Professor Stuart B. Hill

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Transformative Learning for Progressive Change

Transformative learning is learning that enables irreversible, profound, emancipatory change for the better – in our values, world views, beliefs, perspectives, understandings, and frameworks (or ‘meaning schemes’) for imagining, thinking, designing, planning and acting; and in our day-to-day living and relating (to self, others, and the built and natural world).  It is the ‘highest’ level of learning: above “refining or elaborating our meaning schemes, learning new meaning schemes, [and] transforming meaning schemes” (Jack Mezirow 1994, Understanding transformation theory, Adult Education Quarterly, 44(4): 222-232; p. 224).

It is the sort of foundational learning that is needed globally to enable individuals to contribute significantly to addressing our many current crises and, more importantly, to enable us to progress as a species (and as communities, businesses, groups, families and individuals) towards ways of being and doing that are supportive of wellbeing, ecological sustainability, social responsibility, caring, meaning and joy.

It may be precipitated by a challenge or crisis not solvable by one’s ‘old approaches’, or by a longer-term sequence of less challenging experiences that eventually cross a ‘critical threshold of enough’ to require such a profound change.

Such changes may be self-initiated or enabled by others (including trusted and caring family members, friends, mentors, teachers, therapists and personal development facilitators), directly and/or indirectly (through books, articles, the media etc). The environments, contexts and circumstances in which we live also play a major influencing role.

Depending on one’s personality preferences and beliefs, such changes may be experienced as primarily involving thinking, feeling, behaviouristic, intuitive and/or spiritual experiences and processes.  Thus, whereas some theorists have emphasised critical reflection as a core part of the process, others have documented the potentially equally important role of feelings, intuition and unconscious (and ‘spiritual’) processes.  All agree that dialogue with others and deep reflection are essential parts of the process, as is deconstruction of the inadequate ‘old’, often involving a process of profound ‘grieving’, and construction of a more holistically enabling ‘new’.

Such transformation often includes gaining a more profound understanding of the interrelationships between power, gender, work and play, biology and ecology, and psychology and sociology (including the full range of historical, linguistic, political, economic, scientific and technological aspects).

Decisions and transformations may range from all-encompassing values changes, to related acceptance of responsibility and letting-go, to the implementation of new initiatives and the abandonment of old no longer appropriate attitudes and activities.

Broader psychosocial outcomes  may include a more aware, empowered, purposeful and discerning, grounded sense of being (living more proactively from the inside-out, and less reactively from the outside-in); also progress towards more holistic expressions of peace, caring, love, equity, community, wellbeing, meaning and joy (all in the broadest sense).  This has most profoundly been described as progressing towards being in a [co-evolutionary] process of mutual synthesis with one’s [living and non-living] environment (G Scott Williamson & Innes H Pearse 1965, ‘Science, Synthesis and Sanity’, Repr. 1980, Scottish Academic, Edinburgh, p. 23).

Teachers may best enable such transformation by providing a “sense of safety, openness and trust”, and by supporting “autonomy, participation and collaboration”, and “activities that encourage the exploration of alternative perspectives, problem-posing, and critical reflection” (Edward W. Taylor 1998, The theory and practice of transformative learning: a critical review, ERIC, Columbus, OH, pp. 53-4).   My particular approach to this type of learning is described in more detail (as ‘Learning Ecology’) in Hill et al. (2004) and Sattmann-Frese and Hill (2008).

Hill, SB, S Wilson, & K Watson, 2004. Learning ecology: a new approach to learning and transforming ecological consciousness: experiences from social ecology in Australia, in EV O'Sullivan & M Taylor (eds), Learning Toward an Ecological Consciousness: Selected Transformative Practices, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 47-64.

