Embedding Learning for Sustainability in Scottish education policy and teaching practice

Research and professional development offerings have embedded learning for sustainability (LfS) across Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which is followed by more than 690,000 state school pupils.


Research hubs

Teacher Education, Curriculum and Pedagogy

Sport-Related Research

Research experts

Professor Peter Higgins

Dr Beth Christie

Professor Robbie Nicol

Dr Heidi Smith

Research group

Outdoor and Environmental Education

What was the problem?

Learning for Sustainability (LfS), which encompasses Outdoor Learning, global citizenship and sustainable development education is a developing priority area within Scottish education. Research was needed to develop an integrated understanding of these concepts, their pedagogical benefits, and the implications for policy and practice. As emerging and highly significant educational constructs, a significant programme of policy development, “awareness raising”, and in-service provision for education professionals was required.

LfS is also an important area that aligns with addressing all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG4 (quality education), and its core role in education for a sustainable future, e.g. Climate Action (SDG13), Life on Land (SDG15), Life below Water (SDG14), SDG3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), and SDG11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). 

What did we do?

base for the pedagogical benefits of outdoor learning and LfS, influencing the Scottish Government to develop a definition of LfS as “a whole-school approach that enables the school and its wider community to build the values, attitudes, knowledge, skills and confidence needed to develop practices and take decisions which are compatible with a sustainable and equitable society.”

Underpinning philosophical research by Nicol (2013) challenged the traditional focus on what school pupils can “take from” nature, to encourage recognition of the educational, developmental and environmental value for pupils to be in nature, and contribute by caring for their environment. The paper highlights examples of ways in which theory and practice in place-specific educational experiences can simultaneously be promoted, by encouraging teachers to take a moral position on sustainability education as a vehicle for positive change.

Building on this work, Christie and Higgins’ 2020 publication established that LfS, which includes such outdoor experiences noted by Nicol, could improve young people’s mental health; confidence; capacity to learn curriculum content; and development of broader skills such as social interaction, problem-solving and critical thinking. The Scottish Government-funded research indicated LfS could improve learners’ understanding of citizenship, their connection to their communities and their attitudes towards sustainability. They also highlighted a need for supportive professional learning environments to develop teachers’ abilities to address the complexity of sustainability issues in their teaching.

In addition, in 2019 Christie, Higgins and Smith reviewed existing policy and contemporary literature on Scottish teachers’ conceptual understanding of LfS and appraised existing professional development programmes for teachers. Their research identified four critical areas for change to support the successful embedding of LfS in Scottish schools:

  1. More high-quality professional development for teachers
  2. Motivated teachers who work collaboratively
  3. Interdisciplinary learning tailored to the needs of the students
  4. Leadership within a clear strategic framework

In addition, the Nicol and colleagues conducted a qualitative study with the programme director and students of a University of Edinburgh initial teacher education programme to understand their knowledge of and engagement with LfS. The 2019 research found student teachers engaged with the approach and identified its benefits in enhancing pupils’ emotional and cognitive learning and strengthening their ethical dispositions towards their communities and the environment. The paper also discussed theoretical connections between LfS and the concept of “super-wicked” problems and suggested the approach could equip pupils, student teachers and teachers with the resilience to tackle complex global challenges such as climate change.

What happened next?

Impact on education policy

Advocacy for policy support, based on the growing research evidence, led the Scottish Government to appoint a member of the team to chair its LfS policy development committees (2011-13, 2014-16). The initial and concluding reports of the group have been pivotal in embedding LfS as an entitlement of all learners and a requirement of the GTCS Professional Standards for all teachers.

This ongoing research has contributed to Scotland taking the lead on using the outdoors as an environment for learning across subject areas. It underpins, for example, Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning (2010), which is the first such national policy in the UK or elsewhere.  

Education Scotland, the national body for supporting quality and improvement in learning and teaching, actively promotes the research through its website, funds “Outdoor Learning” and “Learning for Sustainability” Development Officer posts, and, in 2010, instigated a national Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programme for teachers based on Outdoor Journeys.

In 2011, the Scottish Government established a Ministerial Advisory Group on Learning for Sustainability, and accepted all 31 of its recommendations in March 2013. This policy commitment to embedding LfS and outdoor learning within the curriculum is one of very few international examples. Peter Higgins chaired the Group and now leads the team tasked with implementing its recommendations, including liaising with UNESCO as the Scottish member of a global network on “reorienting teacher education to address sustainability”.

The research was fundamental to the One Planet Schools Report accepted by the Scottish Government (2012), and the subsequent Vision 2030+ Report (2016).

The research provided the breadth and depth of evidence and clarity of educational value to secure policies that mean LfS is now an entitlement of all Scottish pupils, a responsibility of all teachers and education leaders, and a professional registration requirement for all GTCS Professional Standards for more than 56,000 registered teaching professional.  LfS was also incorporated into school improvement processes, the revised Scottish Qualifications Authority National Courses, Skills for Work Courses and learning pathways and initial teacher education.

These sustained and wholescale transformations, integrating outdoor learning as a key aspect of sustainability education are unmatched globally.

LfS is now at the heart of what it means to be a teacher in Scotland, from the strategic vision of headteachers right the way through to the classroom practice and pedagogy.

GTCS Senior Education Officer

The following specific policy commitments/support have now been enacted:

  • LfS, alongside ‘Leadership’ and ‘Values’ became core to the GTCS Professional Standards and a professional update requirement since 2013. These standards were revised in 2019-20 and confirmed by the GTCS Council in December 2020 with an even stronger commitment to LfS.

