Educational outcomes of Learning for Sustainability: literature review

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

1. Background

1.1 Project Brief

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 LfS (and outdoor learning) throughout the UK and internationally.

The LfS policy context in Scotland is globally unique in that it brings together education for sustainable development (ESD), global citizenship and outdoor learning 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) (GTCS, 2019), and currently a priority in Scottish education. This approach was research-informed (see Christie and Higgins, 2012a/b and Higgins and Christie, 2018) and has been internationally celebrated through UNESCO recognition and academic review (e.g. Evans et al 2017).

Whilst the review focuses on the significance of LfS and the relationship between educational outcomes, it is difficult to distinguish these exact processes and approaches and extrapolate direct correlation between these two issues. As such we outline our understanding of LfS, attainment and educational outcomes within this opening section and conduct our review using these definitions as guiding parameters. Where possible we make such distinctions between causation and correlation clear in the review and provide both summaries of knowledge and areas for further investigation.

1.2 Definitions

1.2.1 Sustainability

Following a previous review of literature appropriate to Scotland (see Christie and Higgins, 2012a) we define the term 'sustainability' as used in the title from concepts such as 'sustainable development' and 'education for sustainable development'. Depending on the literature, these terms are often used synonymously and in reference to 'environmental education'. For the present review, we consider sustainable development and education for sustainable development as related concepts, in other words 'education for sustainable development' is the process by which one learns how to act in a sustainable way and therefore contributes to 'sustainable development'. Environmental education is a related concept that refers to the process involved in learning about broader environmental issues (for example systems, concepts, conservation); an outcome of which may be greater knowledge and understanding of 'sustainable development' and pro-environmental behaviours (that is 'environmentally friendly' behaviour).

For the purposes of this review and to provide a sense of the contested nature of terms used in the field, we refer to one of the most widespread early definitions of sustainable development: defined in Our Common Future, generally known as 'The Brundtland Report', (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 16). This defines sustainable development as "the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This is a rather anthropocentric and contested view, in that the Earth and its whole biological community need to be respected as part of an interdependent ecological network. In light of this, we propose that the 'others' referred to in the UNESCO definition (below) must include all life on Earth. Indeed, this tension is one of the reasons for the development of the unique conceptualisation of LfS in Scotland – as outlined below.

With regard to education for sustainable development, UNESCO states that ESD 'aims to help people to develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge to make informed decisions for the benefit of themselves and others, now and in the future, and to act upon these decisions' (UNESCO, 2010, para 3). This again is anthropocentric and so more recently Martin et al (2013) have proposed a succinct definition that goes some way to at least resolving the issue of the inclusion of diversity of life on Earth – ESD can be thought of as 'a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology and equity of all communities' (Martin et al, 2013).

It must also be noted that we acknowledge the tension between those who see 'individual behaviour change as the "holy grail" of the environmental movement' and those who claim that 'social structures are the main problem and who advocate collective social action' (Kenis and Mathijs, 2012: 45).

1.2.2 Learning for Sustainability

As referred to in the opening paragraph, LfS is a term derived from the One Planet School working group and report (Scottish Government, 2012), and it is currently a priority in Scottish education. It can be understood as an organising concept that relates to global citizenship, sustainable development education and outdoor learning (Scottish Government, 2016[2]). The policy permeates Initial Teacher Education (ITE), GTCS professional standards (GTCS, 2019) and the school inspectorate process through How Good Is Our School? [4th Edition] (HGIOS4) (Education Scotland, 2015a). The definition drawn from the original One Planet School report describes 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' (Scottish Government, 2012). It is concerned with every level and type of learning and the provision of quality education for all. The five headline recommendations, accepted by the Scottish Government (2013) are that:

  • all learners should have an entitlement to Learning for Sustainability;
  • every practitioner, school and education leader should demonstrate Learning for Sustainability in their practice;
  • every school should have a whole-school approach to Learning for Sustainability that is robust, demonstrable, evaluated and supported by leadership at all levels;
  • school buildings, grounds and policies should support Learning for Sustainability;
  • a strategic national approach to supporting Learning for Sustainability should be established.

When we refer to LfS within this review we are referring to this Scottish definition and this particular educational context. We will also refer to the affordances of this approach, by affordances we are referring to the particular relationships that can arise through the bringing together of the learner, the learning opportunity and the environment or contextual condition in which an educational experience takes place.

1.2.3 Poverty-related attainment gap

The Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched by the First Minister in 2015 (Scottish Government, 2019). It focuses on improvement activity in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing. It also supports and complements a broader range of initiatives and programmes which aim to ensure that all of Scotland's children and young people reach their full potential.

The £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund consists of a number of different funding streams:

Challenge Authorities

The Challenge Authorities programme provides targeted funding to nine local authorities with the highest concentrations of deprivation. The nine 'Challenge Authorities' are Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, North Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire and Renfrewshire.

Schools Programme

The Schools' Programme supports an additional 74 schools with the highest proportion of pupils living in our most deprived areas outside the nine Challenge Authorities.

Pupil Equity Funding

Pupil Equity Funding is allocated directly to schools and is targeted at closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Every council area is benefitting from Pupil Equity Funding and over 95% of schools in Scotland have been allocated funding for pupils in P1-S3 known to be eligible for free school meals.

Care Experienced Children and Young People

The Care Experienced Children and Young People fund, launched in 2018, provides funding through the Attainment Scotland Fund to all 32 local authorities. This funding stream is designed to enable local authorities, as corporate parents, to make strategic decisions around how best to improve the attainment of care experienced children and young people from birth to the age of 26.

