Transgressive learning in times of global systemic dysfunction: interview with Arjen Wals

Extracts from a recent open access interview between Michael Peters and board member, Arjen Wals – full article at the link:

Michael Peters (MP): I have been thinking of this interview now for quite a while, maybe when I first met you at the first Sustainability Education Policy Network conference because you are one of the few leaders in education to exercise a responsibility to rethink education and the school in times of global systemic dysfunction and you provide us with a new concept of ‘transgressive education’ as a means to do this. So perhaps before I get you to outline the relevant concepts perhaps you can give us something of your biography leading to your UNESCO chair.

Arjen Wals (AW): Both my parents were environmental educators. My mother worked with primary schools and developed tool kits and resources that engaged pupils in water quality issues in connection to the Rhine River. She linked cultural and environmental sensitivity by linking schools from Germany and The Netherlands that were connected by the river. My father, Harry Wals, was a key figure in the Dutch environmental education scene but also worked internationally. He was the Director of a Department of the city of The Hague that was responsible for school gardens, community gardens, educational city farms and environmental education programmes for schools and neighbourhoods. He also co-founded the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe (FEEE), which is known for the Blue Flag and the Ecoschools.

Although I grew up being concerned about environmental issues, I did not think environmental education would be the solution – basically thinking that by the time society would be aware and care, it would be too late, if we ever would get to that point. So I opted for environmental engineering and more technical solutions to environmental problems. However, already in year two I realized that technological solutions tended to be end-of-pipe solutions that ignore the root causes of environmental issues, which are grounded in what I now call ‘global systemic dysfunction’. I became aware that environmental problems are not just about ecology and environment but also about social justice, inter-generational equity and the values we live by or are forced to live by as a result of the structures of which we are part. So, I suppose to the delight of my parents, I shifted to environmental education, which over time has become transformative learning for socio-ecological sustainability.

I have always worked internationally – indeed taking advantage of some of my father’s connections: he represented The Netherlands internationally at landmark conferences such as the 1970 IUCN conference in Nevada (where the Commission on Education and Conservation was established) and the 1977 Intergovernmental UNESCO–UNEP conference on EE in Tbilisi (which is still seen as defining moment in the history of EE). Thanks to him, I got in touch with one of the founding fathers of Environmental Education, Bill Stapp, a professor at the University of Michigan, who started the first research journal in the field, the Journal of Environmental Education in 1969 and became UNESCO’s first Director of EE in the mid-1970s. I ended up doing my PhD with him at University of Michigan, and in a modest way followed his footsteps when being appointed UNESCO Chair in Social Learning and Sustainable Development in 2008. Bill Stapp, my parents and the affordances of my upbringing, have played a key role in getting to the point where I am today.

MP: Thanks for that brief history. It does indicate how relatively recent EE is – roughly 50 years. What a fantastic legacy your parents left and now second generation that spans the first ecological era. A few quick questions: What was the topic of your PhD? Can you tell us a little about Bill Stapp – what were the influences upon you and what was his conception of EE?

Read on at:


MP: Looking to the future what are the main issues for education in the Anthropocene? And what you like to establish as your legacy?

AW: Well we need nothing less than a radical re-orientation of education. The one single species that has been able to alter the Earth’s ecosystems, climates, ocean levels, biodiversity in detrimental ways, must now find a way to do better. Indeed positivistic, reductionist, empirical analytical science and a neo-liberal economic system that demands continuous growth and innovation has broad us loads of possibilities and has made live for many very comfortable – although certainly not for all, but we now are beginning to understand that the ‘side-effects’ of this way of thinking are accelerating and limiting the futures for humanity and the other species we are dragging into our mess.

In a recent inaugural address at Wageningen University (Wals, 2015Wals, A. E. J. (2015). Beyond unreasonable doubt. Education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability in the Anthropocene. Second Inaugural address held on December 17th, 2015 upon accepting Personal Professorship in Transformative Learning for Socio-Ecological Sustainability. Wageningen:Wageningen University.), I stated that young people are disproportionately affected by global sustainability challenges in that they will have to live longer with the socio-ecological consequences of lifestyle and development choices made by the generation of their parents and grandparents, particularly in the wealthier parts of the planet. Fortunately, they will also have more time to work on them. It’s important that being aware of the nature and seriousness of sustainability issues is in itself insufficient for resolving or even improving them. In fact, raising awareness about sustainability issues without developing people’s capacity to meaningfully and adequately address them may lead to powerlessness, apathy and withdrawal and as such could potentially do more harm than good.

