the role of transformative learning in sustainability transitions. It uses examples from the SveaSus project.

Boström, Magnus; Andersson, Erik; Berg, Monika; Gustafsson, Karin; Gustavsson, Eva; Hysing, Erik et al. (2018): Conditions for Transformative Learning for Sustainable Development: A Theoretical Review and Approach. Sustainability 10 (12), S. 4479. DOI: 10.3390/su10124479.
Lotz-Sisitka, Heila; Wals, Arjen E. J.; Kronlid, David; McGarry, Dylan (2015): Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 16, S. 73-80. DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.018.
Mälkki, Kaisu (2019): Coming to Grips with Edge-Emotions: The Gateway to Critical Reflection and Transformative Learning. In: Ted Fleming, Alexis Kokkos und Fergal Finnegan (Hg.): European Perspectives on Transformation Theory. 1st ed. 2019. Cham: Springer International Publishing; Imprint Palgrave Macmillan, S. 59–73.
Pisters, S. R.; Vihinen, H.; Figueiredo, E. (2020): Inner change and sustainability initiatives: exploring the narratives from eco-villagers through a place-based transformative learning approach. Sustainability Science 15 (2), S. 395–409. DOI: 10.1007/s11625-019-00775-9.
Rodríguez Aboytes, Jorge Gustavo; Barth, Matthias (2020): Transformative learning in the field of sustainability: a systematic literature review (1999-2019). International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 21 (5), S. 993–1013. DOI: 10.1108/IJSHE-05-2019-0168.
Singer-Brodowski, Mandy (2023): The potential of transformative learning for sustainability transitions: moving beyond formal learning environments. Environment, Development and Sustainability. DOI: 10.1007/s10668-022-02444-x.


Presentations of the Symposium


A Transactional Perspective on Transformativity in Learning Processes

Katrien Van Poeck (Ghent University), Leif Östman (Uppsala University)

Transformative learning (Mezirow 1978) is gaining increasing attention in research on sustainability education and on the learning of adults while striving for sustainability transitions. While, as Singer-Brodowski (2023) argues, this theoretical perspective holds strong potential to address under-investigated aspects of education and learning in the context of sustainability issues, its attention for transformation of deeply held and emotionally invested assumptions about the world and oneself and for learners’ capacity to (collectively) contribute to societal change is not unique. Also, other traditions in educational/learning theory such as social learning (e.g. Wildemeersch & Vandenabeele 2007) and Argyris and Schön’s (1978) theory of single- and double-loop learning have addressed this. This paper focuses on how the long-standing tradition of pragmatist educational theory and in particular the application of Dewey’s transactionalism in didactic research (Garrison et al. 2022) has addressed the topic. We explore what pragmatist theory and transactional analytical methodologies have to offer and how this can complement transformative learning theory to deepen our insight in transformativity in learning processes. The paper elaborates three theoretical and analytical principles and discusses their potential for investigating transformativity. First, we discuss the central concept of ‘transaction’ (Dewey & Bentley 1949) – distinguishing it from self-action and inter-action – with its emphasis on how persons and their environments transform simultaneously and reciprocally through a continuous, dynamic interplay between intrapersonal aspects and aspects – interpersonal, institutional, and material – of the environment. Second, we explain how a pragmatist approach to the phases of habit, crisis, and creativity that mark human action (Shilling 2008) results in a focus on the disturbance of habits and customs as a crucial driver for learning and, potentially, for the (trans)formation of behaviour, assumptions and societal systems (Van Poeck & Östman 2021). Third, we emphasise the value of detailed empirical investigations of the interplay of continuity and transformation ‘in action’, i.e. on how change is actually made through people’s actions in transaction with the environment (De Roeck & Van Poeck 2023). Drawing on empirical examples from case studies of diverse settings aimed at creating more sustainable agri-food, mobility, and energy practices, we illustrate how a transactional perspective on transformativity allows to investigate the entanglement of individual and collective learning, to approach learning as a more-than-cognitive endeavour which involves affect, desire, commitment, and imagination, and to gain insight into how facilitators can grasp the transformative educative potential of ‘educative moments’ (Garrison et al. 2015).


