Education for Sustainability, Transformative Sustainability Learning and Voluntoursim by Elizabeth Nicolson



For over 12 years in cooperation with the International Student Volunteers organisation we have been running 2 week programs at Wild Mountains with University students aged between 18 and 24 and in the midst of their undergraduate degrees. Mostly American and Canadian, they tend to be from white middle to upper class segments of their society. Their scholastic backgrounds differ greatly with majors in a variety of subject areas. The majority of students have very little background knowledge of environmental/sustainability issues.

A new masters report undertaken by Lilli Nicholson looks at how influential the ISV program at Wild Mountains from over a 4 year period has been to the lives of the participants. The results indicate that a large majority of participants go on to implement behavioral changes for sustainability in their day-to-day lives once they return home. This in particular is a significant finding.

From a 75% student response rate some of the highlights as a result of being on the program at Wild Mountains are:

41% have changed their university study major to what can be classified as sustainability majors.

80% indicated that the focus of their life has changed.

38% indicated that their key learning/s were around realising that their previous way of life was unsustainable.

40% indicated they learnt that sustainable living is possible with the WMT experiential environment demonstrating how this can be done.

13% indicated the sustainable lifestyle demonstrated at WMT tended to be happier and more fulfilling than their own pre-project ways of living.

97% rated the importance of the place, Wild Mountains in facilitating learning/s as being very important.

16% indicated their greatest learning was around the need to stay open to different opinions/ideas.

Despite more than 40 years of environmental education, as a global community we are still facing serious environmental change directly linked to a way of being in the world that is unsustainable. In recent years, much academic literature points to the need for environmental education to move towards transformative learning. This research explores the value of Education for Sustainability and Transformative Sustainability Learning in starting to address the gap between knowledge acquisition and action/behavior change in environmental education.

There is much more work (including post program support) that we will need to do to make this and future programs even more powerful and effective.

See below for the full report...




















Education for Sustainability, Transformative Sustainability Learning and Voluntoursim-

a synthesis of transformative and environmental pedagogies for lasting social change.







Despite more than 40 years of environmental education, as a global community we are still facing serious environmental change directly linked to a way of being in the world that is unsustainable. In recent years, much academic literature points to the need for environmental education to reconsider its founding pedagogy and move towards transformative learning. This research explores the value of Education for Sustainability and Transformative Sustainability Learning in starting to address the gap between knowledge acquisition and action/behavior change in environmental education. The research focuses upon a voluntourism program at Wild Mountains Trust in Southeast Queensland. Via data collected from field observations and a survey of past participants, the research demonstrates that by using a number of methods that align with the guiding principles of both Education for Sustainability and Transformative Sustainability Learning, the program at Wild Mountains Trust enables the transformation of its participants. The results also indicate that a large majority of participants go on to implement behavioral changes for sustainability in their day-to-day lives once they return home. This in particular is a significant finding that addresses a current gap in academic knowledge around the post-program impact of environmental education initiatives. It suggests that there is great benefit in utilising the pedagogy of transformative learning in environmental education programs to instigate the scale of change needed to address global environmental problems.            



Context and Rational


Using an analysis of the International Student Volunteers (ISV) program at the Wild Mountains Trust (WMT), this research will explore the ways by which transformative learning pedagogy is being combined with environmental education and volunteer tourism (voluntourism) to create significant and lasting change for sustainability. In particular, the focus of the research is upon identifying the ways and drivers by which participants are affected by the program and the specific ways that they integrate these affects into their daily lives. I am interested in determining the most successful practices utilised as part of the current ISV program at WMT in creating long term post-program change. This study draws upon experiences in my professional career and my interests in an ecocentric paradigm. It builds upon and brings together some of the facets of education which I have studied as part of my Masters studies over the past two years as well content from my Undergraduate Degree in Environmental Management.


This is a current and topical issue for two specific reasons. Firstly, despite there being a growing number of environmental education programs globally, the way of life of the modern world continues to be conducted in a manner which has significant impacts upon the life supporting systems of earth. There seems to be a gap between environmental knowledge and sustainability practice which is only recently being critiqued and reconciled via an exploration of the pedagogies employed for environmental programs (Frisk & Larson 2011 and; Kovan & Dirkx 2003). Secondly, there is a significant lack of evidence in academic research to outline if and how environmental education participants integrate their learning post-program once they return to home their daily routines.    


WMT is a not-for-profit environmental education centre located within the Border Ranges National Park precinct in Southeast Queensland. It is a remote site which is accessible only by 4WD vehicle, at least one hour from the nearest township, without mobile telephone reception, internet or exposure to many aspects of modernity. The site is not serviced by electricity, waste, sewerage or water infrastructure. Participants are accommodated in permanent tent style structures and most of the daily activities occur outside. For the majority of the year, Wild Mountains facilitates an environmental education program with primary school students. Staff are skilled in environmental education as well what can be loosely termed transformative styles of learning via the work of Van Matre (1990).  


