Transformative Research and Higher Education

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(11 chapters)

My aims in this chapter are to discuss alternative ways of doing education and research, and thereby highlight key contributions from Paulo Freire, Orlando Fals-Borda and Dorothy Lee, to active learning, participatory action-research and intercultural dialogue. These scholars were heirs of the university reform movements of the twentieth century, and their vital legacy is alive as shown in this book. The enclosed ideas and illustrations of transformative research and education draw from my academic experience in various corners of the world and points in time.


Contemporary societies face serious environmental and social challenges that require decisive action. In the 1970s, Environmental Education (EE) was conceived as an important method for raising awareness and bringing about the needed changes in social practices that can lead to environmental protection and more recently sustainable development (transforming EE to Education for Sustainability (EfS)). Since then, many EE/EfS programmes have been implemented and some change has been observed despite the persisting problems. EE/EfS – especially when aiming to change behaviours – has been akin to critical pedagogy which aims to prepare independent and critical thinkers and empowered citizens that can effectively address social problems. What pedagogical approaches and educational methods are more effective in bringing about changes in attitudes and social practices? What instructional design and practices facilitate this transformation? What are the challenges? These are questions that have troubled environmental educators and are worth reflecting on in the present context of knowledge societies and Higher Education that is significantly impacted by a neoliberal ideology.

This chapter aims to contribute to the ongoing discussions around these questions, via a dialogue between theory and practice. A discussion of critical theory and pedagogy and of EE/EfS is counterposed with theoretical reflections and insights from the author's more than three decades of teaching experience (primarily in Greece). A discussion of the instructor's key pedagogical influences and the evolution of her (my) instructional practices follows, with the aim to identify instructional practices that have a transformative potential, within the context of the challenges and the facilitating parameters of contemporary societies and educational contexts. The instructor's self-reflections and students' qualitative comments are used in a variety of research methods: a self-study research approach drawing on the author's self-reflections as instructor and an analysis of students' qualitative comments in course evaluations and other informal evaluative situations.


Roskilde University was established in Denmark in 1972 as a critical reform university based on the principles of participant directed problem-oriented project learning (PPL). In 2009, the university launched a new master programme in Urban Planning (Planning Studies). This chapter presents experiences from student projects working with action research in facilitating citizen-driven urban development. Firstly, we outline the key theoretical foundations of the Planning Studies programme: planning as social learning, empowerment and social mobilization. Secondly, we describe the principles of the Roskilde University pedagogical model (PPL) rooted in the tradition of experiential and critical pedagogy of Oskar Negt, John Dewey, Paulo Freire and others. Thirdly, we present two cases of problem-oriented projects working with action research in bottom-up urban planning and sustainable transition in Copenhagen. The first case concerns the involvement of local residents in the redesign of a public square through a series of aesthetic experiments. The second case concerns an experiment with alternative transport solutions and sustainable street transition through reduction of private car use and the creation of new public spaces on former parking lots. The article concludes that action research in problem-oriented project work is promising way of involving students in community empowerment processes. Doing action research strengthens the students understanding of ‘the logic of practice’ and their ability to master practical and ethical judgements in complex real-world empowerment and learning processes. This both prepares them for professional practice and provides them with an embodied and pragmatically empowered understanding of how transformations towards a more sustainable and just society can be brought about.


In this chapter we share research findings from our collaborative research project ‘PASAR: Participatory Arts and Social Action in Research’ (, which combines participatory action research methods of participatory theatre and walking methods in order to understand the way in which racialized migrant women challenge their exclusion and subjugation in the context of the UK. The situation of migrant families in the UK is currently characterized by the ‘hostile environment’ policies. This policy ‘is a sprawling web of immigration controls embedded in the heart of our public services and communities. The Government requires employers, landlords, private sector workers, NHS staff and other public servants to check a person's immigration status before they can offer them a job, housing, healthcare or other support’ (Liberty, 2018, p. 5). The currently hegemonic political discourse, views migrants as outsiders to the nation and challenges their right to access welfare. Migrant families are cast as outsiders to citizenship, challenging the social and cultural cohesion of the nation. Indeed, UK immigration policies render it difficult for migrant families to secure their social and economic reproduction. Against this backdrop, the research explores how racialized migrant families develop their subjugated knowledges to claim belonging and participate in the society they live in. In this chapter, we share the key methodological findings, challenges and benefits of working with a PAR approach for co-producing transformatory knowledge with migrant families and advocacy organizations.

