International Review of Education

, Volume 63, Issue 6, pp 897–914 | Cite as

Transgressing the norm: Transformative agency in community-based learning for sustainability in southern African contexts

  • Heila Lotz-SisitkaEmail author
  • Mutizwa Mukute
  • Charles Chikunda
  • Aristides Baloi
  • Tichaona Pesanayi
Original Paper


Environment and sustainability education processes are often oriented to change and transformation, and frequently involve the emergence of new forms of human activity. However, not much is known about how such change emerges from the learning process, or how it contributes to the development of transformative agency in community contexts. The authors of this article present four cross-case perspectives of expansive learning and transformative agency development in community-based education in southern Africa, studying communities pursuing new activities that are more socially just and sustainable. The four cases of community learning and transformative agency focus on the following activities: (1) sustainable agriculture in Lesotho; (2) seed saving and rainwater harvesting in Zimbabwe; (3) community-based irrigation scheme management in Mozambique; and (4) biodiversity conservation co-management in South Africa. The case studies all draw on cultural-historical activity theory to guide learning and change processes, especially third-generation cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT), which emphasises expansive learning in collectives across interacting activity systems. CHAT researchers, such as the authors of this article, argue that expansive learning can lead to the emergence of transformative agency. The authors extend their transformative agency analysis to probe if and how expansive learning might also facilitate instances of transgressing norms – viewed here as embedded practices which need to be reframed and changed in order for sustainability to emerge.


community learning expansive learning transformative learning transformative agency education for sustainable development 


Transgresser la norme : l’agentivité transformatrice dans l’apprentissage communautaire pour la viabilité en Afrique australe – Les processus d’éducation à l’environnement et au développement durable sont souvent orientés vers le changement et la transformation, et impliquent fréquemment l’émergence de nouvelles formes d’activité humaine. La façon dont ce type de changement découle de la démarche éducative et dont il contribue au développement d’une agentivité transformatrice dans les contextes collectifs est néanmoins peu connue. Les auteurs de l’article présentent quatre perspectives transversales de l’apprentissage expansif et du développement de l’agentivité transformatrice dans l’éducation communautaire en Afrique australe, à travers l’étude de communautés poursuivant de nouvelles activités socialement plus équitables et pérennes. Ces quatre cas d’apprentissage communautaire et d’agentivité transformatrice déploient les activités suivantes : 1) agriculture pérenne au Lesotho, 2) conservation des semences et récupération pluviale au Zimbabwe, 3) gestion communautaire du réseau d’irrigation au Mozambique, 4) cogestion pour la conservation de la biodiversité en Afrique du Sud. Ces études de cas s’appuient toutes sur la théorie historico-culturelle de l’activité (cultural-historical activity theory, CHAT) pour guider les processus d’apprentissage et de changement, notamment la troisième génération de la CHAT qui valorise l’apprentissage expansif en collectivité dans le cadre de systèmes interactifs d’activité. Les chercheurs en CHAT, dont les auteurs de l’article, argumentent que l’apprentissage expansif peut favoriser l’apparition d’une agentivité transformatrice. Les auteurs approfondissent leur analyse d’une agentivité transformatrice pour examiner si et comment l’apprentissage expansif peut aussi favoriser les circonstances dans lesquelles des normes sont transgressées – présentées ici comme les pratiques intégrées devant être recadrées et changées pour que puisse s’instaurer la pérennité.



The research in the case studies above was supported from various sources, including the South African Qualifications Authority, the South African Water Research Commission, the South Africa-Netherlands Partnership for Academic Development (SANPAD), the National Research Foundation SARChI Chair on Transformative Social Learning and Green Skills Learning Pathways, and contributes to the International Social Sciences Council Transformations to Sustainability T-learning programme focusing on Transformative, Transgressive Learning in Times of Climate Change.


