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Transgressive learning – moving away from a mindset of inevitability

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Looking up into a canopy of trees - illustrating environment as an ecosystem
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Transgressive learning is a term associated with sustainability. Wals (2021), for example, discusses the Power of Transgressive Learning in an excellent post. My own interest in the term, however, came from reflecting on educational work I am currently involved in on spatial fluency and agency in learning and from thinking about how the education system we have is one built upon a reductive history of inevitabilities.

What if… we challenged everything we assume? As an academic developer and innovator by instinct, I like to critically and constructively review the systems we use. I tend to find good ideas by not only thinking outside of the box, but by looking and positioning myself outside of the box – an ‘outsider’ attitude (Rader, 1958). My current ongoing research into Studio for All, for example, asks ‘what if all disciplines had studios rather than classrooms?’ My research into Spaces for Learning in Higher Education continues to posit that formalities dominate and constrain pedagogic design, whereas active and experiential learning flourishes through ecologies of non-formal association.

Wals (2021) paraphrases Lotz-Sisitka et al. (2016) and says,

Transgressive learning, disruptive capacity building, and pedagogies of resistance can be characterized by learning processes and contexts/environments for learning that invite a counter-hegemonic response that seeks to unearth and uproot mechanisms of exploitation, oppression, extractivism, colonialization, and marginalization.

(Wals, 2021)

While this points to acts of sustainability, transgressive learning is a term, for me, that has wider value, although I recognise its importance to the discourse on sustainability and Education for Sustainable Development.

It works in a broader sense for the following reasons:

  • Co-operative pedagogy – as an advocate of active learning, I believe that learning with (collaboration) and learning alongside (co-operation) others in acts of co-construction (social constructivism), co-production (equitable exchange for mutual benefit), and co-creation (acts of learning through collective making and evaluation) suggest a rich and inclusive learning paradigm for any student in higher education. A commitment to such student-centred pedagogic design and practice still requires courage unfortunately because teaching this way transgresses the organisational systems that influence and often determine the thinking and behaviours of teachers and students. Transgression, here, equates to disruptive innovation in this sense: it is a way of valuing pedagogy as a high-quality outcome of imaginative analysis rather than a matter of conformance and delivery constrained by organisational needs for education.
  • Self-determined learning – heutagogy in action (Hase & Kenyon, 2015) and self-determined learning theory (SDT) (Ryan & Deci, 2000) focus on agency from the perspective of intrinsic motivation. This leads to understandings of the value of developing learner agency and confidence so as to foreground a student-centred pedagogic design. In short, if we focus on teaching students to negotiate and navigate, or critically explore, evaluate and experiment with knowledge, we are equipping them for learning and equipping them for life. One way of articulating this is through the idea of spatial fluency in which we see education as a space to be explored. (Spatial fluency is a key focus for me at the moment [Middleton, 2023]). Spatial fluency has acts of boundary crossing, polycontextuality and liminality (Araos Moya & Dam?a, 2023; Daskalaki et al., 2016; Engeström et al., 1995), embodiment (Cox, 2018), and communitas (Turner, 2012) as central concerns. It recognises that real acts of learning come out of authentic experiences and moments as determined by each learner/actant (Jóhannesson & Bærenholdt, 2020). These may, for example, be in the classroom, be in acts of crossing physical or metaphorical thresholds (liminality), be in non-formal adjacent spaces and situations (e.g. cafes and third places), in third spaces (commitments to beyond home and study situations like work, caring, sport, and leisure), or at home.

Transgressive learning, then, encapsulates ideas about developing the agency of students as self-determined learners in a co-operative ecosystem. This indicates a non-dualist and ecological view of spaces for learning with implications for how education conceives the learning environment and communicates the value of non-formality.


Araos Moya, A. and Dam?a, C. (2023) ‘Affordances and agency in students’ use of online platforms and resources beyond curricular boundaries’, Learning, media and technology, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print), pp. 1–16. Available at:

Cox, A.M. (2018). Space and embodiment in informal learning. High Education 75, 1077–1090.

Daskalaki, M., Btler, C.L., & Petrovic, J. (2016). Somewhere in-between: Narratives of place, identity, and translocal work. Journal of Management Inquiry, 25(2), pp. 184-198

Engeström, Y., Engeström, R., & Kärkkäinen, M. (1995). Polycontextuality and boundary crossing in expert cognition: Learning and problem solving in complex work activities. Learning and Instruction, 5(4), 319–336.

Hase, S. and Kenyon, C., eds. (2015). Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action. London: Bloomsbury.

Heila Lotz-Sisitka, et al. (2016). Co-designing research on transgressive learning in times of climate change. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 20, 50-55.

Jóhannesson, G. T. & Bærenholdt, J.O. (2020). Actor–Network Theory. In: A. Kobayashi, ed., International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (Second Edition).

Middleton, A. (2023). Spatial fluencies: more than spaces, more than literacies. Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures – Symposium 2: Flexibilities, 14 June 2023. Society for Research into Higher Education.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Turner, E. (2012). Communitas: The anthropology of collective joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wals, A. (2021, May). The power of transgressive learning: Contribution to GTI Forum ‘The Pedagogy of Transition’. Great Transition Initiative: Toward a Transformative Vision and Praxis. Online at:

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