Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Learning as Agency for Transformative Change

Image by Yannis H via Unsplash

We can teach people to hate as well as to love. How are you developing your agency for transformative change? This time of increasing challenges and growing uncertainties requires that we stand together from our common roots of life. It is essential that education supports people to develop transformative agency by learning how to work with complexity, uncertainty, creative tensions, and transition dynamics that include death and collapse. Rather than feeling anxious and stressed about all that’s happening with the state of our world, it is possible to learn how to work with the tipping point dynamics of this time for co-creating a regenerative and thriving world that works for all.

The explorations of this article are based on chapter 5 of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint, which launched 7 September 2021. This Blueprint includes 7 Transformative Learning Perspectives for Regeneration and Thrivability, the fourth of which is “Learning as Agency” and the focus of this article. To read a brief introduction of the Blueprint, click here.

Learning as Agency

Learning as Agency supports the development of personal and collective stewardship capacities for regeneration and thrivability. This includes strategies and processes for how to embrace the growing pains and evolutionary tensions of transition times, including rites of passage, and how to transform dualistic barriers through Third Way evolutionary approaches. We’ve explored Learning as Agency through the following perspectives, which are further explained below:

  1. Transformative Agency
  2. Bildung and Stewardship
  3. The Governance of Agency

1. Transformative Agency

Things have gone rapidly downhill since the Age of Enlightenment, for, once this petty reasoning mind, which cannot endure any paradoxes, is awakened, no sermon on earth can keep it down. A new task then arises: to lift this still undeveloped mind step by step to a higher level and to increase the number of persons who have at least some inkling of the scope of paradoxical truth. We simply do not understand any more what is meant by the paradoxes contained in dogma.” ~ Carl Jung

Life is paradoxical, which we often experience as a kind of tension or unease. It can be tempting to avoid feeling these tensions by escaping into either dualistic thinking or else superficial unity. Our development as a species is full of paradoxes — while we have made tremendous progress in terms of the development of new capacities and technologies, we have also become more unconscious about ourselves and more destructive in many ways. This is paradoxical. Exploring and embracing paradox as a transformative learning process, is an essential step towards developing transformative agency.

Apply the following questions to explore your comfort zone about paradoxical situations:

  1. What does the word ‘paradox’ evoke in you? How do you feel about paradoxical situations?
  2. Are there any paradoxes you simply cannot accept?
  3. How can the perspective of a paradox help you reconcile what previously may have appeared unacceptable or irreconcilable to you?
  4. In what way is your life a paradox?

Transformative agency requires the capacity to stand in wholeness together to act from the unity of life. Dualistic thinking is not transformative as it attempts to divide or polarize our diversity, rather than embrace it. ‘Paradox’ serves as a great litmus test for assessing our states of consciousness and thus the impacts of our thoughts and communications. The growing social tensions around the world show how quickly our stance towards each other can become polarized. When we cannot work with paradoxical feelings or situations we will create or feed divisions between people — and some of these divisions are entirely fabricated as “false truths.”

Facilitating Third Way Solutions

“Nature teaches us the importance of finding ways to bring seemingly conflicting opposites into harmony without destroying either of them. This claim stems from a worldview derived from diverse Indigenous Peoples whose ancestors — also our ancestors — studied nature deeply and holistically for hundreds of thousands of years.” ~ Donald Jacobs, Four Arrows (2016, p.177)

Third Way approaches and solutions emerge from embracing paradox and transforming duality traps. Underlying many of our sustainability issues are dualistic stances of either-or assumptions and polarized thinking. By adopting a Third Way approach, we make a commitment to shift our consciousness out of the type of thinking that blocks and limits our transformative agency. Third Way approaches also offer pathways for the deeper civilizational transformation that lead to a renaissance of self and society.

A ‘third way’ is the new that emerges (is born) from transformational change through paradox. Third ways emerge from integral approaches and integral consciousness by not dualizing or polarizing our diversity. Rebirth only becomes possible once this integration has taken place and we stop projecting outwardly what we’ve rejected internally. The following practice can support the development of transformative agency through Third Way perspectives:

  1. Become aware of dualistic polarization dynamics, which can play out as dualistic cause-effect narratives, either-or thinking, division, conflict, fragmentation, win-lose zero-sum game competition, and oppositional dynamics. Acknowledge what is happening (also beneath the surface) and honestly assess your personal investment in any of these dynamics. Proceed to create clarity about what is going on and why.
  2. Look for a ‘third’ middle ground by focusing on ‘and-and’ perspectives, and by working with the architecture of wholeness behind seeming dualities. Consider the deeper causes as to why a transformative perspective or experience may have become blocked.
  3. Create a safe and generative space that makes it possible to heal what has become revealed, including any divisions. Keep an open mind and heart to multiple perspectives, including those you do not understand, while exploring collaborative approaches.
  4. Test assumptions through a future planetary perspective to deepen inclusiveness — i.e. is what we normalize or propose natural, desirable, and thrivable from the widest and deepest perspective of life as a whole?
  5. Check your commitment towards building our world from the foundations of life and the co-creation of thrivable societies. How does this process live within you, and what is your commitment to become the required person for this change?

