Outdoor learning and policy development in Scotland

This research has embedded outdoor learning in Scottish national education policy and underpinned the training of 1,800 teachers in Scotland, Europe and other countries.

Outdoor education

Research clusters

Pedagogy, Learning and Curriculum

Sport, Physical Education and Health Science

Research experts

Professor Peter Higgins

Dr Simon Beames

Dr Beth Christie

Professor Robbie Nicol

Dr John Telford

Dr Hamish Ross

What was the problem?

Outdoor learning in the UK has its roots in challenging outdoor adventure activities focused on encouraging young people to develop personal and social skills, such as teamwork and problem-solving. Traditionally, these activities have tended to take place in residential centres that are located far from young peoples’ homes, often relying on the availability of specialist staff and equipment.

Research at Moray House School of Education and Sport (MHSES) has identified that outdoor learning has the potential to do much more than encourage such development, and can be facilitated in school grounds and local areas. It can be rooted in local contexts, raising children’s awareness of environmental and sustainability issues, and closely tied to all aspects of the school curriculum; maths, social sciences, health and wellbeing, and physical sciences lend themselves particularly well to learning in ‘authentic’, outside-the-classroom contexts. 

What did we do?

Since the mid-1990s, outdoor learning researchers at Moray House School of Education and Sport (Simon Beames, Beth Christie, Peter Higgins, Robbie Nicol, John Telford and Hamish Ross) have been looking at opportunities in the delivery of regular, low-cost, cross-curricular outdoor learning and learning for sustainability.  Variously involving teachers, children, local authorities and government policymakers, their research has employed fieldwork, focus groups, interviews, literature reviews, and the development of theory.

In 2008, the team drew its 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.

Such was the success of Outdoor Journeys that the Esmée Fairbairn Trust funded two years of further action-research into outdoor learning in early secondary education in Scotland (A Natural Curriculum, 2011-13), resulting in the publication of a guidance document.  Findings revealed how students gained critical thinking 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.

Practise and policy development in ‘Outdoor Learning' and ‘Learning for Sustainability’ in Scotland has been informed, and heavily influenced by the research and teaching of the outdoor and sustainability education staff at Moray House School of Education and Sport. In particular  the Scottish commitment to bring outdoor learning together with other more traditional approaches to education for sustainable development, and to do so simultaneously in a wide range of Scottish Government policy areas, as well as in the training and registration of teachers, and supported by establishing a United Nations recognised centre of expertise in the field, is of international significance.

Professor Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainable Development, York University, Canada

What happened next?

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.

To date, over 1,000 teachers across Scotland have participated in the CPD programme, while an international version has been delivered to 800 teachers from 27 countries including Denmark, Iceland and Poland. Related Outdoor Journeys training is also being delivered with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

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.  We continue to train teachers and outdoor professionals through 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). 

In 2011, the Scottish Government established a Ministerial Advisory Group on Learning for Sustainability, and accepted all 31 of its recommendations in March 2013 (Learning for Sustainability (LfS)).  These included an internationally-rare entitlement on LfS and highlights the importance of outdoor learning. 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’.  

We have also been instrumental in embedding LfS into the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s Professional Standards, which were re-launched in 2013. These emphasise LfS as a “whole-school, system wide commitment [to] a sustainable future in a just and equitable world”, and are central in drawing these policy developments together across Scotland.

Alongside this, and working with a wide range of parteners, we established a United Nations 'Regional Centre of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development' for Scotland (LfSScotland). This was approved by UNESCO in 2012 and is located on our Moray House School of Education and Sport campus.

Our recent work has focused on the development of on-line approaches to ‘LfS’, including a 2015 ‘Massive Open On-line Course’ (MOOC) enrolling over 12,700 students from 165 countries, providing professional development in LfS for Scottish teachers through a British Council 3-year award, and the publication of further research articles and a book on ’Adventurous Learning’ (Simon Beames and Mike Brown). 

Our case study for the ‘Research Excellence Framework

Related programmes