Education has long been considered a force for social transformation, influencing teaching-learning approaches and policy, including the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. This article sets out to problematise the relationship between education and social change, proposing a theoretical framework around social transformation as an alternative to the usual development lens. A historical analysis of an education for rural development project implemented in Nepal in the 1980s reveals that curriculum and training approaches were strongly influenced by the assumption that education could initiate economic and cultural change. The paper argues that this focus on educational interventions as facilitating planned development outcomes limited analysis not only of the project’s impact, but also of the broader changes that have taken place in these communities over the past four decades. By contrast, a social transformation lens can help shift attention from formal educational providers to investigate political and commercial actors, amongst others. Such an approach can offer rich insights into informal learning spaces and new communicative practices which have transformed people’s lives.