Argyris, C., Schön, D.A. 1978. Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA . Dewey, J., Bentley, A. 1949. Knowing and the known. Southern Illinois University Press. De Roeck, F., Van Poeck, K. (forthcoming). Agency in action. Towards a transactional approach for analyzing agency in sustainability transitions. EIST. Garrison, J., Östman, L., Öhman, J. (2022). Deweyan Transactionalism in Education. Beyond Self-action and Inter-action. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. Garrison, J., Östman, L., Håkansson, M. (2015). The Creative Use of Companion Values in Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development: Exploring the Educative Moment. EER 21 (2): 183–204. Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective transformation. Adult Education Quarterly, 28(2), 100–110. Shilling, C., 2008. Changing Bodies. Habit, Crisis and Creativity. Sage Publications Inc, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi. Singer-Brodowski, M. (2023). The potential of transformative learning for sustainability transitions: moving beyond formal learning environments. Environment, Development and Sustainability. Van Poeck, K., Östman, L. 2021. Learning to find a way out of non-sustainable systems. EIST, 39, 155-172. Wildemeersch, D., Vandenabeele, J. (2007) Relocating social learning as a democratic practice, in R. van der Veen, D. Wildemeersch, V. Marsick, & J. Youngblood (Eds.) Democratic Practices as Learning Opportunities, pp. 23-36. Rotterdam: Sense.

Evaluating professional education and training – the example of the International Academy for Transformation and the Environment

Alexandra Reith (University of Vechta), Pascal Frank (German Federal Environment Agency), Gianna-Maria Henkel (Freie Universität Berlin), Marco Rieckmann (University of Vechta)

The International Academy for Transformation and the Environment (TES Academy) of the German Federal Environment Agency is responding to the massive demand for further educating and training of managers and decision-makers (professionals) in the context of sustainability. The TES Academy aims at promoting mutual learning activities for professionals within different organizations and sectors. Within the TESACADEV project (Development of an Evaluation Concept for Supporting the Competencies of the TES Academy) evaluation concepts for educational formats and trainings were investigated with regard to their applicability for TES. While there are some advanced academy approaches to enable and foster transformative learning (e.g., Moore et al. 2018), the concept remains ambitious and the state of research about evaluation of transformative learning processes or sustainability-related competencies as a result of such learning is not mature. For this reason, the paper’s focus is on the following research question: Which competencies do professionals need to contribute to social transformation processes and how can education formats and trainings aiming to strengthen these competencies be evaluated? To answer this question, different methods were applied: The first step was to conduct a systematic literature review following the PRISMA guidelines (Page et al. 2020) on professional development and sustainability-related competencies. Papers about educational formats and trainings for educators have been excluded within this review. The results yield a set of relevant competencies that complement previous competence models (Foucrier/ Wiek 2019, Lozano et al. 2017, Redman/ Wiek 2021, Salgado et al. 2018). In a second step, existing academies for the development of sustainability-related professional competences were identified and their education and evaluation concepts were surveyed using expert interviews. In a third step, two workshops of the TES Academy were accompanied in the context of a participant observation. Thematically, these workshops were related to the two overarching concepts of resilience (December 2022) and corruption (February 2023). The results include a map of different evaluation approaches for the TES that take into account different aspects like the participants’ backgrounds, the methods applied or the facilitators’ ability to accompany the learning processes.


Foucrier, Tamsin; Wiek, Arnim (2019): A Process-Oriented Framework of Competencies for Sustainability Entrepreneurship. In: Sustainability 11 (24), S. 7250. DOI: 10.3390/su11247250. Lozano, Rodrigo; Merrill, Michelle; Sammalisto, Kaisu; Ceulemans, Kim; Lozano, Francisco (2017): Connecting Competences and Pedagogical Approaches for Sustainable Development in Higher Education: A Literature Review and Framework Proposal. In: Sustainability 9 (10), S. 1889. DOI: 10.3390/su9101889. Moore, Michele-Lee; Olsson, Per; Nilsson, Warren; Rose, Loretta; Westley, Frances R. (2018): Navigating emergence and system reflexivity as key transformative capacities: experiences from a Global Fellowship program. In: Ecology and Society 23 (2). DOI: 10.5751/ES-10166-230238. Page MJ, McKenzie JE, Bossuyt PM, Boutron I, Hoffmann TC, Mulrow CD, et al. The PRISMA 2020 statement: an updated guideline for reporting systematic reviews. BMJ 2021;372:n71. doi: 10.1136/bmj.n71. For more information, visit: Perez Salgado, Francisca; Abbott, Dina; Wilson, Gordon (2018): Dimensions of professional competences for interventions towards sustainability. In: Sustain Sci 13 (1), S. 163–177. DOI: 10.1007/s11625-017-0439-z. Redman, Aaron; Wiek, Arnim (2021): Competencies for Advancing Transformations Towards Sustainability. In: Front. Educ. 6, Artikel 785163. DOI: 10.3389/feduc.2021.785163.