Working with Complexity

Sustainability issues are complex and so are people! Humans can also be incredibly complicated, yet that is not the same as complexity. Complexity relates to the degrees of nested interconnections and interdependencies (within and between systems), as well as non-linearity. Complexity sciences, System Dynamics, and System Thinking form integral components of education for regeneration and thrivability, and offer valuable methods and methodologies for supporting learners to work with and embrace complexity.

All living systems are complex nonlinear systems. In a world of growing complexity, life can also become complicated, especially when we do not understand how to work with non-linearity and unpredictability. Transformative agency is a path towards higher complexity, which actualizes through deepening embodied wholeness.

Are you able to hold, integrate, and weave various perspectives and approaches through an inclusive attitude and a deepening sense of appreciation for the underlying wholeness and unity of life?

Working with complexity also includes working with uncertainty and transitions. In particular, for embracing the creative tensions between that which is concrete (and perhaps even dominant in our present reality), and that which is seeking to emerge (as a new reality and is not yet tangible or visible for others). Especially when future possibilities are situated right on the edge of emergence.

We cannot learn to work with complexity through solely a mental focus or intellectual pursuit. Complexity is integral, hence only an integral learning process can help us to develop integral capacities for working with complexity. This includes the development and synergy of various ways of knowing, sensing, intuiting, thinking, feeling, being, and acting. Learning how to work with complexity is also essential for developing our stewardship capacities, which requires balancing multiple realities simultaneously with care for the thrivability of life as a whole.

2. Bildung and Stewardship

Bildung is a German concept that focuses simultaneously on the inner and outer transformations, as well as the development of personal and collective capacities. Bildung as an educational strategy places the focus on our inner transformations within the larger context of our outer societal transformations. The authors of the book “the Nordic Secret” describe Bildung as follows:

Overall, we thus find it justified to claim that Bildung in the form of folk-Bildung can change societies. We also find that Bildung is a more complex and much more comprehensive concept than ego-development regarding the many aspects of personal development and learning we must go through in order to find meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging and to thrive in the complex world that surrounds us. Bildung is freedom and responsibility; responsibility is freedom and Bildung; together they produce happy people, robust societies and strong economies.”~ Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Björkman (2017, p.345)

The stage has already been set for our collective rite of passage through growing risks, insecurities, and imbalances. How we rise to this occasion will determine whether we become the attractors for chaos and breakdown (the Anthropocene context), or a collective birth (the Renaissance context) into new stages of consciousness.

The Bildung perspective of ‘freedom as responsibility and responsibility as freedom’ is also essential for developing a consciousness of stewardship, through which we can learn to embrace the evolutionary tensions in many of the paradoxical stages of our formative process.

Case-study Application

The EARTHwise Education for Sustainability (EfS) program was developed and facilitated by Dr. Anneloes Smitsman for schools in Mauritius, and provided training to over 300 hundred teachers and 20,000 students over a period of 7 years, from 2011–2018. During this period the EfS program became implemented into the curriculum and educational systems of mainstream education in Mauritius, which was documented and evaluated through the Ph.D. research by Anneloes Smitsman at the Maastricht Sustainability Institute, Maastricht University the Netherlands (Smitsman, 2019).

To implement the program, a group of teachers was selected from each of the schools to act as mentors and coordinators. Mentors and students received in-depth training in: Dialogue, experiential and transformative learning practices, meditation, consciousness, leadership and stewardship, ecological sustainability, eco-systemic health, climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity protection, eco-systemic governance, ecological food security, zero-waste principles, permaculture and regenerative design principles, social innovation, eco-social entrepreneurship, collective and intuitive intelligence, whole-self development, peace-building, healing and reconciliation, law and governance for thrivability, creativity and innovation, indigenous wisdom practices, and vision development.

This program has been fully implemented in 4 schools in Mauritius: Loreto College Curepipe primary and secondary (LCC), St Mary’s College Rose-Hill, and BPS Fatima College Goodlands. Many of the program principles have since become part of the mainstream educational transformation for the development of ecological literacies on the Island. The EfS program also included an Ecological Footprint project for the secondary schools, and zero-waste campaigns to help their school become plastic-free and reduce their ecological footprint.

EfS Schools from the EARTHwise Centre EfS Program.

Through these activities and projects, students also learned about global citizenship and ecological leadership. Circles of care were formed to further develop their sense of stewardship and ecological agency. By learning how to care for nature at their school they discovered how nature is a pattern that connects. Some schools also developed school gardens for growing food for the school community and surrounding communities.