Sattmann-Frese, W & SB Hill, 2008. Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation, www.lulu.com (Book Reference)


stuart hill


Professor Stuart B. Hill
is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology
at the
University of Western Sydney

School of Education (includes previous School of Social Ecology & Lifelong Learning)
University of Western Sydney (Kingswood Campus),
Locked Bag 1797, PENRITH SOUTH DC, NSW 1797, AUSTRALIA
Phone: 61(0)2-4736-0799; Fax: 61(0)2-4736-0400; email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Co-Editor: Journal of Organic Systems http://www.organic-systems.org/index.html

Co-Creator: Australian Society for Sustainable Business http://societyforsustainablebusiness.org/

Professor Stuart B. Hill is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney. At UWS he teaches units on Qualitative Research Methodology, Social Ecology Research, Transformative Learning, Leadership and Change, and Sustainability, Leadership and Change.

His PhD was one of the first whole ecosystem studies that examined community and energy relationships (1969); and it was the earliest such study conducted by a single researcher. For this he received the awards for Best PhD Thesis and Best PhD Student. In 1977 he received a Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal for his community and social transformation work.

In 1972, in Canada, he produced a report for the New Brunswick Government on Energy and Agriculture that detailed many of the resource, environment and climate issues that are at last being recognized today. Since then he has produced many more cutting edge reports, and has been an advisor to several ministers.

Prior to 1996 he was at McGill University, in Montreal, where he was responsible for the zoology degree, and where in 1974 he established Ecological Agriculture Projects, Canada’s leading resource centre for sustainable agriculture (www.eap.mcgill.ca).

His last PhD student at McGill was Ann Dale, who was on leave from the Privy Council Office, and who had played a major role in the establishment of the first ‘National Round Table for the Economy and the Environment’. Her thesis, which has been published as a book (At the Edge: Sustainable Development in the 21st Century, UBC Pr, 2001) examines what is needed for governments to deal responsibly with sustainability.

Hill has published over 350 papers and reports. His latest books are Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action (with Dr Martin Mulligan; Cambridge UP, 2001) and Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation (with Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese; Lulu, 2008).

More recently he has contributed groundbreaking chapters to five books: Enabling redesign for deep industrial ecology and personal values transformation, in Industrial Ecology and Spaces of Innovation (2006); Redesign as deep industrial ecology: lessons from ecological agriculture and social ecology, in Industrial Ecology: A Question of Design? (2006); Social ecology as a framework for understanding and working with social capital and sustainability within rural communities, in A Dynamic Balance: Social Capital and Sustainable Community Development (2005); Learning Ecology: A New Approach to Learning and Transforming Ecological Consciousness: Experiences from Social Ecology in Australia, in Learning Toward An Ecological Consciousness: Selected Transformative Practices (2004); and Autonomy, mutualistic relationships, sense of place, and conscious caring: a hopeful view of the present and future, in Changing Places: Re-imagining Australia (2003).

In Canada he was a member of over 30 regional, national and international boards and committees. He is currently on the editorial board of five international refereed journals, and until 2004 he represented professional environmental educators on the NSW Council on Environmental Education.

Stuart has worked in agricultural and development projects in the West Indies, French West Africa, Indonesia, The Philippines, China, the Seychelles, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. His work in the Seychelles to make a whole coralline island completely self sufficient in food and energy is particularly significant.

His background in chemical engineering, ecology, soil biology, entomology, agriculture, psychotherapy, education, policy development and international development, and his experience of working with transformative change, has enabled him to be an effective facilitator in complex situations that demand collaboration across difference and a long-term co-evolutionary approach to situation improvement. These skills were used extensively in his recent role as Provocateur for the Victorian Government (for DPI & DSE: 2004-5).

Recent Keynotes at National Conferences include the following:
Hill, S.B. 2006. Engaging Us: Ecological Thinking as a Basis for Community Change. Keynote to Enviro 06 Conf. & Exhibn.: Building Sustainable Cities [Melbourne; 11 May]

Hill, S.B. 2006. Taking Appropriate Next Steps to Progressive Change: Building on the Past and Risking Deep Transformation Towards More Sustainable Communities.  Keynote to APEN ‘06 Int. Conf.: Practice change for sustainable communities: exploring footprints, pathways and possibilities [Beechworth, VIC; 6-8 March]
[web; 18 pp: www.regional.org.au/au/apen/2006/keynote/4003_hills.htm]