Transformative Learning in Higher Education for Sustainable Development: Lecturers’ Experiences

O’Grady, Michael (2021) Transformative Learning in Higher Education for Sustainable Development: Lecturers’ Experiences.


Transformative Learning focuses on enabling a radical reassessment of worldviews and behaviour change on the part of students. Such learning outcomes resonate with those concerned with Education for Sustainable Development. Inherent in the sustainability concept is a need for, and a call to, action. This call hasled to the adoption of Transformative Learning pedagogies in Higher Education Institutions. Nonetheless, several problems arise concerning its efficacy in higher education. Many of these problems can be attributed to the intrinsic nature of Transformative Learning, which is synonymous with adult and further education. Therefore, its validity as a pedagogy for application in higher education contexts needs validation. Moreover, for lecturers concerned with sustainability, reconciling the inherent need for action may pose professional, personal, and even ethical challenges. This study captures the experience of seven practitioners who successfully harness Transformative Learning when teaching sustainability. The paradigm underpinning this study is constructivism, comprising an ontology of relativism and epistemology of subjectivism. Participants were recruited through international networks; all seven were from outside of Ireland. A series of semi-structured interviews were undertaken. Transcripts were prepared and verified with participants. These were subsequently analysed through the lens of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.

Results confirmed that the experience of all participants was positive. Transformative Learning within the context of sustainability programmes within higher education is indeed possible. However, all participants were obliged to compromise. The classic model of Transformative Learning could not be applied in its totality; instead, participants prioritised critical analysis and thinking as these were deemed tractable in terms of classroom constraints and assessment obligations. While pushback from students was occasionally encountered, the obligation on participants to reassess their role and identity as lecturers was considered the most crucial determinant of success. The traditional view of the lecturer as the expert in the classroom needed reconfiguration and replacement with one emphasising co-learning and co-creation of knowledge.

The results of this study validate Transformative Learning as pedagogy for the teaching of sustainability in higher education institutions. The shared experience of participants will inform and guide lecturers to consider adopting a transformative pedagogy when engaged in education for sustainable development.

View Item