Over the past four years I have been a Project Leader with ISV a not-for-profit ‘voluntourism’ company that facilitates conservation and community development experiences for international university students via host providers such as the WMT. ISV Participants are aged between 18 and 24 years old although they primarily tend to be aged between 19 and 21 years of age and in the midst of their undergraduate degrees. Mostly American and Canadian, they tend to be from white middle to upper class segments of their society. Their scholastic backgrounds differ greatly with majors in a variety of subject areas such as- accounting, biological science, visual art, physiotherapy, psychology, engineering etc. The majority of students have very little background knowledge of environmental/sustainability issues[1].


During our two-week visits, ISV participants are involved in helping to caretake the centre primarily through conservation work (removal of weeds and tree planting) as well as some construction/maintenance of buildings and educational trails. My role as a Project Leader with this company involves coordinating the educative side of the project with a particular focus upon Education for Sustainability (EfS), ensuring the day to day functioning and well being of the group as well as acting as an interface between the participants and WMT.


Over the past four years that I have worked at WMT via ISV, I have observed changes in participants whilst they are on project, whereby they undergo a series of profound experiences that clearly align with transformative learning pedagogy. The type of change that they undergo appears to centre upon the key tenants of sustainability. Based upon this, it is tempting to argue that by utilising a transformative learning framework and EfS principles, WMT and ISV are engendering change for sustainability. However, there is no way to know what happens to participants and their transformations once they leave the bubble of learning offered by WMT and return home. As EfS practitioners, we are thus limited in our ability to confidently advocate and finesse our work as we cannot be sure that sustainability based change experienced whilst on project, automatically leads to behavior change post-program. Nor can we accurately know what truly has an affect and how.


The key goals that this research seeks to explore are therefore twofold-     


·      To determine how might the learning program provided to ISV participants at WMT, lead to a transformation in its participants.

·      To determine what extent the WMT program engenders action for sustainability once participants return home.


It is expected that the results will provide insight into the value of EfS in starting to address the gap between knowledge and action/behavior change in environmental education whilst simultaneously highlighting the value of voluntourism programs that utilize transformative and/or EfS pedagogy. The research uses results from an anonymous open-ended survey combined with my own personal observations of practices (what they are and their immediate affects) with focus upon the experiences of a small number of participants that have taken part in recent voluntourism programs at WMT. The results are explored via a thematic analysis of the frameworks offered by transformative and EfS pedagogies drawing upon the Transformative Sustainability Learning (TSL) model that is offered by Sipos, Battisti and Grimm (2008).



Literature Review


Knowledge of environmental degradation and the impacts associated with human progress has been building since Rachel Carson’s work in the 1960s (Carson 1962). Since this time, environmental education programs have also been growing as a way of trying to re-define and re-chart the course of development to be aligned with ecological limits (Hawken 2007). Despite this, the impact of the modern human lifestyle- the rate at which we collectively consume resources and produce waste- upon the livability of the planet for the future generations of all life forms, does not seem to be changing in a way that will prevent dire scenarios for the future (Macy 1993; Norberg Hodge 1992 and; Taylor 2008). As there is a vast body of multi-disciplinary research into the nature and causes of environmental degradation, it does not seem to be a lack of information that is preventing us from changing our behavior and way of relating to life on earth. It is likely that one of the reasons for the lag in behavior change relates to the lack of effectiveness of the educational pedagogies previously chosen to guide environmental education (Plotkin 2008).


Frisk and Larson (2011: 117) argue that ‘the lack of efficacy in sustainability-related educational programs is at least in part due to faulty assumptions about knowledge automatically leading to action’. In a linear fashion, we tend to assume that knowledge of the environment will engender care for the environment. Educators tend to ignore the premise that the kind of physical day-to-day activities that are required to enable a caring, responsible attitude towards the environment (or at least an understanding that we are a part of it and thus dependent upon its wellbeing), involve two significant components- a values change away from materialism and behavior changes that are often counter to the norms of our dominant culture (Kovan and Dirkx 2003 and; Tilbury, Coleman & Garlick 2005). As articulated by Armstrong (2009: 189) ‘solutions to our ecological crisis require dramatic ontological/cultural shifts in how we understand ourselves in relation to the world and each other.’ Much of what we have termed ‘environmental education’ falls short of enabling this kind of shift (Ferreira 2009: 608).


As a result of a preoccupied focus upon building environmental awareness rather than enabling an exploration of values and associated behavioral changes, educators end up with a range of post-program reactions. Some participants feel so depressed or overwhelmed by the state of the planet that they end up paralyzed by fear and are disempowered to act. The problem becomes too big which can often move them into a state of ‘I don’t care’ or a state of subjective existence whereby participants choose to ignore what they have learnt as the reality of it is too complex and thus too difficult to deal with (Macy 1993 and; Jensen 2004).


Foyster (2011) explores another challenging aspect of environmental education that also needs to be considered. He outlines a state of cognitive dissonance whereby despite knowing about environmental problems and even advocating the importance of addressing environmental concerns, individuals fail to see how their own behavior directly contributes to the state of the world and that they themselves need to change in order to orchestrate broader cultural change. For example, on the one hand they may be advocating the need to address climate change whilst on the other continuing to have excessively long showers or driving a large car. In such instances, knowledge is built however behavior does not significantly change (Denzin & Lincoln 2008; Tordes 2007).