In line with the aims of this book, we reflect on the transformatory potential of research and knowledge for the common good through ‘alternative collaborative system of co-researchers and co-learners engaged in dialogue with civil society and social movements’ (Bacal, Introduction p. 1, see also Andersen and Frandsen, this volume).


One common feature of different variants of participatory and action research is rejection of technocratic, undemocratic elements in science and inquiry, aiming to break the dominance of traditional academic views of science. These variants open up broader participation of people, and emancipate knowledge creation for the production of actionable knowledge with transformative potentials. The purpose of this chapter is to recognize and clarify a striving for knowledge democracy in these explicit or implicit democratizing ambitions and tendencies in the sense of broadening the participation of concerned parties in research and development work on open and equal terms. This recent concept, still in the process of formulation, has been proposed as a global mobilizing and unifying thinking for distributed networks and movements for participatory oriented research. The concept and movement had an initial embedding in the First Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy in June 2017, Cartagena, Columbia. The purpose of the chapter is to elaborate on the meaning of knowledge democracy as a vision for the participatory and action research community. Particularly I will distinguish between different orientation to knowledge democracy, and the character of the logic of a more, open, democratic and coproductive science that can be a carrier of it.


Drawing on my own experiences at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a college professor of radical social change for 31 years who has been focused on the climate crisis for the past 10, I explore the crisis of higher education with respect to this most pressing existential challenge of the twenty-first century and propose various approaches, actions, activities, and projects for both classroom teachers and networks of educators.

These include the UC-CSU NXTerra Knowledge Action Network, the UCSB-developed nearly carbon neutral conference, and engaging students in designing and implementing systemic alternatives outside the classroom in their own communities such as Eco Vista in the 23,000-person community of Isla Vista just adjacent to UC Santa Barbara, among others.

The essay will end with a vision of a new type of university, exemplified in the world-spanning Ecoversities Alliance, and dreamed of in Transition U and Eco Vista U, two prototypes that I have been involved in co-creating with students, staff, faculty and community members in Santa Barbara, California, and in the Transition US movement.


It is argued that social learning, transformative learning, collaborative learning and transgressive learning are branches and offshoots of the same ‘learning tree’. This chapter examines the sources and evolution of theories of education and learning focused on transforming the learners' self-understanding and transforming the structures and social arrangements in which they and their educational and learning processes are embedded. The ‘transformative learning’ theories reviewed here span the last 50 years. They critique and go beyond the functionalist understanding that education and learning are meant to socialize learners within existing or dominant cultural and societal structures and/or in function of the transmission of knowledge, skills and attitudes from generation to generation. The first part of this article covers transformative learning and learning for transformation in the tradition of Freire, Habermas, Mezirow, and others. The second part concentrates on more recent ideas of collaborative learning, social learning and deliberative social learning evolving into transformative, and transgressive learning. By highlighting the warp and weft of the conceptual traditions and pedagogical practice within a variety of contexts and conditions, a colourful tapestry of transformative education and learning emerges. It is shown that, over time, the pertinence of transformative learning has only increased. The evolution of transformative learning presents itself as a virtual cycle, starting from marginalized and excluded people and communities via individual persons engaged in adult education and environmental education, to (groups of) people participating in collaborative and transgressive social learning, thereby becoming capable and empowered actors in processes of societal change and transformation.


It is unfortunately too easy to find examples of absurd functioning in the university. It has never been a perfect institution, because that is an impossibility. One observes in recent years that while its chronic problems have not disappeared, they have lost prominence in the face of a steamroller working at the planetary level. The university has plunged into an even greater absurdity. This institution that was created to be free and clearly work for human emancipation, through the expansion of knowledge, has chosen to submit itself as a slave to the dynamics of the current global model of society. By so doing, it further fosters slavery by strengthening this global hegemony. In the present contribution I choose three concrete examples of this absurdity. The first alludes to the recruitment and shaping of obedient teachers. In this sense, the university is not an exception to the banking system of education, but it raises the production of individual adaptation and obedience to its maximum exponential. The second example refers to the renunciation of the social usefulness of the knowledge that it produces. This is done by adopting operational models from the production of commodities, such as quality measurement and the like, which undermine the institutional mission of universities. The third great absurdity refers to the destruction of thought and language diversity, which are two sides of the same coin. While the aforementioned processes are readily noticed, there are alternatives to the absurd university that entail encouraging projects and realities under construction. My aim with this contribution is to present an analysis of the absurd university, and give visibility to these alternatives under way, linked to grassroots university movements and other hopeful socio-educational projects. This chapter has a particular focus on language, due to its complexity and relative neglect in academia.

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