Learning and Healing through Ceremony and Rites of Passage

Transformative learning is a rite of passage through which we learn how to embrace and transform existing challenges, discover new perspectives, heal and let go, become more self-aware as we grow into our future becoming. Our ecological and sustainability crisis can also be considered as a collective rite of passage through which we are challenged, and called, to evolve to new orders of reality that belong to the next stages of our evolutionary development.

The required outer transformations will not manifest unless we first embrace and commit to the required inner transformations.

The destruction of our planet, and the death of so many species and ecosystems, are deeply saddening. We need to support people (and ourselves) in coming to terms with all these emotions — especially our grief, anger, and anguish. Most importantly, we need to support children and teenagers in how to process this emotionally. Some may have lost a family member, or a pet, or someone close to them, even more so now with the COVID-19 pandemic and our worsening climate crisis.

Younger generations need our help to move through this challenging time, and especially to grief together and know how they can safely share their feelings and thoughts.

Young people are often confronted with images and stories of death, loss, illnesses, violence, and suffering without preparation or a loving arm around them, which can shock the foundations of their own sense of humanity. Many are experiencing a sense of growing uncertainty, and some teenagers are feeling so terrified, scared, and hopeless that they decide to take their own lives. Suicide rates are growing at an alarming rate around the world.

Indigenous cultures have a long tradition of facilitating rites of passage rituals and ceremonies, through which the person is prepared by their community to acquire the skills, qualities, vision, courage, and trust in their unity with life and supportive guardians from the invisible worlds (Lawlor, 1991; Jacobs, 2016). When the community goes through shocks, death, or other challenging times, collective ceremonies are held to grieve and heal together and prepare for the days to come. In Western cultures, many of these rituals are no longer practiced.

For those working in education or as learning facilitators, we recommend including rites of passage celebrations as part of learning for regeneration and thrivability. In particular to help people connect with the heart space of our humanity and the allies of our natural world — including the trees, rivers, birds, insects, and the earth herself. Such rites of passage can also help young people understand more deeply what it means to grow up during a renaissance time, which offers many challenges as well as unprecedented opportunities for our personal and societal transformations and renewal.

Learning for regeneration and thrivability requires awareness and understanding of the dynamics of death, collapse, and dissolution, as well as conception, gestation, birth, emergence, and maturation. Death can be considered a natural transition between states. Death makes space for new life, like when autumn arrives and nature returns its life force to the darkness of winter through which a new spring can arise. Many children fear darkness; explain to them how darkness can be safe and comforting, like a womb for the renewal and birth of life.

Transition times and transition experiences can catalyze our learning for how to embrace and grow through uncertainty, conflict, death, grief, and anxiety. And in particular for learning how to tap into the inner resources of our psyches and the collective unconscious. Rites of passage rituals and ceremonies can also serve to develop and mature our powers and responsibilities as stewards for our commons.

3. The Governance of Agency

Governance relates to the ways that power and decision rights are distributed in a system, as well as how we can apply, coordinate, and direct our capacities and resources within the systems we form part of. Accordingly, a key component of governance is the self-governance of agency. The self-governance of our agency has an inner dimension and an outer application. Namely, how we govern, balance, and coordinate our inner dynamics, needs, desires, and behaviors, as well as the outer expression of our agency in terms of how we apply ourselves in society and in particular our participation in the governance of the systems, organizations, and cultures we form part.

It is essential that younger generations learn from an early age about all the various aspects of the governance of agency — in particular the governance of agency for regeneration and thrivability. This starts by learning about themselves as a natural living system. The sovereignty of agency also contains a political and economic dimension that has to be understood within the larger historical contexts of the formation of nation-states and the development of universal human rights.

Traditionally, sovereignty meant having supreme authority within a territory. Accordingly, the state became the political institution in which sovereignty was embodied. The sovereignty of states, and later nation-states, attributed the supreme authority over people’s lives to a central overarching entity (following an earlier trend whereby this type of sovereignty was self-proclaimed by religious institutions, monarchies, dictators, and other elites who deemed themselves supreme or sovereign over the lives of others). Indigenous models of governance, however, base sovereignty on principles of interdependence and interrelatedness — the sovereignty of life in accordance with universal principles, or sacred laws of nature.

Most of humanity’s non-indigenous governance models are built on the assumption that governance needs to regulate and coordinate the activities of separate, rather than interdependent, agents or functions of agency. Moreover, the sovereignty of agency (in most Western models of governance) is directly related to the notion of being sovereign in the pursuit of one’s individual rights and freedoms as protected by the constitution of one’s citizenship.