So here’s a task for education: engaging young people meaningfully in the key challenges of our time by creating spaces for integrative thinking, the consideration of values and ethics, the possibility to critique, act and transform, to find our common humanity and to explore ways – new, old, indigenous – to connect with those near and far in both time (past–present–future) and space (local–regional–global), with the human and the non-human and more-than-human. This will require a consideration of multiple ontologies and epistemologies, the transcending of disciplines: connecting the arts, humanities and the sciences, but also a deepening of democratic processes and what we might call the search for meaning as opposed to materiality. Perhaps we need to add another T to T-learning: transcendental learning. Disrupting the commodification of education and the hijacking of education for the single purpose of creating lifelong flexible workers, who need instant gratification by quick access to consumer gimmicks with short lifespans that feed into ever-shrinking attention spans, will be critical. Perhaps this is a rather bleak and somewhat exaggerated representation of modern education but I think the point I am trying to make is clear.

As far as my legacy is concerned … that sounds big. You know, I do sometimes wonder: does my academic writing and my travelling across the globe to speak at conferences about these concerns and ideas make any difference? Or worse, does it amplify unsustainability by enlarging my carbon footprint? Who reads nowadays? Who is able to listen for more than a few minutes uninterrupted by a WhatsApp sound, a text message, a news alert, a weather update? And those who do read and do listen or, better, engage in dialogue and conversation about these issues, what do they do with it? Do the stories and conversations travel further? My most optimistic answer is that over the years I have taught and mentored hundreds of students, I have ‘reached’ thousands of people attending events where I have spoken, and may-be I have reached some people who read my blog or my tweets. If only a small percentage of all of them have been triggered or disrupted or have been made slightly uncomfortable or perhaps been inspired … if only a small percentage has taken up some of what I am trying to advocate in their professional and personal life, then my ecological handprint might be bigger than my ecological footprint. Maybe in the end I will have had as much impact as my parents, and maybe my children in one way or another will take up some of this and carry it further. That would be quite something.


Arjen Wals is Professor of Transformative Learning for Socio-Ecological Sustainability at Wageningen University. He also holds the UNESCO Chair of Social Learning and Sustainable Development. Furthermore he is the Carl Bennet Guest Professor in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) at Gothenburg University in Sweden. He obtained his PhD in 1991 with a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His dissertation tackled the interface of environmental psychology and environmental and sustainability education. His recent work focuses on transformative social learning in vital coalitions of multiple stakeholders at the interface of science and society. His teaching and research focus on designing learning processes and learning spaces that enable people to contribute meaningfully sustainability. A central question in his work is: how to create conditions that support (new) forms of learning which take full advantage of the diversity, creativity and resourcefulness that is all around us, but so far remain largely untapped in our search for a world that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect? In 2014 he was the lead author of an article published in Science Magazine on the role of citizen science in bridging science education, environmental education and sustainability. He is editor and co-editor of a number of popular books including: Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability (Kluwer Academic, 2004), Creating Sustainable Environments in our Schools (Trentham, 2006), Social Learning towards a Sustainable World with foreword by Fritjof Capra and an afterword by Michael Apple (Wageningen Academic, 2007), Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change (2012), and of Routledge’sInternational Handbook on Environmental Education Research (2013). He has (co)authored over 250 publications in multiple languages. Wals is a co-founder of Caretakers of the Environment/International and a recipient of the environmental education research award of the North American Association for Environmental Education, and former president of the Special Interest Group on Environmental & Ecological Education of the AERA. He writes a regular research blog that signals developments in the emerging field of sustainability

A brief and popular video of him arguing for the importance of the engagement of education with sustainability challenges can be viewed


Author Interview

The first article of the first issue of an exciting 2016 for the journal: Stefan and Leif’s analysis of ESD as a global and discursive concept.

Jonas Lysgaard truly travelled to the far north, to meet up with Stefan and Leif in Uppsala, Sweden, and ask them about their article, their ideas and thoughts for the future.

They might look like a street savvy duo from a Guy Ritchie movie, but their insights are spot on!

Watch a video of their interview at:

Find the entire article free access here:

Globalisation and education for sustainable development: exploring the global in motion
Stefan L. Bengtsson & Leif O. Östman
Pages: 1-20 | DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2014.989960