The quest for development is the main challenge we must face today, as reflected in the consequences we are already experiencing as a result of climate change and the loss of sustainable biodiversity that has unfolded into a global pandemic (IPCC, 2019; Platto et al., 2021). This major environmental and humanitarian crisis comes at a great cost to ecosystems, the planet’s resources, the climate and people (IPCC, 2022; Worldwatch Institute, 2017). In addition to this, there are inequalities between countries and between different social strata (Stiglitz, 2015).

The IPCC’s sixth report already blames humans directly for severe global warming, warning of the need to take urgent action (IPCC, 2022). Thus, moving toward more sustainable societies involves a profound change in our lifestyles and in the socioeconomic model that drives them (Jackson, 2016; Balsiger et al., 2017; Chomsky et al., 2020), which is already being encouraged by the United Nations through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2015).

In this transition, education is a key element as an enabler in many areas related to the pursuit of sustainability (Vladimirova and Blanc, 2015), driving solutions to turn our destructive and divisive societies into ecologically resilient, socially just and economically viable ones (Burns, 2018). In a world increasingly dominated by neoliberal policies and consumerism, where inequalities and environmental damage are increasing (IPCC, 2022; Kopnina and Cherniak, 2016; UNDP, 2019), this ambitious goal requires an education that empowers people, who must strive to recover a notion of autonomous and critical citizenship, capable of making decisions that break with current patterns.

It seems natural, then, that education for sustainability has looked to transformative learning as a way to redirect approaches to learning, since, as Thomas (2009) highlights, there are strong connections between the two. In order to make the necessary transition, it is essential to begin by encouraging a major process of reflection which, as proposed by Mezirow (2003), the father of transformative pedagogy, encourages a change of the ways in which we interpret our experiences. This learning occurs when people critically examine their habitual expectations, review them, and act according to the new point of view (Cranton, 2016).

Within this framework, civic empowerment and the development of sustainable competencies require pedagogical approaches that focus on learning processes more so than on the accumulation of knowledge, in order to educate people with capacities for participation, adaptation, innovation, creativity, and resilience through skills such as critical and holistic thinking, problem solving, and teamwork (Thomas, 2009; UNESCO, 2015). Education that deals only with cognitive knowledge is not enough; the affective, attitudinal and actional component must also be considered, making it possible to bring to light unconsciously assumed patterns of action, values, and attitudes. This approach to learning must be based on a systemic and critical perspective on the prevailing socioeconomic models and current ways of living (Varela-Losada et al., 2016). People in complex situations must be encouraged to explore new ideas and approaches and to participate in sociopolitical processes, with the aim of progressively moving their communities toward sustainable development (Rieckmann, 2018).

It should not be forgotten, therefore, that while transformative learning is often presented as a form of individual change, transformation toward sustainable development clearly requires societal change (Balsiger et al., 2017). Some authors even go beyond human and social transformation and speak of the search for new, intimate, interconnected, and reciprocal relationships between humans and the living planet (Burns, 2018). Hence, change must start from collective and organizational learning, from reflection and the questioning of frames of reference, paying particular attention to the social and political context in order to break with unsustainable practices and institutions anchored by power (Boström et al., 2018).

The quest for sustainability must, essentially, be based on the transformation of people’s values, beliefs and behaviors, which is why research in social sciences and in education are key factors (UNESCO, 2013). Thus, it is necessary to study how education can promote sustainable development, especially through transformative learning.

Research on Transformative Learning Within the Context of Sustainable Development

Interest in the pursuit of sustainability in education has been growing in recent years, as has the publication of multiple reviews of the literature. Some of them are focused on education regarding specific environmental problems, such as conservation education (Ardoin et al., 2020) or climate change education (Monroe et al., 2019). However, studies with a more general focus on education for sustainable development have also been published (Gusmão Caiado et al., 2018; Martins et al., 2019), from a higher education context (Wu and Shen, 2016) or from lower levels of education (Ardoin et al., 2018).

