Educational outcomes of Learning for Sustainability: literature review

Literature review exploring the impact of Learning for Sustainability on educational outcomes.

Executive Summary

1.0 The review examines literature relating to the educational outcomes of Learning for Sustainability (LfS), as understood in terms of policy development within and across Scotland. The review is intended to inform further research and also be of value in policy development. Additionally, this overview can inform developments related to curricular reform in Scottish education, and support and foster understanding of process and outcomes relevant to recent growth in Learning for Sustainability (and outdoor learning) throughout the UK and internationally.

1.1 Whilst compiling this literature review a 10-country UNESCO study (2019) was published, which considered the national focus on learning dimensions (specifically, cognitive, social and emotional, and behavioural domains) within Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship Education. The study highlights the need for research which examines specific learning processes and the impact on educational outcomes, which suggests that this Scotland-specific, LfS-focused study is timely and consistent with international research agendas and direction.

1.2 The Learning for Sustainability (LfS) policy context in Scotland is globally unique in that it brings together education for sustainable development (ESD), global citizenship (GC) and outdoor learning (OL) as an integrated holistic concept (Scottish Government, 2012). It is an entitlement of all pupils, a professional registration requirement of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS, 2019), and currently a priority in Scottish education.

1.3 The specific educational outcomes the Scottish Government deemed relevant to this review are drawn from the 'four capacities' [1] of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (Education Scotland, 2008). Consequently, the list below formed the main analytical framework of the review and report:

  • impact on confidence of learners
  • impact on the personal and social development of learners
  • impact on understanding of citizenship
  • impact on attainment
  • impact on skills for life and work beyond formal education
  • impact on closing the poverty-related attainment gap or reducing inequity within education
  • impact on overall school improvement

1.4 A three-phase approach was adopted which included initial searches conducted through EBSCO Host via University of Edinburgh library focusing on six databases using Boolean searches with a combination of keywords with And/Or operators to produce more relevant results and further targeted searches. All papers reviewed were ranked using a 0 to 4 star rating scale based on relevance, methodology and analysis (with 4 being the top rating).

  • Phase 1: Primary, focused review: A purposive sampling approach was adopted which drew on a number of primary sources such as databases covering journal articles, books, theses and dissertations. This covered national and international material, grey literature, emerging student work and published, peer-reviewed materials. Full details of the indicative primary searches and the analysis of study quality are outlined in detail below.
  • Phase 2: Secondary, wider review: The primary review unearthed secondary sources such as reference lists within policy documents, literature that came through searches for other projects, or resources that the authors were aware of through their own work and teaching. Therefore, this phase focused on material drawn from sources beyond the parameters of the primary review.
  • Phase 3: Consultation: Additionally, a consultation phase with specialist colleagues in the field in Scotland facilitated a review for completeness (of sources used) and accuracy (of interpretation). This process also revealed particular articles pertinent to the study; both relevant to the general discussion, context and overview, and to some aspects of the influence of LfS on attainment.

In summary, following a series of refinements to narrow the searches; including setting inclusion and exclusion criteria, reviewing search parameters, narrowing date ranges and a manual review of abstracts including a quality ranking, the primary database (Phase 1) was reduced to 76 articles, with 51 awarded a subjective 3 or 4 star rating deeming them relevant for inclusion and a more thorough examination.

1.5 In reviewing these articles it became evident that the term 'Learning for Sustainability' was rarely used by authors. This is unsurprising, as this has a particular meaning in Scottish policy as per above (1.2). Whilst all three of the 'components' of LfS appeared in the literature, the most common term used by authors was 'Education for Sustainable Development' (ESD - and synonyms). This is due to its wide acceptance and it being the term favoured by UNESCO. Whilst the widely acknowledged limitations of 'ESD' led to the development of the concept, definition and adoption of the more holistic term (LfS) used in Scotland, this review must accept the dominance of ESD as a term. Consequently this, and, where appropriate, the other individual terms (global citizenship and outdoor learning) are used in this review to denote the specific focus of an article.