  1. Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bakhurst, D. (1991). Consciousness and revolution in Soviet philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baloi, A. (2016). Exploring transformative social learning and sustainability in irrigation schemes contexts. Draft PhD thesis. Rhodes University Environmental Learning Research Centre, Grahamstown, South Africa.Google Scholar
  4. Belay Ali, M. (2014). Participatory mapping for intergenerational learning and resilience in Ethiopia. In P. B. Corcoran & B. P. Hollingshead (Eds.), Intergenerational learning and transformative leadership for sustainable futures. Wageningen Academic Publishers: Wageningen.Google Scholar
  5. Bhaskar, R. (1993). Dialectic: The pulse of freedom. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  6. Bird, K., & Shepherd, A. (2003). Chronic poverty in semi-arid Zimbabwe. Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC) Working Paper No. 18, June 2003. London: Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Retrieved 15 September 2016 from
  7. Blackmore, C., Chabay, I., Collins, K., Gutscher, H., Lotz-Sisitka, H.B., McCauley, S., Niles, D., Pfeiffer, E., Ritz,C., Schmidt, F., Schreurs, M., Siebenhüner, B., Tabara, D., & van Eijndhoven. J. (2011). Knowledge, learning, and societal change: Finding paths to a sustainable future. Science plan for a cross-cutting core project of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). Berne: IHDP. Retrieved 30 August 2017 from
  8. Bonarjee, M. B. (2013). 3 decades of land reform in Zimbabwe: Perspectives of social justice & poverty alleviation. Bergen: Bergen Ressurssenter for Internasjonal Utvikling Seminar Paper. Retrieved 28 January 2016 from
  9. Carruthers, J. (2006). Tracking in game trails: Looking afresh at the politics of environmental history in South Africa. Environmental History, 11(4), 804–829.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cheru, F. (2002). African renaissance: Roadmaps to the challenge of globalisation. London: ZED Books.Google Scholar
  11. Chikunda, C. (2016). Field records. Legalameetse Co-Management Property Association (CPA) Agreement Development. Hoedspruit: Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD).Google Scholar
  12. Cundill, G., & Rodela, R. (2012). A review of assertions about the processes and outcomes of social learning in natural resource management. Journal of Environmental Management, 113, 7–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Davydov, V. V. (2008). Problems of developmental instruction: A theoretical and experimental psychological study. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.Google Scholar
  14. Donati, P., & Archer, M. (2015). The relational subject. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Emirbayer, M. (1997). Manifesto for a relational sociology. American Journal of Sociology, 103(2), 281–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Engeström, Y. (2000). Activity theory as a framework for analysing and redesigning work. Ergonomics, 43(7), 960–974.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Engeström, Y. (2011). From design experiments to formative interventions. Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 598–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Engeström, Y. (2016). Studies in expansive learning: Learning what is not yet there. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2010). Studies of expansive learning: Foundations, findings and future challenges. Educational Research Review, 5(1), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Engeström, Y., Sannino, A., & Virkkunen, J. (2014). On the methodological demands of formative interventions. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 21(2), 118–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Engeström, Y., & Virkkunen, J. (2007). Muutoslaboratorio – kehittävän työntutkimuksen uusi vaihe [Change laboratory – the new phase of developmental work research]. In E. Ramstad & T. Alasoini (Eds), Työelämän tutkimusavusteinen kehittäminen Suomessa. Lähestymistapoja, menetelmiä, kokemuksia, tulevaisuuden haasteita [Research-assisted development of working life in Finland: Approaches, methods, experiences, future challenges]. Tykes-raportteja, 53. 67–88.Google Scholar
  22. Ferguson, J. (2006). Global shadows: Africa in the neo-liberal world order. Durham and London: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Findlay, S. (2015). Review of co-management strategies in South Africa: Attempts to reconcile land restitution, biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. Unpublished report submitted to the RESILIM-O project, Association of Water and Rural Development, South Africa. 31 March. Hoedspruit: Association of Water and Rural Development (AWARD).Google Scholar
  24. Freire, P. (2006). Pedagogy of the oppressed. 30th anniversary edn. New York: Continuum.Google Scholar
  25. Geels, F. W. (2010). Ontologies, socio-technical transitions (to sustainability), and the multi-level perspective. Research Policy, 39(4), 495–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Haapasaari, A, Engeström, Y., & Kerosuo, H. (2012). The emergency of learner’s transformative agency in a change laboratory intervention. Conference paper. 28th EGOS Colloquium. July 5–7, 2012, Helsinki, Finland.Google Scholar
  27. Heikkila, H., & Seppänen, L. (2014). Examining developmental dialogue: The emergence of transformative agency. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 15(2), 05–30.Google Scholar
  28. Il’enkov, E. V. (1977). Dialectical logic: Essays on its history and theory. Moscow: Progress.Google Scholar
  29. Il’enkov, E. V. (1982). The dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in Marx’s Capital. Moscow: Progress.Google Scholar
  30. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). (2014). Climate change: Impacts, adaptation, vulnerability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Krasny, M. E., & Tidball, K. G. (2012). Civic ecology: A pathway for Earth Stewardship in cities. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 10(5), 267–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lewis, P. A. (2002). Agency, structure and causality in political science: A comment on Sibeon. Politics, 22(1), 17–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lotz-Sisitka, H. (Ed.). (2012). (Re)views on social learning literature: A monograph for social learning researchers in natural resources management and environmental education. Grahamstown: Rhodes University, Environmental Learning Research Centre.Google Scholar
  34. Lotz-Sisitka, H., Wals, A. E., Kronlid, D., & McGarry, D. (2015). Transformative, transgressive social learning: Rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 16, 73–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mabeza, C. M. (2016). Marrying water and soil: Adaptation to climate by a smallholder farmer in Zvishavane, rural Zimbabwe. Doctoral dissertation, University of Cape Town.Google Scholar