Similarly, interesting reviews of the literature have emerged that make significant contributions to the field of transformative learning for sustainability (TLS). Thus, the recent review by Chen and Liu (2020) focused on systematically analyzing the studies that used the concept of action competence as the instructional approach. Their findings highlight the importance of working with authentic contexts on interdisciplinary topics and point out how the reviewed studies indicate that action-oriented pedagogy and transformative pedagogy cultivate students who are active participants, enhance their ability to deliberate on causes and effects and build their visions in order to find strategies to solve problems. Additionally, the purpose of the review by Boström et al. (2018) was to contribute a theoretical approach to understanding the conditions and constraints of social change toward sustainable development. To this end, they conducted a critical review of the literature in the field of sustainable development learning from a transformative learning approach, integrating three additional dimensions: institutional structures, social practices, and conflict perspectives. In addition, Rodríguez-Aboytes and Barth (2020) researched how it has been conceptualized and operationalized in education for sustainable development and collected evidence on how to support transformative learning. This important review highlights how social learning, the role of experience, and the development of sustainability competences are inherent to transformative learning.

In this context, bibliometric studies also make significant contributions, as they provide insight into the state of a field of knowledge and the production patterns of countries and institutions, recognizing their strengths and supporting decisions that help overcome possible biases and limitations (Maz-Machado et al., 2020). Thus, analyses have been carried out from a bibliometric point of view to find out more about research in education for sustainability (Hallinger and Chatpinyakoop, 2019; Prieto-Jiménez et al., 2021) and environmental education (Yanniris and Huang, 2018; Lopera-Perez et al., 2021).

Even so, it is necessary to continue to promote research that seeks sustainable development, especially by furthering the role of the social sciences and education (Boström et al., 2018). This is the framework for this research, which conducts a bibliometric analysis of publications since the beginning of the century in the area of TLS, in order to explore this field and supplement the literature reviews already carried out. This analysis will be used to determine its evolution, identify the main themes that articulate the field of knowledge, and recognize its main references and the network of collaborations between researchers and universities worldwide.

Materials and Methods

In order to characterize the scientific literature on TLS, the metadata of the selected publications were analyzed and the bibliometric maps were constructed. This process was carried out in two phases:

Search and Selection of Articles

Data were extracted through the Scopus database. This database provides extensive coverage of the broad variety of scientific journals that exist in the field (Mongeon and Paul-Hus, 2016). It has, therefore, been used in the literature as a source of bibliometric data for a large-scale analysis of research evaluations and research landscape studies (Baas et al., 2020; Kipper et al., 2020; Gao et al., 2021; Sobral, 2021). Furthermore, bibliometric research on databases confirms its value in citation tracking and citation analysis (Chadegani et al., 2013). Thus, this database was searched by selecting only articles and reviews in the social science arena. The following keywords were used as a search string: TITLE-BS-KEY “transformative learning” AND sustainability OR “sustainable development.” These keywords were selected because they should help identify articles with a significant focus on the topic of interest. As a time frame, articles published from 2003 to 2020 were selected (eliminating those with early access), taking as a starting reference the publication of Mezirow, which marked a milestone in the dissemination of transformative learning (Mezirow, 2003). The first selection was then refined by reading abstracts to select those related to the topic of interest. This resulted in a final sample of 129 documents, the main information on which is provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Summary of the main information of the dataset analyzed.

Analysis and Bibliometric Mapping

The metadata characterizing the selected documents (titles, authors, affiliation, country of origin, keywords, references, and citations) were extracted through the Scopus platform. The R-package bibliometrix v. 4.0.3, which performs scientific mapping for large research streams, was used to analyze these metadata and their connections (Aria and Cuccurullo, 2017). In order to facilitate the compressibility of the information obtained, tables and graphs were created and processed using Microsoft Excel. R-package bibliometrix was also used to obtain, by means of co-occurrence analysis, the citation and keyword maps and the thematic evolution figures. VOSviewer v. 1.6.15 was also used to obtain the cartographies showing the cooperation networks and the maps of relationships between keywords, by means of cluster analysis.


