Transformative learning in the field of sustainability: a systematic literature review (1999-2019)

Research output: Journal contributionsScientific review articlesResearch


Purpose: This study aims to investigate how transformative learning has been conceptualised and operationalised in education for sustainable development (ESD) and sustainability learning and to collect evidence on how to support transformative learning in formal and non-formal environments. Design/methodology/approach: The authors conducted a systematic literature review to provide a structured and replicable search and analysis of the relevant literature to produce a bibliometric overview that combines a quantitative description of the body of literature and qualitative analysis of the learning processes, outcomes and conditions. Findings: The convergence between transformative learning and sustainability has become an emerging field of inquiry, despite the superficial use of transformative learning theory in many studies. By examining the learning process, outcomes and conditions in the core sample of studies, this study demonstrates that transformative learning theory – if carefully studied – can contribute to the design and implementation of educational interventions and assessments of learning towards sustainability. Furthermore, the sustainability context provides an empirical grounding that highlights the fact that social learning, the role of experience and the development of sustainability competencies are inherently part of transformative learning. Originality/value: To date, few attempts have been made to better understand how transformative learning theory has been used in sustainability learning and ESD research. This systematic review allows for a better comprehension of how concepts and mechanisms elucidated in transformative learning theory are operationalised in sustainability learning and ESD research and serves as a source of inspiration for those researchers and practitioners who aims to make sustainability education, teaching and learning more transformative.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)993-1013
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - 17.07.2020

Bibliographical note

Jorge Gustavo Rodríguez Aboytes is a PhD candidate at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. He is carrying out his doctoral studies within the Robert Bosch Research Group “Processes of Sustainability Transformation”, at the Faculty of Sustainability. He is currently working on research topics such as transformative learning, real-world laboratories, sustainability textiles and fashion plus other research interest in education for sustainable development, curriculum design and development, transitions and transformation research, etc.

Matthias Barth is a Professor of Education for Sustainable Development at the Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany. His particular interest is in the nexus of learning and sustainable development. His current research projects investigate the role of formal education settings for competence development, transformation processes as learning processes and how to support them and competence development in higher education for sustainable development. Matthias is currently leading several sustainability science projects, including the Institute for Sustainable Development and Learning, engaging with transformation processes and the role of learning in these processes.