UNESCO Chair in Social Learning and Sustainable Development

The UNESCO Chair in Social Learning and Sustainable Development was established in 2010 at Wageningen University. Chair-holder is Prof. Arjen Wals. The chair covers issues at the intersection of (sustainability) education, (lifelong) learning and systems innovation. In dealing with challenges of organising, consuming, producing and living in more sustainable ways, learning and innovation does not and cannot take place in a vacuum but takes place in rich social contexts with innumerable vantage points, interests, values, power positions, beliefs, existential needs and inequities.

Social learning offers a way of organising learning and communities of learners. Social learning can be described as the learning that takes places when divergent – often conflicting – interests, norms, values and constructions of reality meet in an environment that is conducive to learning. Essential ingredients of social learning are emphasis on collaboration, citizen-driven and emancipatory approaches, reflexion and reflexivity, social cohesion and the utilization of diversity.

Prof. Arjen Wals

As sustainability and sustainable development are increasingly seen as emerging properties of collaborative learning, the creation of a more sustainable world above all requires learning, and not just any learning, but transformative learning that leads to a new kind of thinking, alternative values and co-created solutions, co-owned by more reflexive citizens. Sustainability is as much about how we teach and learn as it is about what we teach and learn.

Objectives of the Chair

The chair focuses on the commonalities and differences between the various interpretations and uses of social learning in the context of sustainable development. The aim is to provide a theoretically sound and practically relevant basis for education and learning for sustainable development.


Wals has worked at Wageningen University since 1992. In 2012 he also became an Adjunct Faculty member of Cornell’s Civic Ecology Lab and a Visiting Professor at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Wals obtained his PhD in 1991 with a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His dissertation tackled the interface of environmental psychology and environmental education. He has (co)published and (co) edited over 150 articles, chapters and books on topics like: action research & community problem-solving, whole school approaches to sustainability, biodiversity education, multi-stakeholder social learning, and sustainability in higher education.

Popular books include: ‘Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability (Kluwer Academic, 2004) and Social Learning towards a Sustainable World (Wageningen Academic, 2007). He was responsible for the midterm review of UNESCO’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD).


Blog – Learning for sustainability  
2009 – Report - Review of contexts and structures for Education for sustainable development;
2012 – Report - Shaping the education of tomorrow. Full-length report on the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development;
2012 – Book - Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change
2012 – Video - Why the green economy cannot be ‘business as usual’ and why ESD cannot be ‘education as usual’


Wageningen University and Research Center (WUR), 
Education and Competence Studies,building 201 / Room 7021, 
Hollandseweg 1
6706 KN Wageningen 
The Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0) 317 484 184

More information:


Het UNESCO Chairs en UNITWIN Programma bevordert internationale wetenschappelijke samenwerking op belangrijke UNESCO’s thema’s als onderwijs, cultuur, en duurzame ontwikkeling. Het programma is opgericht in 1992 en faciliteert onder meer Noord-Zuid samenwerking om de ‘knowledge gap’ tussen het mondiale Noorden en Zuiden te dichten.


Het ‘UNESCO Chair’-programma bestaat sinds 1992. Er zijn 667 UNESCO leerstoelen en 45 UNITWIN netwerken in 115 verschillende landen (stand 2017).

Nederland kent 6 UNESCO-leerstoelen, die de thema’s onderwijs, ICT, duurzaamheid, mensenrechten, armoede en ‘governance’ raken en verbinden.

In een serie gastcolleges presenteren de Nederlandse UNESCO leerstoelhouders hun werkterrein en onderzoek. Deze online UNESCO Masterclasses zijn beschikbaar via youtube.

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