A large body of academic work suggests that in order to be more successful in terms of instigating long term change, environmental education programs and approaches should be based upon critical pedagogies including the transformative learning framework instigated by Bateson and Mezirow (Alsop, Dippo & Zandvliet 2007; Ferreira 2009; Tilbury, Coleman & Garlick 2005). Transformative learning theory explores the links between knowledge and action emphasizing the importance of learning that alters a participants view of the world and perhaps more importantly their place in it (McWhinney & Markos 2003; Dirkx, Mezirow & Cranton 2006 and; O’Sullivan 2001). Via three key modes of operation- critical reflection, discourse and action- transformative learning has long been used to instigate social change (Ebert, Burford & Brian 2003: 336). Morrell and O’Connor (2002: xvii) describe transformative learning as ‘a deep, structural shift in basic premises of thought, feelings and actions…..a shift of consciousness that dramatically and permanently alters our way of being in the world.’ 


More recently via a unified approach afforded by the emergent field of Education for Sustainability (EFS), a synthesis of critical and transformative learning, systems thinking and ecological discourse is occurring in a manner envisioned by scholars such as O’Sullivan (2000) only a decade ago (Sipos et. al. 2008; Summer 2001; Tooth & Renshaw 2009). ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ is ‘a concept that encompasses a new vision of education that seeks to empower people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future.’ (UNESCO 2005: 5). 


The work of Sipos et. al. (2008: 69) further adds to the growing field of practice which synthesises environmental and critical/transformative pedagogies. They offer a framework of transformative sustainability learning (TSL) around the organizing principle of head, hands and heart building upon the work of environmental educators such as Van Matre and mirroring the ‘thought, feeling and action’ organizing principle coined by Mezirow (O’Sullivan 2000: 29 and; Van Matre 1990). Their work practically demonstrates the potential for transformative learning frameworks to be utilised to engender and facilitate sustainability as a way of being in the world rather than just a way of thinking about the world. The focal point becomes long term behavioral change. 


Coghlan and Gooch (2011) identify the opportunities to apply transformative learning theories to ‘voluntourism’- volunteer based tourism- in order to make such programs more meaningful in creating change for sustainability. They clarify the need to ensure that such programs do more than just tree planting. Instead they highlight the opportunity offered by the application of transformative learning to volunteer programs in terms of transforming students, their view of the world and thus their ability to engender sustainability in their day-to-day lives once they return home.


Over 10 years, environmental education within the context of the ISV program at WMT has moved from an approach based in traditional environmental education pedagogy (knowledge acquisition) to a method based in TSL in alignment with the above mentioned literature. With this change there has been immediate success for the program evidenced by the comments made by students to the program’s educators, as well as comments and feedback made via more formal process. Feedback forms indicate that the majority of students leave the program feeling enthused and empowered by their time at WMT and ready to instigated relevant behavioural change to start living sustainably. What has remained unknown about the WMT program is the long term, post-program impact of this approach and thus whether or not it is actually effective in enabling integrated behavioural change when the participants return home to their routines and culture. It can also be said that this is an area of study missing from environmental education in general with little longitudinal and/or long term evidence to support any kind of theory of change.


The intent of this research is therefore twofold. Firstly, it aims to add to the body of academic work that identifies the opportunity and value in integrating transformative learning and EfS with voluntourism to create lasting behavioural change for sustainability (Coghlan & Gooch 2011). Secondly, the research aims to contribute to a large vacuum that currently exists in academic research, that being critical reflection upon how and perhaps most importantly, if transformative learning praxis fosters long term/post-program behavior change in the context of EfS. This is particularly relevant within the growing field of EfS which strongly advocates the need for greater focus upon critical/transformative pedagogies by sustainability practitioners.




Due to the nature of the research, the chosen methodology was drawn from the broad field of Qualitative Research. As a key area of inquiry looks at the ways by which the ISV program at WMT is (or is not) successful in transforming participants, in many aspects the research is based in the Qualitative Research genre of Evaluation. However as the intent of the research is to refine my professional practice as well as the practice of other staff at WMT- in terms of being able to identify and strengthen the overall program for creating long lasting change- the methodology is really based in the genre of Action Research (Lapan et. al. 2012 and; Saldana 2011).           


Three methods were chosen- a literature review, survey and field observations. The research goals were twofold each with differing contexts. The first (to determine how might the learning program lead to transformation in its participants) was explored via all three methods. The method of personal field observations was chosen as it allowed me to gather detailed data of the immediate impact of the program on its participants. I felt that this method allowed me to capture key aspects of the program such as uncensored reactions to different conditions, tasks and process. Field observations are arguably the best method for capturing this kind of data (Arksey & Knight 1999; McMillan 2003). This method also allowed me as a practitioner to begin to reflect upon my own practice and role in the program which aligns with the intent of Action Research. I kept a detailed journal of my observations of participant behavioral responses and comments whilst on multiple projects at WMT in 2011. My field observations also explored what I felt worked/did not work and why. After the projects, I organised my field notes into major themes drawing from key theories the Transformative Sustainability Learning (TSL) model that is offered by Sipos et. al. (2008). This enabled a thematic analysis of the data (detailed below). Coupled with the results to a survey (also detailed below) these methods allowed me to explore the practices that are of most benefit in transforming students at WMT (Arksey & Knight 1999; McMillan 2003; Berg 2009; Hancock & Algozzine 2000 and; Hart 2000).