GTCS Professional Standards

  • LfS was identified as a key theme within the self-evaluation framework How Good is Our School? (4th Edition, 2017), making it part of the school inspection process in Scotland

How Good is Our School? (HGIOS 4)

  • The Scottish Qualifications Authority has made a commitment to incorporate LfS within all new and revised National Courses, Skills for Work Courses and learning pathways that are followed by all 5,406 Scottish schools

SQA commitment to LfS

Working with a wide range of partners, we established a United Nations “Regional Centre of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development” for Scotland. This is located on our Moray House School of Education and Sport campus.

More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Scottish Government has recommended that opportunities for outdoor learning are maximised due to the lower transmission rate of the virus outdoors as well as the pedagogical benefits.

In addition to significant impact on Scottish educational policy, this research on LfS has also had a positive impact on teaching practice to benefit children across Scotland and beyond.

Recently in March 2021 Higgins was invited by QAA and Advance HE to join a panel of representing academic, business and student communities, with the aim of supporting all students to acquire the skills necessary to develop values and take actions to transition society towards a sustainable future. The guidance gives advice and support on curriculum design, as well as teaching, learning and assessment approaches.

Development of resources and professional development opportunities for teachers

Christie and Higgins developed three popular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) in LfS. The first MOOC - Learning for Sustainability: Developing a personal ethic – was one of the first MOOCs to come out of the University of Edinburgh. It launched in 2015 and enrolled over 13,000 participants from 175 countries, providing professional development in LfS for Scottish teachers.

[The MOOC was] an excellent course, very complete and a perfect introduction to sustainability

Learning for Sustainability: Developing a Personal Ethic  MOOC ParticipantLearning for a Sustainable Future  MOOC Participant

In 2021 a refreshed and expanded version of the original MOOC was developed. This second MOOC was titled: Learning for a Sustainable Future and included a strand of facilitated professional learning content as a core part of the course. The five week course launched on 4th October 2021 and is currently available on FutureLearn. To date it has attracted over 3500 learners from 120+ countries.

This was a terrific course for teachers to develop their teaching and integrate [sustainability] into the general curriculum.

Learning for a Sustainable Future  MOOC Participant

The third MOOC - Learning for a Sustainable Future: Live at COP26 - ran over two weeks in parallel with COP26 in Glasgow. This MOOC offered an opportunity to engage with community activities, educational responses and live current content emerging during the conference, and involved contributions from Scottish Government, Nature Scot, young Scottish activists, NGOS, community partnerships and the University of Edinburgh student community. This MOOC launched on 1 November 2021 and ran throughout COP26.  It attracted over 34000 learners from 120+ countries and is currently available on Future Learn until COP27 starts in November 2022.


If not for this course, I was just a by-stander. But not anymore… This course showed me the ways to do it and get going in my backyard. This course was eye-opening.

Learning for a Sustainable Future: Live at COP26  MOOC Participant

The development of both MOOCs and their launch in 2021 have been supported and developed in partnership with LfSScotland, British Council and the Social Responsibility and Sustainability Department of the University of Edinburgh.

The researchers also work closely with Learning for Sustainability Scotland (LfSScotland) to bring together a growing group of practitioners, organisations (including the General Teaching Council for Scotland and Education Scotland) and academics, to enhance understanding and advance the practice of LfS in all aspects of learning in Scotland. From 2015-2018, the researchers, LfSScotland and the GTCS secured Gordon Cook Foundation funding to apply the research to develop an online microsite and reflection tool to support students and teachers to enhance their understanding of LfS and their professional values.

The British Council awarded the researchers and LfSScotland over £900,000 through three separate projects from 2015 to 2021 to develop and deliver online professional development programmes to improve Scotland’s teachers’ knowledge and practice of LfS based on the research. Between June 2015 and November 2020, 885 teachers from schools in 31 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have participated in different offerings of the Connecting Classrooms programme at various levels. In 2016 the GTCS accredited the Connecting Classrooms programme and, in 2017, the GTCS also introduced professional recognition awards to celebrate how teachers developed advanced expertise in an area through their professional learning. One of the largest categories of GTCS professional recognition is in LfS, with over 400 individuals earning this award in LfS by engaging in significant professional development individually or through an accredited professional learning programme such as Connecting Classrooms.

Advancing practice and gaining recognition through awards

In 2018, Education Scotland, UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainable Development at York University in Toronto, the Scottish Government, Scottish Funding Council and others nominated the researchers and LfSScotland’s Development Manager for the most prestigious accolade in education, the Yidan Prize, in recognition of their contributions to advancing LfS. Furthermore, the 2018 UNESCO Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) Awards for Innovative Projects on Education for Sustainable Development named the work of RCE Scotland (including the collaboration between LfSScotland and the researchers) an Outstanding Flagship Project. The accolade recognised the Reflection Tool’s contribution to UN SDG4 (Quality Education) and target 4.7 to ensure “all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development”.

It is the increasing view of countries around the world that Scotland has one of the most ambitious and coherent policy environments in relation to education for sustainable development.

Senior Education Officer, Education Scotland

Related study programmes

Learning for Sustainability (MSc/PgDip/PgCert)

Outdoor Education (MSc/PgDip/PgCert)

Outdoor Environmental & Sustainability Education (MSc/PgDip/PgCert)