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Innovative Education for Transformative Change

A course described by students as “one of a kind, emotionally-engaging and potentially life-changing” and “unforgettable and a great source of inspiration for my future career & life!”, was the recipient of the first edition of the Education Innovation Award at Wageningen University & Research’s Dies Natalis on March 9th, 2022.

The two-week intensive course, Transformative Research for Global Social-Environmental Challenges, was designed during the pandemic and involved 21 lecturers, from Wageningen University and Research, the University of Twente, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. In the acceptance speech, coordinator Josie Chambers emphasized the collaborative effort behind the course:

Together we are part of a growing movement to bridge sharp critique of how our own beliefs and methods constrain us, to a sense of possibility and hope for how we can do things differently by working together.

In this entry, course contributors, Josie Chambers (Utrecht University), Jeanne Nel (Wageningen University and Research [WUR]), Esther Turnhout (University of Twente), and Peter Vermeulen (WUR) share their story of the journey on how this course came to be, the impacts, and the potential for more innovative education for transformative change in research and society.

The start of the journey

This course started from an initiative within Wageningen University and Research.

Esther explains: “I was very keen to start a process to explore different perspectives on how research can contribute to sustainability transformations. Global reports, including the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that I contributed to, have concluded that transformative change is needed and scientists, PhDs, and students are motivated to contribute. But how do they see their roles, what inspires them, and also what constraints do they experience and how can knowledge institutions like WUR create space to transform research practices? “

Jeanne adds: “It was fantastic that the Biodiverse Environment Programme of ESG wanted to fund research into these questions.” The research underpinning the course was undertaken by Josie Chambers and Jeanne Nel who interviewed 71 researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and career stages across the university. The result was a report called “71 Visions”, which identified four ‘ways of working’ that were consistently seen to enhance the transformative potential of research for more just and sustainable outcomes: (1) Pluralizing – finding common ground in ways that foster respect and learning across diverse beliefs, values and goals; (2) Empowering – building individual capacity to act and collective momentum to move towards transformative visions; (3) Politicizing – becoming politically aware and engaging with power in ways that accelerate rather than block systems change; (4) Embedding – integrating research and learning into every day decision making without compromising its moral and intellectual independence. These four approaches were further explored in a series of dialogues which involved 300+ researchers across WUR.

At the same time, organizations within the university wanted to provide opportunities for developing new courses. Peter Vermeulen, WIMEK’s PhD education coordinator explains, “For some time now, we at WIMEK office have debated how we can support true change, considering the challenges that our societies are currently facing. And our feeling that when looking at the (sometimes non-) results, that there should be a way to achieve more. How do we as a graduate school stimulate our researchers to be at the forefront of societal and environmental change? And how can we involve the knowledge from the social sciences on how to trigger change with our research and our roles as researchers.”

Josie shares: “We developed this new course on Transformative Research to translate the many insights emerging from these dialogues [71 visions] into an engaging learning experience for PhD candidates. It was wonderful that WIMEK was keen to support the development of this course, and that we had the logistical coordination support of Peter Vermeulen to run it.”

Peter describes his excitement he had for this course’s potential: “I feel the need for more reflective courses where us scientists think about our roles and the roles we can play; not only in solving environmental challenges, but also how we can do that keeping other Sustainable Development goals such as societal inequality at the front of our brains. Hence, we gladly contributed and helped co-organise this course when the course coordinators came to us with the idea of this course.”

Course Design

So how did this group of 21 lecturers from multiple institutions put this course together?

Esther notes: “We had a good diversity of teaching methods, including lectures and readings but also creative exercises and a good mix of critical perspectives that stimulate reflection and concrete options and approaches that enable experimenting with doing things differently.”

Josie explains: “We designed the course with several key things in mind. First, we wanted to emphasize the role of the researcher upfront. This meant creating space to reflect on the limitations of how we often go about research, as well as the opportunities to transform these roles – connecting to a paper recently published by Josie Chambers, Jeanne Nel, and 40 co-authors. Second, we structured the course to give them some of the most innovative ideas and methods related to the four ways of working we had identified as being so crucial to connecting research to societal transformation. Third, we had participants engage with one of five cases of transformative research to iteratively ground their learning in a practical case study – in direct conversation with the main author. Fourth, participants entered the course having explicitly written down their own narrative of how they think their research connects to societal transformation. By making these explicit and exploring a range of artistic methods for narrative expression, participants were encouraged to explore their assumptions, tensions, and transform both the content and expression of their narratives throughout the course”.