  36. Mlambo, A. S. (2014). A history of Zimbabwe. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Mukute, M. (2010). Exploring and expanding farmers learning of sustainable development practices in three southern African case study contexts. Unpublished PhD thesis. Grahamstown: Rhodes University.Google Scholar
  38. Mukute, M. (2016). Dialectical critical realism and cultural historical activity theory (CHAT): Exploring and expanding learning processes in sustainable agriculture workplace contexts. In L. Price & H. B. Lotz-Sisitka (Eds) 2016. Critical realism, environmental learning and social-ecological change, pp. 190–211. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  39. Mukute, M., & Lotz-Sisitka, H. (2012). Working with cultural historical activity theory and critical realism to expand farmer learning in southern Africa. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(4), 342–367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Muro, M., & Jeffrey, P. (2008). A critical review of the theory and application of social learning in participatory natural resources management processes. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 51(3), 325–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. O’Brian, K., Wolf, J., & Sygna, L. (Eds.). (2013). The changing environment for human security: New agendas for research, policy and action. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  42. O’Donoghue, R. B. (2016). Working with critical realist perspective and tools at the interface of indigenous and scientific knowledge in a science curriculum setting. In L. Price & H. B. Lotz-Sisitka (Eds.), Critical realism, environmental learning and social-ecological change, pp. 159–178. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. Pahl-Wostl, C. (2009). A conceptual framework for analysing adaptive capacity and multi-level learning processes in resource governance regimes. Global Environmental Change, 19(3), 354–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Pahl-Wostl, C., Craps, M., Dewulf, A., Mostert, E., Tabara, D., & Taillieu, T. (2007). Social learning and water resource management. Ecology and Society, 12(2) [online].Google Scholar
  45. Pahl-Wostl, C., & Hare, M. (2004). Processes of social learning in integrated resources management. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 14(3), 193–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Parliament of South Africa. (1913). Natives Land Act No. 27 of 2013. Cape Town: Parliament of (the Union of) South Africa.Google Scholar
  47. Pepeteka, T. (2013). Reversing the legacy of the 1913 Natives Land Act: Progress of land reform. Pretoria: Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, Research Unit.Google Scholar
  48. Pesanayi, T. V. (2016). Exploring contradictions and absences in mobilizing “learning as process” for sustainable agricultural practices. In L. Price & H. Lotz-Sisitka (Eds.), Critical realism, environmental learning and social-ecological change (pp. 230–253). London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  49. Pesanayi, T. V. (2017). Exploring boundary-crossing expansive learning of alternative sustainable agricultural water and seed in learning networks of agricultural colleges, farmers and extension in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Draft PhD thesis, Rhodes University Environmental Learning Research Centre, Grahamstown, South Africa.Google Scholar
  50. Reed, M. S., Evely, A. C., Cundill, G., Fazey, I., Glass, J., Laing, A., Newig, J., Parrish, B., Prell, C., Raymond, C., & Stringer, L. C. (2010). What is social learning? Ecology and Society, 15(4), r1. [online]. Retrieved 6 September 2017 from
  51. SADC REEP (Southern African Development Community Regional Environmental Education Programme). (2014). Learning for a sustainable future. 15 years of Swedish-SADC co-operation in environment and sustainability education. Howick: SADC REEP.Google Scholar
  52. Sannino, A. (2008). From talk to action experiencing interlocution in developmental interventions. Mind, Culture and Activity, 15, 234–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Sannino, A. (2011). Activity theory as an activist and interventionist theory. Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 571–597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Sannino, A., Engeström, Y., & Lemos, M. (2016). Formative interventions for expansive learning and transformative agency. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 599–633.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Scoones, I., Marongwe, N., Mavedzenge, B., Mahenehe, J., Murimbarimba, F., & Sukume, C. (2010). Zimbabwe’s land reform. Myths and realities. Woodbridge: James Currey.Google Scholar
  56. Sibeon, R. (1999). Agency, structure and social chance as cross-disciplinary concepts. Politics, 19(3), 139–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Sol, J., & Wals, A. E. (2015). Strengthening ecological mindfulness through hybrid learning in vital coalitions. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 10(1), 203–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Swilling, M. (2013). Economic crisis, long waves and the sustainability transition: An African perspective. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 6, 96–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Tilbury, D. (2011). Education for sustainable development: An expert review of processes and learning. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  60. Virkkunen, J., & Newnham, D. S. (2013). The change laboratory: A tool for developing work and education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wals, A. E. (Ed.). (2007). Social learning towards a sustainable world: Principles, perspectives, and praxis. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  62. Wals, A. E., & Heymann, F. V. (2004). Learning on the edge: Exploring the change potential of conflict in social learning for sustainable living. In A. L. Wenden (Ed.), Educating for a culture of social and ecological peace (pp. 123–145). New York: Suny Press.Google Scholar
  63. Wals, A. E., & Schwarzin, L. (2012). Fostering organizational sustainability through dialogic interaction. The Learning Organization, 19(1), 11–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wals, A. E. J., van der Hoeven, N., & Blanken, H. (2009). The acoustics of social learning: Designing learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  65. Witoshynsky, M. (2000). The water harvester. Harare: Weaver Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rhodes University Environmental Learning Research CentreRhodes UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Association for Water and Rural DevelopmentRhodes UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations