Outdoor learning and learning for sustainability policy development in Scotland

This research has embedded outdoor learning in Scottish national education policy, making it a world leader in Outdoor Learning and Learning for Sustainability.


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 centre/group

Outdoor Environmental Education

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 challenged this by identifying 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. 

The researchers also worked to provide conceptual clarity in the areas of outdoor learning and Learning for Sustainability.

What did we do?

Since the mid-1990s, outdoor learning researchers at Moray House School of Education and Sport have been looking at opportunities to deliver 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.

Furthermore, Prof Robbie Nicol’s 2013 Philosophy Also paper 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 to 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.

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 HopkinsUNESCO 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.

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 teachers.

These sustained and wholescale transformations, integrating outdoor learning as a key aspect of sustainability education, are unmatched globally. 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 outdoor learning and LfS has also had a positive impact on teaching practice to benefit children across Scotland and beyond. Learn more about the impact of our research on LfS on teaching practice from our "Embedding outdoor learning and Learning for Sustainability in Scottish teaching practice" project page.

Embedding outdoor learning and Learning for Sustainability in Scottish teaching practice

Related study programmes

Learning for Sustainability (MSc/PgDip/PgCert)

Outdoor Education (MSc/PgDip/PgCert)

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