2.0 Following the key analytical framework informed by the specific educational outcomes set by the Scottish Government, it is clear that in terms of broader educational outcomes, the overall findings are significant for both policy and practice as they position LfS as an excellent context through which all aspects of CfE can flourish, enabling learners to develop and display the values and dispositions outlined in its 'four capacities'. Building teacher confidence through pre-service and professional development opportunities will help them recognise and maximise the potential of LfS to contribute to these broad educational outcomes. More specifically, the main findings were:

2.1 Impact on the personal development of learners: The complex interdisciplinary and controversial nature of sustainability issues demands that effective Learning for Sustainability pedagogies adopt inclusive, values and personal action-based approaches. As such, LfS can help young people to explore, experience and come to know themselves, their connection to the world around them, and the contributions they can make to society now and for the future. It can engage them in local community issues which can help them to understand the interdependencies between 'their place' and the wider world, and their role within those relationships. Whilst this does not guarantee the personal development of the learner, the process of becoming competent to 'act in the world', and confident in doing so, is a core intended outcome of LfS and the essence of one of the 'four capacities' that CfE intends young people to develop – that of becoming 'confident individuals'. The literature reviewed highlights the importance of appropriate real-world and outdoor learning environments, and as LfS is congruent with these approaches, it may also have positive benefits for building knowledge and understanding related to academic attainment whilst providing opportunities for learners to flourish across different aspects of their lives.

2.2 Impact on understanding of citizenship: Developing the necessary competences and a positive orientation to becoming a 'responsible citizen' as expected by CfE, is closely related to personal development outcomes as it enables young people to think about themselves in relation to broader connections and dependencies between different aspects of life. This can include considering the relationships between people of different backgrounds, nationalities and cultures, and our collective and individual relationships with the natural world. In the context of this review, the literature highlighted the significance of 'systems' (ecological, social etc.) and 'systemic thinking' as core to sustainability, and that this may be a 'threshold concept' allowing deeper understanding and facilitating responsible actions (citizenship) with regard to the natural and social world and issues such as fairness, justice and equity. The value of building relationships with the natural world was prominent in developing understanding and empathy, and real-world contexts, particularly working with partners in the community, were regarded as being of great value in helping learners to address real-world sustainability and a wide range of complex interdisciplinary issues.

2.3 Impact on academic attainment: There is evidence that LfS does have an 'impact' on attainment, through the nature of the issues studied (complex, interdisciplinary, consequential, 'real' etc.), the characteristic pedagogies employed, and the value of school community approaches that take sustainability seriously. This is particularly so through outdoor learning, where there is increasingly strong evidence that experiences in nature can boost academic learning, including in subject areas unrelated to the outdoor context. For example, the benefits of time spent outdoors in terms of health and wellbeing, stress reduction, improved mental health and confidence of young people were reported, all of which are known to support academic attainment. However, whilst impact on academic success is a primary concern of schools and education, many authors caution against a narrow view, arguing that this is one facet of learner development and should be considered in a broader context. This aligns closely with the emphasis in CfE on good health and wellbeing (alongside literacy and numeracy) as the foundation to all attainment, and as a responsibility of all school staff.

2.4 Impact on skills for life and work beyond formal education: The impact of LfS on school attainment reveals the opportunity to develop skills relevant across the life course. Whilst there appears to be limited research into the impact on skills for life and work specifically, it does seem logical that skills developed in formal educational settings are not confined to that context; they translate into skills for life and work beyond formal education. For example, LfS can encourage the development of critical thinking skills. It can help young people to uncover and unpick complex interdisciplinary issues. It can also support creativity, allowing learners to imagine solutions to existing and emerging issues. Learning for Sustainability can therefore offer an opportunity to develop and practice skills necessary to thrive in an increasingly fast-paced, uncertain world.

