Thematic Analysis: Transformative Sustainability Education

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Journal of Transformative Education

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Ecological edges, or places where two or more ecosystems meet, tend to be diverse and multilayered places where interesting events take place. This issue explores the fascinating edge where transformative learning and sustainability education meet; an edge becoming known as transformative sustainability education (TSE). The authors of this issue explore a theory and practice of TSE rooted in their diverse international experiences and changing worldviews, providing windows into a flourishing edge-space that can inform and deepen the usual discourses of both transformative learning and sustainability education.

TSE has emerged partly in response to the extreme and challenging context of the anthropogenic era in which we currently live and educate. We continue to face unchecked climate change, ecological destruction, grave economic and cultural injustices, and ongoing colonization, primarily fueled by our dominant economic system. The field of sustainability education has been largely focused on learning that promotes sustainable change, both individual and systemic, seeking solutions for our destructive and divisive societies that are ecologically resilient, socially just, and economically viable and localized. As this field has developed, educators have also recognized the need for the integration of learning that can more deeply transform our unsustainable ways of being and knowing.

TSE has also emerged in response to a growing consciousness/renewal of an interconnected and relational worldview that is (re)surfacing in many fields and thought arenas, provoked by the discoveries of quantum physics and a renewed reverence for indigenous philosophies and ecological systems. This relational worldview offers immense potential for imaginative and emergent change, for healing and transformative engagement. However, as Lange points out, the rich implications of this relational shift are only starting to be explored within the field of transformative learning. TSE both draws from and broadens transformative learning theory through onto-epistemological perspectives that may provoke deep sustainable and regenerative change.

The authors of this issue propose that at its heart, TSE represents a shift away from a dominant paradigm of education and learning rooted in mechanism and separation (rationalism, reductionism, dualism, and causality), and engages a relational ontology, or a way of being and knowing in which everything/one is related and interconnected. This way of knowing acknowledges our entanglement with the living earth and the more-than-human world and offers a renewal of older ways of being and knowing, as related reciprocal beings. This relational ontology recognizes the consciousness and agency of all beings in the more-than-human world and recognizes that intelligence is the nature of all beings, not just humans. TSE thus articulates a holistic worldview rooted in deep relationality and interconnectedness.

Within this relational ontology, TSE becomes a highly relational learning process, a dynamic emergence of new patterns, in which there are different ways of knowing and learning not limited to an autonomous human process or even to social constructivism. Rather, learning is understood more broadly as relatedness, as co-creation with the more-than-human world (Lange). This learning reconnects us to our bodies and intuitions, and to our lived places, reigniting our reciprocal relationships with the earth and a kin-centric understanding of learning. In this way, TSE goes beyond human and social transformation to fostering intimate, interconnected, reciprocal relationships between humans and the living earth of which we are innately a part. Humans and more-than-humans are entangled and cocreate transformative processes that can move well beyond the learning encounter, catalyzing personal, social, and ecological change (O’Neil). This is consistent with an indigenous life-world perspective, in which all beings “are embedded in a unifying energy of consciousness with the potential to attune with every other lifeform in the universe. Society is constituted not just by human to human relationships, but from the…interrelations between humans, other animals, plant, mineral and spirit worlds” (Williams). TSE acknowledges that the learner and what is being learned both change as they interact, validating subjectivity as an essential source of knowledge.

TSE is thus explored in this issue as a relational process of dynamic change or learning as sustainability (O’Neil). TSE is a process in which we are unlearning our unsustainability and relearning our entanglement with the world (Selby & Kagawa), restoring and transforming our ways of being, and re-rooting in reciprocal interconnected ways of knowing (O’Neil). Bringing together strands of knowledge from quantum physics, indigenous knowledge, and living systems theory, TSE seeks to heal the rift between our species and the rest of the living world (Lange; Selby & Kagawa), nurturing cultural and personal wholeness and transformation through healing, empowering, energizing, and liberating (Dawson, Sterling, & Warwick). In this process, TSE recognizes the constancy of change and the entanglement of systems of knowledge and identities, honoring emergence and change in these systems as life-giving forces (Williams).

The articles in this issue introduce numerous pedagogical approaches aimed at deep relational shifts in consciousness and ways of being. The authors point to the need for learning that is restorative (Lange), spiritual, and that includes sensorial, creative, and imaginative engagement with the close-at-hand world (Selby & Kagawa). The authors also recognize the need to be critical of unsustainable power structures and ways of being. TSE thus seeks to delegitimize the taken-for-granted status of the constant growth economy and to uncover and decenter its extractive consumerist culture, systemic injustices, and colonialism (Selby & Kagawa; Williams). TSE embodies learning that is just, participatory and transparent, providing for inclusiveness in decision-making processes and recognizing the colonial structures in which, to varying extents, we are each embedded (Williams). This involves paying attention to the power and role of language in shaping how we engage with the world (Dawson, Sterling, & Warwick). It also calls for engaging with the emotions and pain of loss concerning the world condition and learning in ways that restore our intimate connections with places and deep affiliation with the living earth (Selby & Kagawa). This may entail reclaiming small-scale and local economic and social initiatives that provide alternatives to corporate consumerism, real projects that are community and place-based and require collaboration (Dawson, Sterling, & Warwick).

These authors affirm that the role of transformative sustainability educators is to be able to draw from the distributed intelligence of the learning community, to be attuned to the energy field of learning, to be designers, connecters, catalysts, provocateurs, and mentors in the process of related transformative learning. TSE relies on pedagogies that are related, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, embodied, learning that embraces the whole person while also understanding and cultivating wholeness more broadly as intrarelationship with the living world.

The articles in this issue represent ontological, epistemological, and ethical shifts as the authors explore how they are coming to understand TSE within their own work and lives. They do so with curiosity, humility, wonder, and the wisdom and depth of their lived experience, providing both clear examples and imaginative windows through which we might be inspired to go even further. As an edge place, TSE offers restorative possibilities, creative connections, and an invitation to engage with teaching and learning as part of a relational whole. Here, we are invited to imagine how transformative learning may help shape a sustainable and regenerative future.


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