Professor Peter (Pete) Higgins

Chair in Outdoor and Environmental Education, Director of the United Nations Regional Centre for ESD (Scotland), Director of the Global Environment & Society Academy


Professor Peter Higgins holds a Personal Chair in Outdoor and Environmental Education at Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. The department has an international reputation and is one of few in the world with both a practical and teaching orientation as well as substantial research interests in the field of 'learning outdoors'. The focus of the work of the Outdoor Education section is to prepare critically aware professionals to teach within and improve practice in Outdoor, Environmental and Sustainabilty Education, and also to make a significant contribution to research and knowledge in these fields.

Peter's national and international contribution has been recognised by the University of Edinburgh through the award of a Personal Chair, the only one in the field in the UK and Europe, and the University's highest recognition of sustained contributions to teaching - the Chancellor's Award for Teaching.

His significant contributions to teaching policy and practise in Higher Education through the award of 'Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Authority '.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Association.

Peter's early career was as an environmental scientist and freshwater biologist. He holds a BSc in Environmental Physical Sciences, an MSc in Freshwater Ecology and a PhD in the biology of Atlantic Salmon, and has conducted freshater ecological work in England, Scotland, Honduras and Alaska, and was one of the ecologists responsible for the re-introduction of Atlantic Salmon into the River Thames. (See also academic publications listing).

Subsequently Peter retrained as a teacher of Outdoor Education and Biology and in addition to his formal teaching qualifications has gained a wide range of high-level UK and European governing body teaching awards notably in canoeing/kayaking, mountaineering and free-heel skiing, in all of which he retains a strong recreational interest. His training and qualifications were central to his work in several UK outdoor education centres and in New Zealand.

He teaches on a range of Outdoor Education and Environmental Education programmes. Of these, and notable for its 48-year history is the Postgraduate Diploma and Masters degree in Outdoor Education which is unique in Europe and one of the few in the world. It has a high national and international reputation, attracting students from many parts of the world. He teaches both academic and practical aspects of these and other sustainable development and education programmes in the university.

He has successfully supervised over 20 PhD students in fields as diverse as residential outdoor provision, education in indigenous cultures, environmental education in Africa and Scandinavia, skill acquisition in kayaking, decision-making by mountain guides, and sustainability in early years education. He currently supervises ten Doctoral students in an equally wide range of areas.

He has recently been active in developing on-line approaches to ‘learning for sustainability’, including a University of Edinburgh Massive Open On-line Course (MOOC) in the field (UofE LfS MOOC), which in 2015 was followed by over 12,000 individuals in 166 countries; and a similar joint venture with Cornell University (USA) (Environmental Education: A transdisciplinary approach to addressing wicked problems). In 2016-17 he jointly developed a course in Sustainability and Social Responsibility, which is the only the only University-wide on-line course available to most students in the University.

Environmental Education: A transdisciplinary approach to addressing wicked problems

He is the author of over 140 articles and books relating to these fields. Through individual and collaborative (with other UK and European universities) research grants and consultancy activities he has attracted income of over £4.5M. In addition to his academic work he is active in public disseminatiation of work in the field, through comment in the press and other media.

Public lecture: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Learning for Sustainability and government policies

The policy impact of the work Peter and colleagues have carried out is significant, and was highlighted in a University of Edinburgh submission for the recent (2014) UK Research Excellence Framework.  Research by Higgins, Beames, Nicol and Ross, their PhD students and collaborators since 2000, has led directly to national and international developments: 1. Scottish Government policy on local outdoor environmental and sustainability education; 2. Scottish Government and General Teaching Council for Scotland policy on sustainability education and outdoor learning; 3. specialist degree programmes, and continuing professional development for UK and overseas teachers. Related work has supported policy developments on recreational and educational countryside access.

Outdoor Learning and Education Policy Development in Scotland

To further increase the impact of this extensive policy work, Peter and colleagues have recently been awarded a major British Council 'Connecting Classrooms' 3-year award (2015-2018) and further awards (2018-21) to support the development of teachers' skills in Learning for Sustainability.

Outdoor Education at the University

Responsibilities & affiliations

Peter is a member of a number of national and international panels and advisory groups on outdoor and environmental education and education for sustainable development. These include several European Union and UNESCO educational projects and the UK Commision for the UN.  He jointly established and is currently Director of the United Nations 'Regional Centre of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development' for Scotland (Learning for Sustainability Scotland).

Learning for Sustainability Scotland

Peter has acted in advisory capacity to the UK and Scottish Governments on Outdoor and Environmental Education, access to the countryside and related environmental issues. He is currently Chair of the Scottish Government National Implementation Group on 'Learning for Sustainability' - integrating education for sustainabie development, global citizenship and outdoor education. He is also a member of the Boards of Trustees of the Field Studies Council and Venture Trust. He has held advisory roles with a wide range of other outdoor and environmental educational providers and agencies and has contributed to their continuing professional development.