I chose the method of a survey to specifically address the second goal (to what extent the program engendered change post-program) and to provide primary data for my field observations and the first research goal. The survey consisted of 8 short answer/open ended questions and 2 scored questions that explored the level of transformation that participants experienced on project, what the catalysts of transformation were and to what extent participants have been able to integrate transformations at home (Appendix 1). The survey was posted to previous WMT participants on Facebook using the survey provider Survey Monkey. This allowed for participants to submit anonymous responses. All forty eight participants of ISV at WMT during winter programs between 2009 and 2011 were invited to participate. Thirty six participants completed the survey indicating a success rate of 75% providing adequate data for the research (Palys 2003). This method was considered to be the most appropriate as it allowed for anonymity which I felt was important in gathering the best possible data. As I had been the project leader for the participants, I was concerned that other methods (such as a focus group or interviews) would be skewed by my relationship with the subjects. This method was also appropriate because it allowed me to access students that were in other countries. 


A literature review provided the overall theory that formed the basis for a thematic analysis of the data collected via field observations and the survey. The literature (especially the work of Sipos et. al. (2008)) provided clear reference points in determining if and how a transformation in students had taken place thus addressing the first goal of the research. Data gathered via survey questions 5, 6 and 7 was used to specifically address the second goal of the research. The raw data from these questions was analysed and grouped into similar themes. This was done three times until a clear set of activities (9 in total) could be identified. The raw data was then reassessed and a value of 1 was given each time that the activity was mentioned.    


These methods were seen as being the most appropriate way to gather data that would provide more specific understanding of the practice at WMT that potentially affects both in-field experiences and post-program participant behavioral change for sustainability. These methods allowed the research to clearly identify what elements are of most benefit to the program and the areas of practice that can be strengthened.




Results and Discussion


We must break form to be transformed

(Schroeder 1998: 91).



The first part of this research aims to explore the ways and methods by which the ISV program at Wild Mountains transforms its participants. Berger (2004) as well as McWhinney and Markos (2003) highlight the importance of the liminal space found in transformative learning experiences where previous knowing and ways of being in the world are no longer valid and future ways of knowing and being are not yet known. They argue that the role of the educator in this kind of transformative experience is to- find the edge of the participants understanding, accompany them to the edge and help them construct a new, transformed place to occupy. This description closely follows what I have observed in participants (explored in quoted observations below) and succinctly describes as my role at WMT.


The preliminary and possibly most important component in discovering this liminal space and instigating transformative education is a disorienting dilemma (Mezirow 1991: 197). At Wild Mountains, this is provided to participants almost immediately. Participants find themselves in a foreign country, away from family and friends (often for the first time) with strangers. They are at a project location that is remote, in the wild and lacking the comforts that are expected aspects of modern life. This part of the journey represents the first edge that is found by participants- their whole comfort zone is directly assaulted by being at WMT and the edge of their previous understanding of the world is found.


I have often observed that participants seem disoriented during these first few days. They are strangely silent for a group of young adults, they find it difficult to make eye contact, they are silent at meal times, they clearly find it difficult to take in information (evidenced by a lack of response to questions or commands and repetitious questions) and I often overhear them complaining or expressing concerns to each other regarding the insects, the food, the cold or the actual isolation especially in terms of their disconnection from the outside world. Some participants respond to this edge in profound/ dramatic ways. 


One participant vehemently declared:


 ‘you mean to tell me that I won’t have any phone reception or access to Facebook the whole time? I mean I just don’t think I signed up for this. I am not cut out for this.’ 


During a different project, by the afternoon of the first day, a participant had withdrawn from the rest of the group and asked if she could rest in her tent for the afternoon. I engaged her in conversation regarding the nature of her fatigue and within a few moments she was crying. This participant stated:


‘I just can’t do this. This place is so foreign to me. I am actually scared to be here. I am afraid to use the composting toilet. I don’t know these people. I can’t do this. I am used to shopping at the mall with my friends. I can’t do this.’


When asked ‘what were the greatest challenges you faced whilst on project’ the results from the survey of previous participants confirmed that the foreign people and the foreign/isolated place provide the first edge in the transformation of participants.


Greatest challenges were dealing with the environments that we weren’t used to, and the creatures that inhabited them. It was challenging to cast aside my fear of spiders to get tasks done that would most likely have us running into them. It was also challenging to live in a manner that we were not used to, using out-houses, fire wood heated showers, and working without machinery of any sort.


I think my greatest challenge was not the work or the project itself, it was instead getting to know all the new people in the first couple days.