Esther shares an example of the contributions that the diverse team brought to the course: “We were very lucky to be able to involve an incredibly diverse teaching team to bring these critical perspectives as well as guide innovative exercises. One of these was led by Esha Shah of the Water Resources Management group. She used a powerful science fiction story – “The ones who walk away from Omelas” to engage participants to explore what it is about our own knowledge, feelings and humanity that trigger us to take action in response to an injustice.”

Creating a safe learning space

Boundary crossing courses require bravery not only by the instructors, but also by the participants as one student reflects: “To be transformative requires to be brave and think out of the box, crossing boundaries. Thank you [the course contributors] for showing me that is possible”. This requires careful preparation of the educational ambience/space and facilitation as Esther explains: “I think there were a number of reasons why the course was so successful. A first reason is that there was a strong emphasis from the start on creating an open space, where the lecturers were as motivated to share and learn as the students. Part of this open space was the recognition of diversity in backgrounds, values, and motivations.”

Josie shares: “We wanted to create a space where PhD candidates could critically reflect on the narratives that drive how they seek to create change in the world. In order to do this, we felt we had to create a very different kind of learning environment to what is traditionally done. Instead of only emphasizing the theory and knowledge of different approaches to transformative societal change, we also sought to bring emotions and humanity back into what are too often overly sterilized academic spaces.”

The space enabled open dialogue among participants to explore new and challenging ideas. Josie notes that the course design: “allowed the participants to really connect and bring up their fears and vulnerabilities of how they do research, and open up to each other to create a real support network that has continued after the course. We did this through several participatory methods – like deep conversations across opinion lines, role plays, science fiction that makes you think in new ways, etc. We were blown away by the substantial transformations that participants showed in their thinking about how to go about research, as well as their clear sense of empowerment to do research in different ways.” Please follow this link to view the narratives participants developed during the course.

Their efforts to create a safe space were felt by the students. For example, Stella Juventia, a student who followed the course affirms that “the open and safe space created by everyone involved in the course enabled me (coming from a natural science background) to have courage and an open mind to fully follow the course and listen to others’ perspectives without judgment. They say you cannot empower someone else; you can only create a condition for him/her to grow. This is exactly what the course did to me. I feel empowered. And I don’t think that is an overstatement.”

Seeds of opportunities

The impacts of the course were not limited to the duration of the two-week sessions. As one student expressed: “Something has awoken in me that has been dormant for a long time. I feel wonder and creativity and I owe it to this course and community. This is a beautiful thing that you all have created.” This sentiment is shared by other participants as well as the instructors. Esther shares: “Importantly, this course led to the building of new relationships – among participants with their own narratives of change, as well in creating a network that has outlasted the course and sparked follow up actions.” For many of the students, the course “planted many seeds of transformative ideas, hope, warmth, community and inspiration through this course. I am so happy to see them germinating and developing in wonderful, rich and diverse patches of flowers.”

Along with a growing community of transformative thinkers, this course is an inspiring example for further innovative education design. Peter reflects on the course outcomes: “What I want participants (and WIMEK staff) to take from this course is the belief that we need all diversity and creativity we can gather; and that therefore there is room for people with different approaches and a different vision of research than are currently dominant in science”. He would love to see courses that follow up on “the how and when” for transformative and transdisciplinary education.

The course was described as a “turning point” for many participants and instructors and is set to continue. The course contributors see this as a beginning and are not sitting still. They are planning future cross-university collaborations to find ways of tackling new generation education. Josie is working on a guide so that other instructors can lead this course and make the experience more accessible to educators and students outside of Europe. Jeanne also wants to look at training opportunities for more established researchers: “I would really like to think about how we can develop a course for existing career researchers as I think there are some very hungry researchers looking for ways to better engage society”.

Josie’s advice to others designing transformative and transdisciplinary courses is, “it is important to design the course in a way that strikes a balance between critique and hope. Witnessing the first version of this course – I was struck by the importance of creating a safe space that is both conceptually precise about the critique that is brought in, but also cultivates a safe space to explore people’s genuine fears and doubts. This meant designing a space with not only knowledge/content in mind, but also constant reflection and sharing of feelings around why we are doing this kind of work, and the emotions it raises in us. The kinds of connections that formed between participants and teachers of varied backgrounds were absolutely crucial for the transformations in perspectives that occurred.”

The second edition of the course is planned for the autumn of 2022. For more information, please see Transformative research for global social-environmental challenges – SENSE or check out Josie’s (@jo_chamb) and Esther’s (@EstherTurnhout) Twitter accounts.

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Jillian Student

WIMEK Postdoc on Transdisciplinary Research

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