Evolution of the Research on Transformative Learning for Sustainability

The scientific literature in this area of research has evolved significantly over the period studied, as can be seen in Figure 1. Interest in transformative learning in the context of education for sustainability has grown steadily over the last 2 decades, with a major increase in the year 2020, which has doubled the scientific output compared to previous years.

Figure 1. Scientific production of transformative learning in the context of education for sustainability (prepared by authors).

Main Sources

When focusing on the main sources of publication in this research area (see Table 2), of note are an interdisciplinary journal (Sustainability) and a specialized journal in the research topic at hand (Journal of Transformative Education). Next are two journals focused on environmental education and education for sustainability (Environmental Education Research and International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education). Looking at the same table, it is clear that these two sources are the ones that provide the most references to papers on transformative education for sustainability.

Table 2. Most relevant sources and most local cited sources (prepared by authors).

As can be seen in Figure 2, the exponential growth of interest in TLS in recent years in two interdisciplinary journals, Sustainability and Sustainability Science, is remarkable.

Figure 2. Sources growth (prepared by authors).

The Context of Scientific Production

Looking at Figure 3, it stands out that the countries with the highest scientific production on TLS are four English-speaking countries: Canada (with 46 articles), United Kingdom (35), United States (32), and Australia (26). Just after them are Germany (14), followed by Spain (11), Sweden (10), and Brazil (9).

Figure 3. Production by country (prepared by authors).

Figure 4 also highlights the scientific production originating in the northern regions of the planet. Europe and North America account for more than 75% of the articles published in Scopus on the topic of interest.

Figure 4. Scientific production by continent (by number of articles; prepared by the authors).

It is also interesting to note the main universities that are researching transformative learning in the context of sustainable development (see Table 3). These include two Canadian universities (Manitoba and Saskatchewan), one from the Netherlands (Wageningen), and one from England (Plymouth). Once again, there is a lack of universities from countries classified by the United Nations as developing countries (United Nations, 2020).

Table 3. Main affiliations of published research.

Collaboration Network

Starting from the geographical context and looking at the map of collaborations in Figure 5, it stands out that the main nodes of cooperation are, again, in the four most productive English-speaking countries (United States, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom), although Germany, Brazil, and Sweden figure prominently.

Figure 5. Collaboration network (only the countries that show some collaboration in the publication of a document appear in the image; prepared by authors).

Figure 6 also shows the co-authorship network (with at least one published paper), which shows a rather small number of collaborations. In the central hub, the role of A. J. Sinclair is notable.

Figure 6. Co-authorship network (only authors who collaborate in the publication of a document are shown in the image; prepared by authors).

Main References

The papers with the greatest impact can be seen in Table 4. Of note is the number of papers focusing on the study of TLS at the university level (Moore, 2005; Ferrer-Balas et al., 2008; Cotton et al., 2009; Thomas, 2009; Blake et al., 2013; Howlett et al., 2016). Another important point of interest is the creation of a framework for developing key sustainability competences (Wiek et al., 2011; Giangrande et al., 2019). Additionally, public participation in resource management is also a relevant issue (Diduck and Mitchell, 2003; Sims and Sinclair, 2008; Diduck et al., 2012, 2013). It is worth noting that two of the most frequently cited papers focus on transformative learning in relation to tourism (Coghlan and Gooch, 2011; Pritchard et al., 2011).

Table 4. Most-cited documents related to transformative learning for sustainability (TLS).

In Figure 7, on the most prolific authors, highlights the role of A. J. Sinclair, who has published ten articles in the period under review, sharing authorship with researchers of great impact such as Diduck and Sims, some of them with wide dissemination. In fact, he appears as a central hub in Figure 6, which shows the co-authorship network. Also relevant is the position of S. Sterling, who has published five articles in this period, one of which is on the list of papers with the greatest impact.

Figure 7. (A) Top-authors’ production over the time, where the size of the circles represents the number of papers published that year (the larger the circle the greater the production that year) and the color represents the impact of their publications. (B) Citations per most local cited author (prepared by authors).