I believe that my greatest challenge was travelling alone to a foreign land.  I have travelled many places before, but this was the first time I went somewhere without knowing anyone ahead of time.  I was one of the older ones in the group, and my feelings that surfaced at the airport when I was getting ready to leave for Australia surprised me. 


The greatest challenge I would have to say was dealing the dynamics of such a diverse group of people. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the physical labour or lack of hot water or any of those ‘roughing it’ characteristics, I actually particularly enjoyed that. But, having a large group of people from all over the world in one place, all with their own very defined opinions, in a setting that encouraged debates and in depth conversations provided some unique challenges.


My hardest challenge was breaking out of my comfort zone being in a new place so far from home. I also had a hard time in the beginning dealing with the spiders, they are just creepy scary!


As argued by transformational learning theorists, for a transformation to occur, once disoriented, participants need to be supported into spaces of unknowing via critical examination or as phrased by Mezirow, emancipatory discourse (Elias 1997: 4). The results of the research indicated there were three key tools that ushered participants from the disorienting dilemma into the next stage of transformation- firstly Magic Spot sessions[2]; secondly, once past the initial shock, the actual experience of the WMT lifestyle and; thirdly, sustainability themed group discussions and activities.


On one project a number of participants were initially perturbed by and resistant to Magic Spot sessions. This was perhaps heightened by the challenging wet and cold weather that we were presented with in the first week of program. Three participants came to me on day two stating that they did not like Magic Spots and did not want to continue them any more. One stated that their Magic Spot had ‘no view’ and ‘too much mist’. Upon questioning one participant it was revealed that the mist frightened them as they tended to be afraid of the unknown. I requested that they stay open and continue the practice with the rest of the group. Over the next few days, all these participants who originally found an edge point in Magic Spots, began to undertake deeper learning. The main complainant found that the mist actually made them feel calm and comforted. Would this insight perhaps offer a new way to contemplate the unknowns in life?


Over the coming days they also realised that by sitting still they could observe subtleties in nature and in stillness itself. One participant commented that:


‘I learned that if I sat still enough, the spider would build a web across my fingers. This made me realise and think about what else in life I was missing out on by moving too quickly.’


By the end of the two weeks this participant decided that they found Magic Spots to be of such benefit that they would like to integrate magic spot sessions into their day-to-day lives back home. 


I have also observed that the film sessions and group learning games that are facilitated by myself and WMT staff also represent critical edge places and subsequent emancipatory discourse. During one program, a participant was strongly affected by two films that were shown. After the screening of the second film they declared that they were shocked by the content. They found that the films undermined long held values and understandings of life. Instead of jumping to a place of disbelief they found that they were in a place of bewilderment. They stated that they didn’t understand why:


‘we take from the land like this, why can’t we do stuff a better way. On one hand we are being told at home that economic growth is a good thing. Now I see that it impacts upon people and the earth and it doesn’t make people happy’.


Normally reserved and quiet, this passionate questioning marked a real place of transformation for this participant where their old way of seeing the world no longer fit and they began to ask critical reflective questions about their life.


When asked ‘what events triggered key learning/s’ some indicative responses from the survey included:


‘While at Wild Mountain’s we watched a few videos. One of the videos that I still think about often is The Story of Stuff. I remember you telling us about how you (Project Leader) took a survey of some sort and the results showed that it would require many Earths so support your lifestyle and how you had changed your habits and reduced that number to one and a half earths. I really saw the importance in what we do every day and how that does effect the environment.’


‘The video was moving, but it was more so your attitude and happiness you (Project Leader) got from the way you lived that stuck in my mind. You made it clear that material things are not what made you happy and buying used items or realising you didn’t require the said item in the first place made me realize how much of a consumer I am.’


‘Just being at Wild Mountains was an eye-opener, reusing everything and eating less meat and more vegetables and fruits, a complete lifestyle change.’


‘Everything we did was a learning experience. From how we cooked, what we cooked, how we warmed water, and the little things we did throughout the day, differently from what we would have at home, was a chance to learn.’


‘Magic Spots helped me connect with nature in such a profound way. Just sitting there and listening to birds and the breeze, words cannot describe the feeling unless you have experienced it. Also just doing work to help the environment is a big eye opener.’


‘The whole experience reinforced this (sustainability) idea.  It wasn’t just planting trees but certain lifestyle choices like diet, energy consumption, water use and understanding one’s connection with the environment via the Magic Spots.’


Over the years I have learnt that what is critical to the success of creating and sustaining the edge point and the following emancipatory discourse that is vital to transformative learning is being able to facilitate the delicate balance between identifying and assisting participants to locate and transcend their edge place- which is often uncomfortable- as opposed to pushing participants over an edge, which has detrimental effects for participants and their learning journey (Berger 2004). It is a balance between having participants being too comfortable, uncomfortable and completely out of their depth. When too comfortable they tend to not go to deeper levels of inquiry or noticeably change. When out of their depth they tend to shut down and resist learning opportunities. The place of optimal learning often characterised by an initial experience of being uncomfortable varies for each participant and is thus difficult to scaffold in a group of 15 participants.  