Scottish Government National Implementation Group on 'Learning for Sustainability

Peter is a member of the UK Commission for UNESCO 'Expert Panel' and has recently jointly written their review of ESD in the UK.  He co-wrote the chapters on ‘Outdoor Education’ and ‘Sustainable Development Education’ in the definitive text on education in Scotland (Scottish Education, Bryce et al., 2013) and co-authored ‘Learning Outside the Classroom’ (Routledge).

Undergraduate teaching

BEd Primary

  • Contribution to extension course in outdoor learning
  • Contribution to extension course in global learning

Sustainability, Society and Environment - University-wide Undergraduate Elective Course

  • Course Director

Postgraduate teaching

MSc Programmes in 'Outdoor Education' and 'Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education'

  • Interpreting the Landscape
  • Professional Practice and Experiential Learning
  • Ecology and Field Studies
  • Practical programme - Canoeing (River Spey Descent), Winter Mountaineering etc.

MSc Programme in 'Learning for Sustainability'

  • Ecosystems for Educators

PGDE Secondary

  • Contribution to extension course in outdoor learning

MSc Carbon Management

  • Contribution to taught part of the course

MSc Nursing Studies

  • Contribution to taught part of the course

Areas of interest for supervision

Peter currently supervises 11 doctoral students (from the UK, Europe, South-East Asia and North America) who are studying a wide range of topics in Outdoor, Environmental and Sustainability Education in the context of the UK, Europe and other parts of the world.

He has supervised doctoral students now working in the UK, Europe, Japan, Canada and Austraila.

He also works with an Honorary Research Fellow and an Senior Resarch Fellow.

Current PhD students supervised

  • John Pierce- A Longitudinal Case Study into the Practices and Processes of Outdoor Centres in Ireland
  • Jerry Tracey- An investigation into the cultural interaction between slalom and play-boating with white-water canoeing and kayaking
  • Louise Hawxwell- An exploration into the impact of outdoor experiences on the perceptions and practices of trainee teachers over the course of their undergraduate study and into their NQT year - a longitudinal study
  • Shang Zhan Lee- Impact of outdoor learning continuing professional development and policy change on teachers in Taiwan


Past PhD students supervised

  • Steve Banks- Distal and proximal attentional focus effects on the performanceof closed and open continuous motor skills.
  • John Crosbie- The value of outdoor education for people with disabilities: An in-depth case study of the Calvert Trust
  • Justine Geyer- Developing an Understanding of Greenspace as a Resource for Physical Activity in Adolescents in Scotland
  • Rachel Howell- Promoting Lower-Carbon Lifestyles: The role of personal values, climate change communications and carbon allowances in processes of change
  • Roger Scrutton- The effectiveness of residential outdoor education programmes
  • Iain Stewart-Patterson- The Role of Intuition in the Decision Process of Expert Ski Guides
  • Ralf Westphal- Understanding Personal and Social Development (PSD) within the discourses of Outdoor Education in the UK and Friluftsliv in Norway
  • Jane Spiteri- Young Children’s Perceptions of Environmental Sustainability: A Maltese Perspective
  • Hannah Ritchie- Greenhouse gas emissions from aquaculture: Improved estimation, projection and potential for mitigation. (PhD currently advertised - supervision with Prof Dave Reay, Geosciences)
  • Stephen Porter- The climate change mitigation potential of tackling global food waste
  • Rebekah Tauritz- Developing Uncertainty Competences through Outdoor Education for Sustainability
  • Abdul Kahlid- The nature and scope of outdoor education in the city-state of Singapore
  • Clare Nugent- Nature kindergartens as pedagogical environment for early childhood: a multi-case study 
  • Jamie Hamilton- A systems-based evaluation of the feasibility of a national outdoor education programme and the long-term socio-economic and developmental dynamics of implementation. (Heriot Watt University).

Research summary

  • Theory, philosophy and practice of outdoor education / outdoor learning
  • Theory, philosophy and practice of environmental and sustainability education
  • International comparative approaches to outdoor, environmental and sustainability education
  • Coaching and skill acquisition in outdoor activities

Project activity

  • Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.  A Natural Curriculum: Improving the quality and availability of outdoor learning experiences in schools. (with Christie, B., Beames, S., Nicol, R. and Ross, H.)
  • A review of WWF-UK’s approach to formal education.  World Wide Fund for Nature (UK). (with Lavery, A.)
  • Scottish Universities Insight Institute Walking for Wellbeing: Developing Sustainable Engagement between Research, Policy and Practice.  (with PHARC, MHSE. 
  • A review of Ecoschools in Scotland.  Commissioned Report for Keep Scotland Beautiful.  (with Birley, T., King, B., & Watson, M.)
  • Learning for Sustainabilty: Connecting Classrooms.  For the British Council. (with Christie, B., King, B. & Murray, R.)

View all 119 publications on Research Explorer

Peter is currenty a member of the Boards of Trustees of the Field Studies Council and The Venture Trust.

He has been a member of a range of other boards, including the SportScotland Trust Company Board which oversees the national outdoor centres etc.