Embedding outdoor learning and Learning for Sustainability in Scottish teaching practice

Research and professional development offerings have embedded outdoor learning and 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

Dr Dave A G Clark

Rosa Murray

Betsy King

Research group

Outdoor and Environmental Education


What was the problem?

The under-researched area of Outdoor Learning and the emerging area of Learning for Sustainability (LfS) previously had various definitions, without conceptual clarity. Research was needed to develop an integrated understanding of these concepts, their pedagogical benefits, and the implications for policy and practice. LfS is also an important area that aligns with addressing 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).  As emerging and highly significant educational constructs, Outdoor Learning and Learning for Sustainability were not well understood by policy makers and practitioners. Consequently a significant programme of policy development, “awareness raising”, and in-service provision for education professionals was required.

What did we do?

The Outdoor Environmental Education unit has created a robust, integrated evidence-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.”

The researchers brought conceptual clarity to the under-researched area of outdoor learning and its connections to the related areas of LfS, education for sustainable development and global citizenship education. Their work has had significant impact on Scottish educational policy by including LfS as an entitlement to all Scottish state school pupils through the Curriculum for Excellence, as seen in our related Making a Difference webpage.

In 2008, the team drew its research findings together into Outdoor Journeys, a new and easily adaptable model for outdoor learning based on enabling children to learn about local people and places in active, engaging and contextualised ways. The model (and a series of related resources) was based on a three-stage process of questioning, researching, and sharing findings.

Based on the success of the Outdoor Journeys programme, research funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation examined the benefits of outdoor learning in early secondary education in Scotland. Findings revealed how pupils developed their critical thinking skills in areas of the curriculum such as mathematics and geography, and further research demonstrated a link between outdoor learning and a tendency towards more sustainable lifestyle choices. Pupils also highlighted the benefits of having new experiences, enjoying being outside and having freedom of choice through outdoor learning. Furthermore, teachers emphasised how outdoor learning creates interdisciplinary learning opportunities for pupils to develop critical thinking and interpersonal skills.

Other research conducted by the team indicated that outdoor learning improves school pupils’ capacity to learn curriculum content. This Forestry Commission-funded review also suggested learning outdoors supports the development of children’s broader skills, such as social interaction, problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

In addition, the researchers 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 appointed 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. Outdoor Learning is a key pedagogical approach to LfS and this has become further embedded in educational practice, both in this context as independently a valuable interdisciplinary approach.

Development of resources and professional development opportunities for teachers

To date, over 1,000 teachers across Scotland have participated in the Outdoor Journeys professional learning programme, while an international version has been delivered to 800 teachers from 27 countries including Denmark, Iceland and Poland. Related Outdoor Journeys programmes were also delivered with support from Education Scotland.

In a parallel initiative, staff developed an EU Comenius-funded, in-service outdoor environmental education course which, over the past 10 years, has trained over 600 teachers from almost all European countries, and is now running in three European countries. The researchers continue to support teachers and outdoor professionals through professional learning and our growing range of programmes, and all of these initiatives are supported by our internationally-acclaimed book, Learning Outside the Classroom: Theory and Guidelines for Practice (Routledge, 2011).

The researchers have also developed a popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in LfS that launched in 2015. This MOOC enrolled over 13,000 participants from 175 countries, providing professional development in LfS for Scottish teachers. Participants ranked this MOOC 4.8/5 with learners.

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

LfS MOOC Participant

A refreshed and expanded version of the LfS MOOC – Learning for a Sustainable Future – which includes a facilitated professional learning content as a core part of the course starts 4 October 2021.

This 5-week course leads into a Learning for a Sustainable Future Live MOOC which runs during COP26 in Glasgow, offering an opportunity to engage with community activities, educational responses and current content emerging during the conference. This Live MOOC opens from 1 November 2021 and the live content starts from 8 November and runs until COP26 concludes.  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.

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

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)