Research Topic

Transformative Learning, Teaching and Action in the Most Challenging Times

About this Research Topic

In an era of crises, transformative learning has become a fundamental theoretical concept in relation to sustainability. The 70/01 Resolution adopted by the United Nation’s General Assembly on 25 September 2015 has the title “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Long before this resolution, transformation has been a topic in the sustainability debate. Policy writers, researchers, NGO members and others have argued that the transition towards a more sustainable society requires transformations on individual, institutional and social levels that question the currently dominant socio-economic model. Higher education institutions have to play a central role in this transformation to be able to raise awareness and build capacity for tackling urgent global justice, pandemic, ecological and geophysical climate-change dilemmas.

Transformative learning is an idea with a long history and with many linkages to other educational concepts. Its roots are in ancient philosophy at a time when many philosophers (e.g., Plato) regarded philosophy as a way of life, a practice aimed at transforming self and society. These ideas extended within 20th Century critical enquiry. The major attributes of transformative learning were arranged by Mezirow in the late 20th century. It developed substance and urgency alongside Freire's critical pedagogy and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, especially the thoughts of Habermas. Mezirow's early explorations with perspectives transformation were in the context of adult education with fundaments of critical thinking, reasoning and reflection, to challenge assumptions.

After Mezirow, many researchers have used and further developed these ideas in various directions. Cranston has explored how educators can promote transformative learning, whereas Zimmermann has focussed on transformative science in relation to sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sherman has developed transformative action as a way to change the world on personal and societal levels. His ideas are implemented in work targeting multi-stakeholder coalitions for the SDGs including parliamentarians, citizens, NGOs, the private sector, academia, and the media.

Taylor regards the development of transformative learning with a focus on critical reflectivity as a big challenge. Most recently, Rodríguez-Aboytes and Barth have demonstrated the diversity of conceptualization of the links between transformative learning and sustainability, showing how few are the evaluated accounts of transformations in this context. Probst and colleagues' exploration of transformation following a transformative university learning experience is notable. Many others have taken the challenge to create new ideas in the field of transformative education. Research and development, however, are limited in the field of transformative sustainability learning in higher education.

Not all change is transformational, since transformation of humans and their societies involves complex processes, including changes at personal, organizational, institutional, cultural, and even systems levels. Sustainability-oriented transformation relates to ethics, ontology, epistemology and praxis, and asks for value and worldview deliberations, personal and collective commitments, as well as collaborative and interdisciplinary (even transdisciplinary) reinventions of understanding and practice. Higher education institutions surely have a crucial role and a great opportunity to develop theories and methods for how to motivate and involve students, managers, lecturers, researchers, and stakeholders outside academia, in the re-creation of spaces, thoughts and power relations for a more sustainable future.

This Research Topic is interested in sustainability-related transformative learning, transformative teaching and transformative actions (or practices) in the field of higher education. We aim to bring together the most current theories and empirical studies (including evaluations) on transformative approaches in sustainability education from a broad higher education context. Especially, we want to promote papers that present alternative, innovative and critical ideas about how sustainability could become more than pretty words and unreachable aims in policy documents and strategies, but really make a difference at both personal and societal levels.


Keywords: sustainability education, transformative learning, transformative teaching, transformative action, SDGs, sustainable development, critical thinking, critical appraisal, critical reasoning, cultural assumptions, higher education


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

In an era of crises, transformative learning has become a fundamental theoretical concept in relation to sustainability. The 70/01 Resolution adopted by the United Nation’s General Assembly on 25 September 2015 has the title “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Long before this resolution, transformation has been a topic in the sustainability debate. Policy writers, researchers, NGO members and others have argued that the transition towards a more sustainable society requires transformations on individual, institutional and social levels that question the currently dominant socio-economic model. Higher education institutions have to play a central role in this transformation to be able to raise awareness and build capacity for tackling urgent global justice, pandemic, ecological and geophysical climate-change dilemmas.

Transformative learning is an idea with a long history and with many linkages to other educational concepts. Its roots are in ancient philosophy at a time when many philosophers (e.g., Plato) regarded philosophy as a way of life, a practice aimed at transforming self and society. These ideas extended within 20th Century critical enquiry. The major attributes of transformative learning were arranged by Mezirow in the late 20th century. It developed substance and urgency alongside Freire's critical pedagogy and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, especially the thoughts of Habermas. Mezirow's early explorations with perspectives transformation were in the context of adult education with fundaments of critical thinking, reasoning and reflection, to challenge assumptions.

After Mezirow, many researchers have used and further developed these ideas in various directions. Cranston has explored how educators can promote transformative learning, whereas Zimmermann has focussed on transformative science in relation to sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sherman has developed transformative action as a way to change the world on personal and societal levels. His ideas are implemented in work targeting multi-stakeholder coalitions for the SDGs including parliamentarians, citizens, NGOs, the private sector, academia, and the media.

Taylor regards the development of transformative learning with a focus on critical reflectivity as a big challenge. Most recently, Rodríguez-Aboytes and Barth have demonstrated the diversity of conceptualization of the links between transformative learning and sustainability, showing how few are the evaluated accounts of transformations in this context. Probst and colleagues' exploration of transformation following a transformative university learning experience is notable. Many others have taken the challenge to create new ideas in the field of transformative education. Research and development, however, are limited in the field of transformative sustainability learning in higher education.

Not all change is transformational, since transformation of humans and their societies involves complex processes, including changes at personal, organizational, institutional, cultural, and even systems levels. Sustainability-oriented transformation relates to ethics, ontology, epistemology and praxis, and asks for value and worldview deliberations, personal and collective commitments, as well as collaborative and interdisciplinary (even transdisciplinary) reinventions of understanding and practice. Higher education institutions surely have a crucial role and a great opportunity to develop theories and methods for how to motivate and involve students, managers, lecturers, researchers, and stakeholders outside academia, in the re-creation of spaces, thoughts and power relations for a more sustainable future.

This Research Topic is interested in sustainability-related transformative learning, transformative teaching and transformative actions (or practices) in the field of higher education. We aim to bring together the most current theories and empirical studies (including evaluations) on transformative approaches in sustainability education from a broad higher education context. Especially, we want to promote papers that present alternative, innovative and critical ideas about how sustainability could become more than pretty words and unreachable aims in policy documents and strategies, but really make a difference at both personal and societal levels.


Keywords: sustainability education, transformative learning, transformative teaching, transformative action, SDGs, sustainable development, critical thinking, critical appraisal, critical reasoning, cultural assumptions, higher education


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

30 April 2021 Abstract
30 September 2021 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

30 April 2021 Abstract
30 September 2021 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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