Essential to the success of this stage and to build personal efficacy in a transformed world, participants need to be supported by their guides (Schugurensky 2002: 73 and; Mayo 1999: 139). This idea is clearly demonstrated by the results of this research. WMT staff and I, work hard to support participants in their transformations in countless covert and overt ways. In supporting participants in transformation, staff aim to provide openings for people to push against an edge and then provide company for them at the precipice of change. (Berger 2004: 345). 100% of survey respondents felt that this role was important and effective, rating the role of mentors/staff as being ‘very important’ in facilitating their learning journey. A participant offered the following insight into this:


‘They (staff) perceived aspects of life that I had not considered, and showed me the importance of sustainability, patience, understanding, and above all else, determination……’


When asked what the greatest learning/s participants uncovered whilst on project, over 38% indicated that their key learning/s were around realising that their previous way of life was unsustainable. 40% indicated that through the WMT experience they learnt that sustainable living is possible with the WMT experiential environment demonstrating how this can be done. 13% of participants went on to indicate that the sustainable lifestyle demonstrated at WMT tended to be happier and more fulfilling than their own pre-project ways of living.


At first it was a real challenge to be there at WMT. I was afraid. But then I found that I actually felt happier there. More myself, more supported in being myself. Like what I look like, doesn’t matter as much as what I do for others. It made me realise that my friends back home may not be that good for me. They are superficial and cry over getting a jeep rather than a Mercedes.


When I was first at WMT I thought that it was the worst idea of my life and that I had made a terrible mistake. Now I realise that it was the best idea. It made me realise how selfish I had been in my life.


The WMT way of life made me realise that I was addicted to video games and Facebook.


I realised a lot about being myself. How much I worry about what other people think. At WMT I realised that it stresses me out. That it is really important to be myself no matter what others think.


This observation is supported by the work of Mezirow (1991: 5) around the significance of meaning making in transformative learning experiences where ‘experience strengthens our personal meaning systems by refocusing or extending our expectations about how things are supposed to be’.  These findings demonstrate the ways that the ISV experience at WMT is able to offer effective ‘EfS’ and related social change by utilising a transformative learning framework.


Interestingly, around 16% of participants indicated that their greatest learning was around the need to stay open to different opinions/ideas. This result parallels the central premise of Freire’s work in critical pedagogy, which identifies that critical thinking is paramount to individual and thus social change. In the words of Daloz (1999:141) this phase of the journey can be described as a perspective change ‘from I am right, to you are right to we both have rights.’ The work of Tilbury (2011) argues that learning critical thinking is actually central to sustainability and in some ways more important than learning how to recycle. Her work identifies critical thinking as the cornerstone in moving from environmental/sustainable knowledge into action. As such, a higher result in this area would be preferable. At WMT critical thinking is facilitated by the group discussions and activities such as the Collaborative Competencies[3] process. Prior to the research, I would have assumed that our ability to facilitate critical thinking was one of our greatest strengths. This result may indicate otherwise. It is possible that the methods chosen for this research were not specific enough to explore how critical thinking opportunities are offered by the program reducing the importance of this result. This is perhaps an area of weaknesses in this research. Because of this, it is hard to gauge if the program needs to strengthen this aspect of learning. It does however provide an area of practice (how actively we encourage/scaffold for critical thinking) for WMT staff and myself to consider more deeply in order to refine our work.  


97% of participants rated the importance of place in facilitating learning/s as being very important with the remaining 3% rating it as being important. These results highlight the importance of place in learning as identified by place-based pedagogical discourse (Holifield 2010; Jayanandhan 2009 and; Tooth & Renshaw 2009). This literature explores the link between the psyche and place arguing that in order to develop a sense of care for the environment, individuals must first have a relationship with it. They state that time in nature is an essential and often overlooked part of effective environmental education (Holifield 2010: 21 and; Jayanandhan 2009: 108). As many students on the ISV program come from urban environments and a cultural context that does not necessarily encourage relationship with the natural world, WMT as a place provides a platform for immersing in nature. In terms of EfS and TSL the actual place of WMT can in this way be seen as one of its key strengths.    


When these results are applied to the TSL framework offered by Sippos et. al. (2008), we can summarise that the head is engaged via sustainability themed discussions that engage critical thinking, systems thinking and cultivate an understanding of sustainability/global citizenship. The heart is primarily engaged via Magic Spots and the supportive space created by WMT and staff. The hands are most effectively activated via the actual practical work on program such as tree planting and most especially via the actual lifestyle and modelling of sustainable living offered by the experience at WMT. The results also clearly demonstrate that staff and the place itself are also key in engendering TSL at WMT.




‘You cannot be who you truly are until you can put what you remember into action in your life’

(Some 1994: 309).


The second goal of the research was to explore the extent to which the ISV program at WMT instigates action for sustainability once participants return home. Results from the survey indicate that participants emerge from their time at WMT with a different frame of reference which is key to transformative learning (Dirkx, Mezirow & Cranton 2006: 124). Also essential to this pedagogy is an ability to act upon self transformation within society (Cranton 2006: 20). The following section of the results will examine whether the changes in participants noticed on project, actually lead to action for sustainability once they return home. Action for sustainability is defined here as including critical reflection, lifestyle changes that are more compatible with the values of sustainability and an overall capacity for active participation in ones community (Tilbury 2011 and; Tilbury, Coleman & Garlick 2005).


