Transformative Learning in Business Education

Transformative Learning in Business Education

Transformative learning in business education for a regenerative economy.

Transformative Learning Background

The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020, published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2020, p.2) expresses a disconcerting fact that ‘the world is not on track to achieve the Global Goals by 2030’. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres asserts that ‘global efforts to date have been insufficient to deliver the change we need…’ and therefore, ‘…a transformation is required in the financial, economic and political systems that govern our societies today to guarantee the human rights of all’. This fact appears disquieting because (natural) environment-based education now, is more than a century old (Dewey, 1907).

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The United Nations (2020) declares the centrality of higher education institutions (HEIs) as a force for positive change in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The strategic importance of HEIs for sustainable development arises from two unique opportunities (UNESCO, 2004): First, universities form a link between knowledge generation and the transfer of knowledge to society for their entry into the labor market. Second, they actively contribute to societal development through outreach and service to society. HEIs are pivotal ‘in developing the principles, qualities, and awareness not only needed to perpetuate the sustainable development philosophy but to improve upon its delivery’ (Johnston, 2007).

The United Nations also acknowledged the need for partnerships within and beyond the HEI sector in the areas of research, teaching, and community engagement, which was ratified during a global event at the UN High-level Political Forum in July 2019, by three university organizations representing more than 2000 member universities worldwide —the Higher Education Initiative Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie and the International Association of Universities (O’Malley, 2019). Research can provide new knowledge and innovation for meeting sustainability challenges plus necessary evidence for informed public policy. Teaching can develop future sustainability leaders for adopting the environment, social, and governance (ESG) regimen. Community outreach and engagement enable collaboration with diverse stakeholders to generate positive impacts locally, nationally, and globally.

HEIs can propel sustainable development at all three levels (Filho, 2000; Scholz et al., 2000, 2006)— strategic (developing strategic sustainability vision and goals), tactical (facilitating stakeholder coalitions), and operational (implementing change through research, curriculum design, on-campus activities, and co-learning with societal communities).

Transformative Learning Objectives

Against this backdrop, the primacy of business as a pillar of contemporary society (Kanter 2011, p. 66) is reckoned to make a case for integrating social constructivist “transformative learning” (Mezirow, 1978) with eco-literate business education in “civic universities” (Goddard, 2009) for achieving Agenda 2030, contextualized within a regenerative (non-linear) economy. This is the primary objective of our exploratory study, given that Planet Earth is the ultimate stakeholder of business (Stead and Stead, 2000). The subsidiary objective is to examine how transformative learning with business ethics can stimulate ‘transformative engagement’ (UNESCO, 2019) by business educators and students for achieving Global Goals. The pervasiveness of business education is discernible from data reported by 653 accredited schools responding to the AACSB Business School Questionnaire for 2016-17. Globally, the aggregate enrolment was approximately 1.9 million students. Of the total, about 72% of these enrolments were undergraduates, 15 % were at the generalist master, 11 % were enrolled for the specialized master’s, and about 1.5 % were at the doctoral level (Robinson, 2018). Furthermore, the AACSB 2020 standards require impact-based accredited business schools to create a positive societal impact by integrating sustainability as a transversal theme for core skill development to educate ethical business leaders with a deep understanding of sustainability issues (AACSB International, 2020).

The temporal significance of this study derives from key findings of the Learn for Our Planet Report (UNESCO, 2021) presented at the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in May 2021, critiquing the “cursory way” in which HEIs handle climate change and other sustainability issues, notwithstanding our hedonistic unsustainable consumerist lifestyles. The Report aims to “embed sustainable development in learning systems globally” through a new “ESD for 2030” framework that recommends a “whole-sector approach to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)”. Currently, progress towards ESD is fraught with governance, institutional, educator-based, and student-related barriers that must be overcome by training educators as change leaders through capacity building, policy modifications, adaptive learning environments, empowerment of youth, and expediting local action (UNESCO, 2021). Four major recommendations in the Learn for Our Planet Report (UNESCO, 2021, p. 10) underpin our core argument—the need for (i) integrating environmental learning across the curriculum to engage students emotionally, behaviourally, and socially in experiential action-oriented learning beyond a narrow cognitive focus; (ii) teachers at all levels to adopt ESD through transformative learning; (iii) inclusion of indigenous knowledge in environmental learning through broad consultation with indigenous groups; and (iv) collaboration among environmental and educational actors for rapid action with global benchmarks, regulations, policies, programs, and events.

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This section contains the following:

  • Eco-literate Business Education for “Wicked Problems” of Unsustainable Design
  • Transformative Learning for a Regenerative Economy
  • Re-inventing the “Civic University” for SDG-Integration
  • Business Ethics for Transformative Engagement

Concluding Observations

Developing sustainability competencies through transformative learning in eco-literate business education can prepare learners to resolve today’s wicked problems of unsustainable living and flourish in a regenerative economy. For this, learning systems have to rework all four pillars of education (UNESCO, 1996)— (1) learning to be part of the Earth by reconstructing our ecological identity, (2) learning to live in harmony with nature, (3) learning to know how to integrate the sciences, arts, and humanities to the ecological dimension so that knowledge constitutes the reality, and (4) learning to do ESG activities for transformative engagement.

Transformative learning can “transform” the learner through a proactive, self-directed understanding of ideas with knowing, doing, and feeling. Knowing helps the learner in critical reflection, systems thinking, and empathic understanding. Doing activates the learner in design thinking with solution-centered analysis, patterning, and presentation. Feeling challenges the learner to accept and balance multiple perspectives, values, and worldviews by inculcating respect for life and Nature.

The extreme urgency of achieving Agenda 2030 evokes answers to three basic questions of implementation—Why? When? and How?


entails an immediate commitment to TL must be demonstrable through the cognitive, teaching, and social presence of business educators as members of a global Community of Inquiry (Garrison and Archer, 2000), to create a positive impact on a regenerative economy.


also signals the immediacy for TL in business education, such that regenerative thinking and social transformation are imbibed right now for progress toward a regenerative economy.


indicates the need to make TL steadily functional at all three levels—the individual level for developing regenerative leaders; the organizational level for enabling business enterprises to serve the common good; and the societal level to engage consciously in the transformation of business and society.

Dr. Kanika Chatterjee

Professor, Ex-Head of the Department of Commerce
Former Director,
Internal Quality Assurance Cell
University of Calcutta


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