It is also interesting to see which are the most-cited authors locally (in the article selection itself). Here, J. Mezirow—the main promoter of transformative pedagogy—clearly stands out with more than 200 citations, as does S. Sterling, with 129. A. J. Wals, with 106, also plays an important role. Although the latter author does not appear on the list of documents in this selection of articles, he is one of the main references on social learning and higher education in the framework of sustainability.

Main Themes

Taking the keywords as a reference when analyzing the themes around TLS, different categories can be formed (see Table 5). There is a category closely related to the learning approach, where general terms such as transformative learning appear, but also more specific ones, such as critical reflection, social learning, and holistic education. There is also a category containing education-related terms such as Education for Sustainable Development or Higher Education. Additionally, there is a separate category related to sustainable development handling or policy, where terms such as sustainable development and public participation are placed. Lastly, there is a small, separate category containing keywords related to research, such as study abroad or action research.

Table 5. Main themes (Authors’ keywords in gray and keywords plus in yellow).

Taking the keywords plus (keywords added by the databases automatically generated from the titles of the articles cited) as a reference, no significant new terms seem to be included, except in the category of sustainable development handling/policy, where more descriptive words such as local participation or community resource management do appear.

Figure 8 shows the keyword network, yields a similar depiction of the field of study. Thus, a main cluster can be observed with the most important elements that characterize transformative learning, such as transdisciplinarity, critical reflection, and social learning, and another fundamental cluster focused on sustainability, linked to terms such as environmental justice and social change.

Figure 8. Keyword network grouped according to cluster analysis.

In Figure 9, on the evolution of the trend topics in the last decade, the keywords related to research (action research, study abroad) were initially highlighted to then give relevance to topics related to adult education, such as public participation and higher education. In the last section, where there is already a considerable increase in scientific production (see Figure 1), there is a greater variety of terms, such as social change, transgressive learning, holistic education, and transdisciplinarity, all related to innovative educational trends in transformative learning.

Figure 9. Evolution of trend topics of authors’ keywords (minimum frequency of 3).


Transformative learning has become an element of growing interest in the quest for sustainability, as reflected in the data obtained by this research. The number of articles published on this topic has been increasing over the last two decades, and this increase seems to enrich the aspects addressed (see Figure 9). It is particularly important to highlight as a strength last year’s production (2020) when 28 articles were published, double the number of articles of the previous year, perhaps driven by recent publications of international organizations that put special emphasis on the importance of this type of learning (United Nations, 2015; Leicht et al., 2018). This growth follows the upward trend in the scientific literature on education for sustainable development (Hallinger, 2020; Prieto-Jiménez et al., 2021), which can be related to the great concern that problems such as climate change are causing in society and the international political sphere. The data obtained also seem to show how this increase in publications contributes to the richness of the field of knowledge (see Figure 9).

Other authors, however, are concerned about this increase in scientific production, which seems to be occurring in the different fields of knowledge driven by open access publications. Mahon and Henry wonder about the usefulness of research in the humanities field, which is increasingly unwieldy, where much is written and little is read, and point to the instrumentalist and mercantilist tendencies that pervade the research activity (Mahon and Henry, 2021). Macfarlane (2021) also talks about the rise of neoliberal values and the advance of competitiveness in academia. In the field of sustainability, Shephard et al. (2021) discuss how the current demands of researchers, quality indicators, and the review and publication processes for articles often clash with the values that should advance sustainable development. Moreover, Rodríguez-Aboytes and Barth (2020), now in the field at hand, warn of the superficial use of transformative learning theory in many studies.

In this regard, it is interesting to note the exponential growth in the number of articles on transformative learning in the journal Sustainability, which has made it the main source on the topic of study (see Table 2 and Figure 2). This is an open access Swiss interdisciplinary journal of environmental, cultural, economic, and social sustainability of human beings, with an impact index of 3.251 (IF in JCR, 2020), which reflects the quality and interest of many of the articles published, and its main advantage is that it can be read by anyone with internet access. These types of open access journals are publishing a large number of articles but often require payment for each of these publications. It is, therefore, necessary to consider the difficulty for researchers with few resources to publish.