Autopoiesis and the Governance of Agency

Our current climate emergency reveals clearly that our interdependence with all of life cannot be ignored. To not include governance for interdependence in the design and governance of our societies (and especially our economies), is setting up the way for acts of ecocide. Ecocide, according to the recent (June 2021) legally accepted definition means: “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Through this section, we will unpack the concept of autopoiesis and how it relates to the governance of agency for regeneration and thrivability. Autopoiesis is Greek for what can be loosely translated as ‘self-creation.’ This term was first introduced by Maturana and Varela in 1980, and was later developed in general systems theory to explain how a living system is a self-organizing system that can sustain itself through a network of reactions that regenerate its components within a self-generated boundary (Maturana, 2002; Smitsman 2019).

The regeneration of a living system takes place through the self-reproduction of its own elements or parts, and of the network of interactions that characterize and create an environment conducive for its thrivability. Living systems show intrinsic self-motivated autopoietic activity, and can sense the degrees of freedom that are available to act and behave. Autopoiesis creates the basis for our experience and governance of autonomy and sovereignty, as interdependent with life as a whole.

In other words, when we decouple our sense of sovereignty from our natural world by causing impacts that harm the self-regulating capacities of our planet, we also undermine the foundations for our own autonomy and sovereignty. Our human lives depend on the health of our planet.

All living systems are autopoietic systems; if we harm the vital autopoietic functions of self-creation, self-regulation, and adaptation, we undermine and harm the foundation for regeneration and thrivability, as well as sustainability.

The principles of autopoiesis reveal how autonomy and sovereignty don’t mean self-determination through disconnection (or separation) from our embeddedness within life. Autonomy and sovereignty, from an autopoietic or living systems perspective, means being able to act on one’s innate capacities for self-creation, self-regulation, and adaptation. When this is no longer possible or restricted, one’s capacity for autonomy and sovereignty becomes reduced.

Autopoiesis also reveals how autonomy and sovereignty are self-regulated by essential systemic boundaries between an organism and its environment (which is not a division or barrier). A systemic boundary acts like a living membrane that filters the information flows and exchanges. Systemic boundaries of living systems are self-generated (and not centrally imposed) and manifest outwardly from the informational architecture of the living system (Smitsman, 2019). When an organism or living system can no longer perform its innate functions of self-creation, self-regulation, and adaptation, the onset of disease and collapse are set in motion.

Learning and development are possible only as long as these autopoietic functions of self-creation, self-regulation, and adaptation are freely accessible for sensing, attuning, and adjusting our stances, behaviours, and interactions within the environment we form part of (see Smitsman and Smitsman, 2020).

We offer the following guidelines below as a check-list for educators:

  1. Respect and support people in their self-governance of agency so they can learn how to regulate and adapt their capacities, engagement, and relationships (inwardly and outwardly) for the learning tasks at hand, and in ways that are safe, healthy, meaningful, and thrivable.
  2. Support people to become (more) conscious of their capacities for regenerative self-governance by helping them become aware of their innate abilities of self-creation, self-regulation, and adaptation through interdependent networks of relationships with each other and our natural world.
  3. Apply living system governance principles in the design and governance of educational systems and for creating learning ecosystems that support learners to develop an embodied understanding of their unity with life, with appreciation and care for each other, life, and our planet.

When education becomes authoritative and prescriptive, students are not able to explore, discover, and learn experientially. Learning for regeneration and thrivability requires that people can become aware of the systemic dynamics within and around, including how a system can support (affordances) or hinder (limit) their degrees of freedom. When students are hindered in their autonomy and sovereignty, it breeds a culture of distrust and fear, and discourages them to develop their capacities for regeneration and thrivability.

Without a sense of inner freedom we cannot thrive and it becomes very difficult to be creative and act regeneratively.

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Source: Extracts from chapter 5 of the r3.0 Educational Transformation Blueprint.

Other articles in this series


Andersen, L.R. & Björkman, T. (2017). The Nordic Secret — A European Story of Beauty and Freedom. Fri Tanke, Stockholm.

Jacobs, D.T. (Four Arrows). (2016). Point of Departure — Returning to Our More Authentic Worldview for Education and Survival. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Lawlor, R. (1991). Voices of the first day: awakening in the Aboriginal dreamtime. Vermont: Inner Traditions International Ltd.

Maturana, H. (2002). Autopoiesis, Structural Coupling and Cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition. In Cybernetics & Human Knowing (9: 3–4,) 5–34.

Smitsman A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change. Ph.D. Dissertation. Maastricht University, the Netherlands. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.28450.25280

Smitsman, A., Baue, B., and Thurm, R. (2021). Blueprint 9. Educational Transformation –7 Transformative Learning Perspectives for Regeneration and Thrivability. r3.0.

Smitsman A. & Smitsman A.W. (2020). The Future-Creative Human — Exploring Evolutionary Learning. World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research.



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Anneloes Smitsman, PhD

Anneloes Smitsman, PhD


Futurist, systems scientist, award-winning author, coach, CEO & founder EARTHwise Centre