2.5 Impact on closing the poverty-related attainment gap or reducing inequity within education: No literature was found that examined how LfS might specifically address the poverty-related attainment gap. However, it is clear that LfS affords an opportunity to do so indirectly by raising awareness of the relationship between a sustainable future and a more equal society. It can also offer opportunities to address issues of social justice and 'fairness' by enabling learners to engage with local, national and global issues as part of a wider community or as individuals. It is clear from the review that there is a need for more research and practice-informed literature to examine the relationship between LfS and its impact on closing the poverty-related attainment gap or reducing inequity within education.

2.6 Impact on overall school improvement: There is a substantial literature on the impact of school culture, management and related internal and external conditions on the efficacy of at least the ESD dimension of LfS. Much of this relates to efforts in general to improve schools and schooling, particularly with attainment in mind. The review highlighted factors which included the significance of approaches to learning and teaching that respected and engaged learners with the complexity of sustainability issues; the allocation of adequate time and resources to properly engage with and address such complex issues; and the relationships between schools and community, including their learning potential. There was also recognition that in order to teach LfS, teachers need to be given the opportunity to learn through supportive, collaborative professional learning environments, and the time to consider the complexity of sustainability issues and how they relate to local contexts. Therefore, time and resources are required to ensure that LfS is meaningfully embedded.

Few of the articles reviewed focused on the impact of LfS on school improvement; however, a significant international 18-nations study reported the positive transformational potential of such a commitment on teaching and learning. Given the ostensibly accommodating aspirations of CfE (for example the delivery of flexible, personalised and relevant learning experiences that place learners as active participants in the educational experience), it is clear that LfS offers an excellent context for such a commitment to flourish. Further, an LfS- based whole-setting approach offers a way to build a 'learning community', where it is encouraged, supported and expected that teachers and pupils alike are learning and acting towards a sustainable future, whilst motivating and inspiring learners to take greater responsibility for their learning.

3.0 An iterative process was adopted for the review which meant that data arose from the articles which did not fit neatly into the predetermined analytical framework. Extra notes were included in the full report which resulted in a set of specific recommendations for future work and consideration. Notwithstanding the positive educational outcomes of LfS noted above, the following specific recommendations that arose from this additional process are as follows:

  • It is clear from the literature that LfS as an integrated holistic concept is under-researched in relation to its main constituent elements (education for sustainable development, global citizenship and outdoor learning). It is important for Scotland, and internationally, that further research is encouraged that considers the impact of policy on practice, and of this on quality education.
  • Further exploration of appropriate pedagogies is required to determine the drivers of quality education within the context of LfS practice within and across Scotland.
  • A separate review of literature is required to tease out the unique benefits of outdoor learning experiences (e.g. health and wellbeing, stress reduction, improved mental health and confidence of young people) and the ways these may impact on the educational outcomes that are the focus of the present review. For example, outdoor learning has specific significance for pupils who were 'underachieving' and those with 'learning difficulties', highlighting the generally calmer, quieter, outdoor environment and the opportunity for more co-operative, yet self-led learning.
  • Sensitive understanding of the educational architecture of each educational setting (for example, school, cluster and region) before moving to embed LfS within those systems is necessary, so that LfS underpins existing structures or helps to reveal constraining or problematic structures.
  • Care should be taken to nuance LfS approaches for children given their age and developmental stage, as failure to do so risks demotivating – and indeed depressing or unsettling – learners and may inhibit willingness to review personal values and take appropriate actions.
  • There is value in further exploration of the long-term impacts of LfS and sustainability attitudes and behaviours, in terms of the broad understanding of attainment identified in this review. For example, whilst this review did not set out to examine evidence regarding the effectiveness of LfS in developing pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours, it was a clear and significant finding, with studies highlighting the particular importance of fostering emotional connections to nature through time spent outdoors.
  • Whilst there were no negative outcomes of LfS identified in the present review, as we embed LfS within and across Scottish education it is important to maintain a transparent and honest account of this process in order to acknowledge that this may be a possibility and that researchers and practitioners should be willing to highlight any equivocal or negative findings. In terms of formal attainment, the status of LfS may usefully be reviewed as a potential driver for change, as this may lead to greater recognition.
  • The forthcoming Learning for Sustainability 'Knowledge into Action Briefings', should be publicised and widely disseminated.



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