In the current context, the journals that contribute the most articles to this study are the aforementioned Sustainability and The Journal of Transformative Education, a specialist journal on the subject. However, it is also worth noting that the most-cited publication in our selection is Environmental Education Research, a traditional reference in environmental education. It is followed by the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education and Adult Education Quarterly (see Table 2). These two journals focus on post-school education, which reflects the importance of adult education in the pursuit of sustainability (Balsiger et al., 2017).

Another important element in the critical analysis of the data obtained is the origin of the selected publications. The four main countries producing the selected literature are four English-speaking countries, in line with the data provided by some studies that warn of the over-representation of English-language journals to the detriment of other languages (Mongeon and Paul-Hus, 2016). Once again, English-speaking researchers are privileged over other contexts. In fact, some studies show, for example, that the vast majority of Ibero-American researchers publish in English, rather than in their own language, Spanish or Portuguese (Badillo, 2021). This same document highlights the fact that this situation has relevant consequences for the vitality of languages, reducing the linguistic diversity of the scientific and academic world and diminishing access to knowledge. This aspect is particularly important when it comes to advancing sustainability, which requires a transition at all levels and from most of the world’s socio-cultural environments.

There is a clear prevalence of Europe and North America and their universities in the publications analyzed (with 75% of the articles published on the topic of study), evidencing the dominance of the West and its cultural hegemony in the ESD discourse (Barth and Rieckmann, 2016). Furthermore, few cross-country collaborative networks were found, and these are dominated by the same regions. Some of the reasons for this dominance are the lack of public funding for social science research in general (and on global environmental change in particular in the southern hemisphere and in emerging economies), as well as the lack of interest in these topics at national research funding agencies, and the lack of interest and motivation of traditional social scientists (Caillods, 2013).

This imbalance has significant consequences for the way in which TLS is researched, notably in relation to the diversity of scientific production and dissemination of knowledge, and, of course, in the way this knowledge can be applied in each context, which seems to compromise the significant need to address socio-environmental problems in a contextual way, requiring interventions based on the sociocultural characteristics of each region. This must be done at the macro, meso, and micro levels, as much of the behavior related to sustainability issues occurs at a crossroads of material infrastructures (e.g., what transport systems are available to me), social norms (how I should move around) and practical knowledge (how I use energy) (Shove et al., 2012; Boström et al., 2018).

As for authors working in the field, the data show that 305 people have published articles in the selection made for this paper, most of them in collaboration with other authors (see Table 1), with an average of two to three authors per paper. This seems to suggest that a good number of researchers are interested in TLS. Sinclair and Sterling, in particular, stand out among them. Nevertheless, the data also appear to indicate a need to continue creating collaborative networks where researchers from countries far from the West become more relevant and improving North-South networks, in order to favor more global, pluralistic, and intercultural research (Reid and Scott, 2013; Shephard et al., 2021; Tight, 2021).

When analyzing the papers with the greatest impact and the keywords used to describe the articles, three main TLS research trends emerge: (i) education for sustainability, especially in higher education, (ii) policies that drive sustainability, with a strong focus on public participation in resource management, and (iii) the learning approaches needed to develop transformative learning, with a particular focus on competence development. These trends seem to reflect an urgent need to tackle environmental problems, which requires changes in current decision-makers, without waiting for new generations. One need only think of the climate emergency, which requires a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (IPCC, 2020). And these changes must be based on an education that empowers people, so that they are able to break with current patterns and seek new ways of dealing with everyday situations, both on a personal and a professional level. Thus, in the evolution of the trend topics, innovation in research seems to focus on TLS’s defining characteristics: social and transgressive learning, critical reflection, and transdisciplinarity. An excellent way to delve deeper into these aspects would be to read some recently published review articles of great interest (Rodríguez-Aboytes and Barth, 2020; Wolff and Ehrström, 2020).

The analysis of the field also shows some significant gaps. TLS research does not appear to be particularly interested in issues related to inequity and environmental justice, which characterize socio-environmental problems, as well as gender studies that include in the debate the effect of patriarchy or the lack of valuing care for people and the environment. As Boström et al. (2018) point out, TLS must address issues of inertia, power and inequality at the societal and individual level. More publications focusing on these aspects are, therefore needed.