To ascertain if they went on to implement the learning/s gained at WMT once they returned home, participants were asked three key questions-

·      What are three things/activities that you do now in your life that you did not do before your time on project?

·      Has your field of study changed as a result of your time on project?

·      Has the focus of your life changed as a result of your time on project?


In response to the first of these questions, it was found that the majority of participants implemented their new learning/s by enacting conservation based activities such as recycling and/or reducing resource consumption (Appendix 2). Changes in food purchasing to align with sustainability values (including buying locally, organic, going vegetarian or growing your own) was the second most sited implementation activity. Mindfulness practices including meditation and/or the continued practice of Magic Spots were equally sited as the second most rated implementation activity. In terms of the above mentioned definition of action for sustainability, these results indicate that participants went home to enact lifestyle values compatible with sustainability (Tilbury 2011 and; Tilbury, Coleman & Garlick 2005).


A significant number of participants identified that they also continued to develop/educate themselves on sustainability topics as well as educating others on what they had learnt as ways of implementing their WMT learning/s. This kind of result is illustrative of the cultivation of critical thinking skills which are of paramount importance to EfS and action for sustainability (Daloz 2008; Tilbury 2011 and; Tilbury, Coleman & Garlick 2005). Only one respondent felt that they did not enact any kind of change in their life once they returned home.


These results clearly indicate that WMT participants went on to enact what they learnt post-program. The question then centres on whether changing activities such as food habits, recycling and reducing resource consumption are enough to be considered in alignment with the kind of change referred to by transformative pedagogies and EfS. 


Kaufmann states that ‘action is paramount in critical pedagogy.’ (2010: 470). However Mezirow deepens Kaufmann’s point and stipulates that behaviour change is not enough and that ‘action in transformation theory is not only behaviour, the effect of a cause, but rather, ‘praxis’ the creative implementation of a purpose.’  (Mezirow 1991:12). In his work with Dirkx and Cranton, Mezirow clarifies this by indicating that when transformative, learning ‘deepens our sense of meaning in our lives. It can lead to deeper awareness and understanding of our role in life’ (2006:129). The work of other key transformative learning thinkers such as O’Sullivan (2001) and McWhinney and Markos (2003) also stress the importance of the ability of learning to affect one’s place in the world if it is truly to be considered as transformative.


It is interesting then to note that 41% of responding participants have changed their university study major to what can be classified as sustainability majors as a result of being on the program. In addition to this, 80% of participants indicated that the focus of their life has changed as a result of their time at WMT. Some of the ways in which the focus of their life has changed include:


The focus of my life has definitely changed. I focus much more on others and helping people and the environment. I no longer focus on myself and the people I know, I want to spread my knowledge and love all over the world.


I do not take for granted the many things that I did before. I can truly say that I am a better person because of the lessons that I learned at Wild Mountains.


I can say with honesty that it was a changing time in my life, that it shaped the person who I am today, always for the better.


I try to be more conscious of everything I do, and how it will impact other people as well as the planet, and future generations. 

Wild Mountains…..has changed my life profoundly. I am a much different and better person because of this experience…..I learned so much and I can only hope that I can teach it to others and continue to learn myself.

My time at Wild Mountains sparked something in me. This thing was probably always there, like it is in most of us. But it really opened my eyes to a true way of living life…..and really start LIVING and being an active part of this planet.


I focus more on helping others and being happy than I did before.

I have a more eco-friendly focus on life. I want to do what I can to make the earth cleaner and decrease the amount of resources I use on a daily basis.

A change in one’s university study major and/or a change in the focus of one’s life (as evidenced in the above comments) suggests a major alteration in the way one thinks about one’s life and one’s role within it. These results indicate that a transformation in participants has occurred via the WMT experience and it is implemented once home in a way that clearly aligns with the praxis referred to by Mezirow and others. It demonstrates the type of learning that leads to a deepened understanding of oneself, one’s responsibility, and one’s capacity to act in the world. In this sense the results suggest that the program is transformative for participants and engenders long term behavioural shifts (Taylor 2000: 157).

What is important in ensuring that a practice of change such as recycling is a beginning rather than an end point of transformative education for sustainability is how well practitioners are able to facilitate ongoing cycles of iterative learning. Hicks, Berger and Generett (2005: 69) support this idea and the ‘enduring qualities of transformative experience, that is, an experience that represents a constant flow of new beginnings as opposed to nice and neat lesson learned.’ Through their work we are able to gain an appreciation of the process of change as being something that is sequential and unending and not necessarily immediate and obvious.