Sustainability as a Transformative Learning Aim: Challenges and Potentials

Lili-Ann Wolff (University of Helsinki), Marianna Vivitsou (University of Helsinki), Emma Heikkilä (University of Helsinki)

Numerous scholars have further developed Mezirow’s transformative learning theory, some of them together with Mezirow, others without him. Therefore, the ideas have developed in many directions, and come to focus on several aspects of the basic theory or to emphasize new directions. The theory has even been fragmented (Cranton and Roy 2003). As alternatives to Mezirow’s mainly cognitive approach, transformative learning now focuses on holistic, extra rational and integrative perspectives (Merriam and Bierema 2013), highlighting embodied and intuitive knowledge, and individuals in social relations (Lange 2009). Some of the new perspectives are influenced by depth psychology, post-structuralism, and posthumanism (Cranton and Roy 2003). Thus, fundamental discussions have dealt with if transformative learning is rational or extra-rational; imaginative, cognitive, or emotional; as well as if it is individual or social (Cranton and Roy 2003). According to Kovan and Dirkx (2003), Mezirow’s approach is too cognitive and rational. Therefore, they put emphasis on emotions, spirituality, and imagination in a broader sociocultural learning context. Transformative learning can awaken strong emotions and feelings of vulnerability. Of this reason, the educator needs to be responsive and aware of the students’ comfort levels (e.g., King and Heuer 2009). Since the roots of transformative learning partly have the same foundation as Bildung, there are also overlapping between the Bildung and the transformative learning theory. The idea of Bildung is based on the assumption that humans are capable of acting in a way that exceeds the immediate present. The notion of Bildung discusses what it means to be human (Fuhr, 2017). There are increasingly views, implementation methods, and interpretations of transformative learning that connects the theory to sustainability. To meet the needs of sustainability education, transformative learning is a complicated theory that must be developed, tried out, and evaluated methodically (Wolff 2022). Yet, like Bildung it might even be impossible to assess (Buttigieg and Calleja 2021), and it is definitely not a quick fix. In this paper, we will critically discuss various views on transformative learning and the relevance in relation to sustainability education, make comparisons to Bildung approaches, and present a few examples on experiences from a sustainability project (SveaSus) aiming at transformative learning. We will especially focus on embodied place-based learning methods, the role of emotions in learning processes, and the creation of safe spaces.


Buttigieg, K., & Calleja, C. (2021). Bildung and transformative learning theory: Two peas in a pod? Journal of Transformative Education, 19(2), 166–185. https://doi. org/10.1177/1541344620971673. Cranton, P., & Roy, M. (2003). When the bottom falls out of the bucket: Toward a holistic perspective on transformative learning. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(2), 86–98. 1541344603001002002. Fuhr, T. (2017). Bildung: An introduction. In A. Laros, T. Fuhr, & E. W. Taylor (Eds.),Transformative learning meets Bildung: An international exchange (pp. 3-15). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. King, K. P., & Heuer, B. P. (2009). Transformative learning in adult basic education. In J. Mezirow, E. W. Taylor, & Associates (Eds.), Transformative learning in practice: Insights from community, workplace, and higher education (pp. 172–181). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Kovan, J. T., & Dirkx, J. M. (2003). “Being called awake”: The role of transformative learning in the lives of environmental activists. Adult Education Quarterly, 5 3 (2), 99 – 118. 0741713602238906. Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2013). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Wiley. Wolff, L-A. (2022). Transformative learning. In S. Idowu, R. Schmidpeter, N. Capaldi, L. Zu, M. del Baldo, & R. Abreu (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sustainability management. Cham: Springer Nature.

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