And, of course, it is also essential to continue encouraging research that promotes the questioning of the current socioeconomic model and that brings us closer to alternative positions. In the search for sustainability, it seems increasingly necessary to introduce approaches such as degrowth from a truly transformative perspective.


The urgent need to address the socio-environmental crisis involves a radical and rapid transition toward more conscious and just development models. Hence, the importance of transformative education, especially in relation to adult learning, as it is adults who are making today’s decisions. This is reflected in the main TLS research trends, with a particular focus on university education and public participation in resource management. Also essential is research on what TLS should look like, where skill development is a key element in addressing socio-environmental issues.

Thus, research on TLS, despite being a relatively new field, has been growing in recent years, providing fundamental elements for change and driven by a good number of researchers. But there are still many challenges, debates, and gaps that need to be addressed, as the evidence shows. The issue of increasing scientific output that is occurring in all fields must be considered. In TLS research, the quality of publications must be prioritized over the quantity thereof, so that the term is not used superficially, as some authors complain (Rodríguez-Aboytes and Barth, 2020). The transformative approach must permeate the practice of education for sustainability, but research must be based on quality approaches to transformative learning, including the re-examination of current systems and patterns, with a social justice and gender perspective, in a way that supports and underpins the necessary change that need to take place in schools and among teachers.

In addition, researchers should be encouraged to reflect on what the most relevant resources are for defending the quest for sustainability. Open access, fee-paying journals are publishing a large number of articles and reaching a wide audience. But it is important to consider whether this business model is the most appropriate one for TLS, particularly considering the difficulty unfunded researchers, such as researchers from developing countries or junior researchers, face in publishing their research. Should journals with this business model become a benchmark for transformative learning in the pursuit of sustainable development? Are we taking this field of study toward the utilitarian and neoliberal framework that some critics relate to sustainability (Huckle and Wals, 2015)? This is an interesting debate that needs to be considered, and which requires further study.

The quest for diversity in the field should also encourage publishers to publish in different languages. In addition, quality and rigor should be prioritized over quantity. Interdisciplinary and networked research is needed, involving diverse sociocultural contexts, especially from the southern hemisphere and developing countries. Research funding agencies must also take these aspects into account.

Bibliometric analyses such as this one can help people understand the field of study, detect gaps, and facilitate new ideas for research. But their design has several limitations. The results obtained are limited by the search conducted. The search parameters and the database used mark the articles selected and may result in some relevant publications being left out of reach. Therefore, future research should include more databases. It should be kept in mind that the impact discussed in this article corresponds to the term used in the academic field. Analyzing the real coverage (non-academic audience) of the publications would require another type of broader study. The analysis is also affected by the criteria and mappings chosen. For this reason, it is important to remember that although this research can serve as a reference, it is exploratory in nature and must be complemented with exhaustive literature reviews that help provide an in-depth understanding of the conclusions reached and the strengths and weaknesses identified in the results of the analysis conducted.

In short, education alone cannot achieve sustainable development, but it is one of the fundamental instruments for its progress. In order to tackle the socio-environmental problems in which we are immersed, it is essential to seek fundamental changes in the field of education. Hence the relevance of this type of analysis, which highlights the importance of researching new transformative approaches to develop the capacity to deal with the complexity and uncertainty of today’s world, encouraging citizens to actively participate in the development of sustainable communities.

Data Availability Statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Author Contributions

MV-L and PV-M: conceptualization. MV-L and UP-R: methodology. MV-L, PV-M, ML-R, and UP-R: formal analysis and writing–original draft preparation. ML-R and UP-R: writing–review and editing. MV-L and UP-R: supervision and funding acquisition. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by FEDER/Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities – State Investigation Agency (Spain)/ESPIGA Project (“Scientific thinking and scientific practices in the post-truth era: Promoting epistemic performances in school, aiming to critical and empowered citizenship”, Grant No. PGC2018-096581-B-C22) and the University of Vigo (“Addressing the sustainable development goals: contributions from the different curricular areas” project).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.



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