In the case of ISV at WMT this represents a great opportunity to undertake ongoing post-program learning dialogue with participants. Hicks, Berger and Generett (2005: 62) articulate this as an opportunity for creating intentional learning communities. Intentional learning communities or communities of practice are informal or formalised meetings of people interested in a shared issue or topic. They offer the opportunity for participants to dialogue, exchange ideas and problem solve. In the era of information technology and social media such as Facebook intentional learning communities possibly represent a real and powerful tool for EfS practitioners who are limited to one hit programs such as the ISV experience at WMT. In the case of WMT this could take the form of regular email reminders, sharing resources as well as a regular online virtual meeting room where interested past-program participants could gather around key sustainability topics.



The results provided by this research clearly show that via a number of practices (both facilitated such as magic spots as well as incidental such as the nature and location of WMT) the ISV program at WMT offers its participants a transformative learning experience that aligns with EfS and ESL pedagogy. This is an impressive result considering the short nature of the program and clearly demonstrates what can be achieved by combining environmental education with the engaging and powerful methods provided by transformative pedagogy. By utilising a combination of practices such as Magic Spots, practical work like tree planting and recycling, demonstrating/mentoring sustainable living as well as group discussions around sustainability themes, learning guides/facilitators are able to engage the head (thought), heart (feelings) and hands (action) thereby activating a key principle of transformative learning- critical reflection, discourse and action (Sipos et. al. 2008).


In terms of the first research goal, the results indicate that there are two key opportunities for myself and WMT staff to consider with regards to our practice. Firstly, due to their key role in facilitating transformative learning, there is an opportunity to give greater consideration to how critical reflection and discourse are formally and informally encouraged by the program. Secondly, now that the main drivers of transformation have been identified by this research, it would be beneficial to strengthen their application and sequencing, by assessing them against the ‘matrix of TSL learning’ developed by Sippos et. al. (2008). For many years, we have wanted to identify a way to run these programs or a framework to follow that would offer a best practice model, therefore enabling the highest chance of transformative success. I feel that the ‘matrix of TSL learning’ by Sippos et. al. (2008) offers us this.


In addressing the second goal of this research, the results clearly illustrate that the majority of students do go on to implement program learning/s once they return home. This was shown to include behavioural action for sustainability such as recycling and also deep and profound praxis around one’s life purpose, role and meaning. As stipulated by the work of Mezirow (1991) and (2006), O’Sullivan (2001) and McWhinney and Markos (2003), this is quintessential to facilitating a transformative learning experience and is also identified as being of great significance to engendering more sustainable futures by Sippos et. al. (2008) and Tooth & Renshaw (2009).


O’Sullivan (2001: 2) suggests that ‘in the larger cultural context, transformation carries the dynamism of cultural change’. For some participants in this study the changes identified were small and basic. For others more radical changes were reported such as augmenting their life direction towards sustainability ideals. While these changes may be seen to occur at the individual level, O’Sullivan points out that such individual transformations are the seeds of larger cultural change. Therefore, as a way of continuing and deepening the post-program impact of the ISV program at WMT, there is an opportunity to establish an ongoing intentional learning community for EfS -perhaps via Facebook- where WMT/ISV staff and participants can continue to dialogue, share learning and mentor/support one another in continuing to instigate change for sustainability in their lives and communities (Hicks, Berger and Generett 2005: 62).


The results provided by this research clearly indicate that the inclusion and usage of transformative learning pedagogy that combines the TSL framework and EfS at WMT is creating significant and lasting change for sustainability. They demonstrate the value of applying transformative pedagogy to voluntoursim as explored by Coghlan and Gooch (2011) and provide a demonstrative example of the value of EfS and TSL in starting to address the gap between knowledge and action/behavior change in environmental education.





Appendix 1- Survey


1.   What were the greatest challenges you faced whilst on project?


2.   How did you overcome them?


3.   What were your greatest learnings/take home messages whilst on project?


4.   What events/activities triggered these learnings?



5.   What are three things/activities that you do now in your life that you did not do before your time on project?


6.   Has your field of study changed as a result of your time on project? If yes how?


7.   Has the focus of your life changed as a result of your time on project? If yes how?


8.   How important do you think that the place “Wild Mountains” was in facilitating your learnings on project? (1. being not important)


1         2         3         4         5        


9.   How important were the mentors/guides in facilitating your learnings on project? (1. being not important)


1         2         3         4         5        









Appendix 2- Change Activities


Each time an activity was mentioned, it was given a value of one.





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[1] In this dissertation, the terms- environmental and sustainability- will often be used interchangeably to refer to outcomes, ways of being and ways of knowing that reflect the requirements of the more-than-human world that we depend upon for our wellbeing. 

[2] On the first day of work at WMT, students are lead to a Magic Spot that will be theirs for the next two weeks. They do not get to choose the site, one of the WMT staff choose it at random for them. Each morning before work, we designated 15-20 minutes in our spot alone and silent to contemplate the magic we see before us. Before going to our Magic Spot one member of the group selects and reads an environmentally based poem from the WMT library. The sessions are based upon the work of Van Matre (1990).

[3] The Collaborative Competencies process involves the group exploring themes such as- the diversity of opinions in a group and how this underpins its strength. It also focuses on methods of communication (especially non-verbals) and the need to move from “I think” to what do “we think”.