Evaluation and effectiveness of the interventions will be measured via the National Improvement Framework and other measures.

It is beyond the scope of this review to draw direct comparisons between the Scottish Attainment Challenge and LfS policy, however we highlight indicators of potential educational outcomes or factors related to attainment across the three areas of numeracy, literacy and health and wellbeing.

1.2.4 Educational outcomes

The specific educational outcomes deemed relevant to this review by the Scottish Government are listed below and formed the main analytical framework of the review and report. This structure reflects the four capacities core to Curriculum for Excellence (Education Scotland, 2008):

  • 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

1.2.5 What can we learn from this review?

Conducting this review was no easy task. First, the definitional debate concerning core terms such as 'sustainability', 'education for sustainable development' etc. referred to above has been – and continues to be – vigorous; with the added complication that at its core are values and action issues, which authors contest with a great and understandable sense of urgency. Second, there is an increasingly multi- disciplinary interest in this area of study; meaning the research is maturing, germinating and spreading across and within many fields. Third, due to this growth,

there are a number of theoretical and methodological starting points translated into a range of qualitative and quantitative approaches, which bring further issues; for example, empirical studies are often critiqued for perhaps losing the more intangible, less mechanistic measures of 'educational outcomes'. Therefore, whilst the picture is broad and wide-ranging, the studies do not always or easily reconcile. Fourth, the studies vary in quality so care is needed when assessing both the technical aspects of the research and the definitions employed; for example, terms such as 'nature', 'outdoors' and 'sustainability' are open to subtle interpretation. To account for this variety, each study considered in this review went through a process of quality control to sift out those studies which related to our purpose here; being mindful that papers not necessarily falling neatly within the parameters of our study could also lend something useful to our research.

Given this unique context and our own specific selection process, we present our findings as knowingly starting from an incomplete basis. What we offer is an analysis and summary of the studies we have gathered as a purposively focused introduction. As such at the beginning of each section we offer a research summary based rather more on correlation than causation and potential directions for future research.

1.3 Methodology

We have provided the philosophical and conceptual rationale for this review through the initial background, context-setting and definitional parameters.

Due to the challenges (as outlined in Section 1.2.5) we decided to opt for a more nuanced approach to data collection rather than a more rapid evidence assessment approach. We were less concerned with the number of studies and reviews conducted, and more concerned with the quality, the definitions and the themes emerging from across and within the studies we felt most related to our research intentions. Therefore, we adopted a three-phase approach which included an analysis of study quality.

1.3.1 An Overview

Phase 1: Primary, focused review

We adopted a purposive sampling approach where we 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 we were aware of through our own work and teaching. Therefore, this phase focused on material drawn from sources beyond the parameters of the primary review.

Phase 3: Consultation

Additionally, we held a consultation phase where we referred to specialist colleagues in the field in Scotland to review our work for completeness (sources used) and accuracy of interpretation. We were also directed to particular articles pertinent to our study, both relevant to the general discussion, context and overview, and to some aspects of the influence of LfS on attainment.

1.3.2 The process

Refining the primary (phase 1) search criteria

Initial searches were conducted through EBSCO Host via University of Edinburgh library, focusing on six databases (see Appendix A for full details)1:

1. GreenFILE

2. British Educational Index

3. Academic Search Complete

4. Education Source

5. Humanities International Complete

6. Education Resources Information Centre (ERIC)

Boolean searches were conducted using a combination of keywords with And/Or operators to produce more relevant results. The keywords used were determined following careful consideration of a number of factors; such as awareness of country-

specific terminology, commonly used terms and the relationship between the And/Or operators.

And – Using the Boolean Operator And will narrow your search results. In this case, using And will retrieve search results containing all keywords, in this case 'educational outcomes', 'school', 'sustainability'. [3]

Or - Using the Boolean Operator Or will broaden your search results. In this case, using Or will retrieve search results containing either of the keywords, in this case 'attainment', 'education for sustainability', 'learning for [4] sustainability', 'outdoor'.

Further research parameters were included to reduce the volume of records returned. The full inclusion criteria are detailed in Table 1 below.

Table 1 Inclusion Criteria

Topic Inclusion Criteria
Keywords "educational outcomes" And "school" And "sustainability" Or "attainment" Or "education for sustainable development" Or "Learning for Sustainability" Or "outdoor"
Date range Search 1 - 1990-2018 Search 2 - 2013-2018 Search 3 - 2013-2018
Publication/Document Type Scholarly peer-reviewed publications including academic journals, research reports, government reports, periodicals
Language English
Educational Level School levels covering age range 3-18

Table 2 Search Process

Date Range Search Parameters
Search 1 1990-2018 All inclusion criteria used
Search 2 2013-2018 All inclusion criteria used and date range narrowed
Search 3 2013-2018 All inclusion criteria used, date range narrowed and manual search performed to refine the papers returned

Note on the date range included

We conducted searches altering the year from 1990 up until 2018. Whilst the full details, year-by-year, are presented in Appendix B, the following summary in Table 3 and Figure 1 give an indication of the growth in interest and published research in the field. This in turn was significant in our data management processes.

In summary, the total records returned increase from 4,389 in the period up to 1990 to 83,584 records returned by 2018. The detail reveals almost 11,000 records being returned in the period up to 2000 and almost 45,000 records being returned in the past eight years (2010-2018). Over 40% of those records returned (19,063) fall within the three years from 2015-18. This distribution shows the volume of peerreviewed research conducted since 2000 and specifically within the last decade. This demonstrates the potential scale of the literature review and provides the rationale for limiting the literature search to records returned within 2013-2018 only. Additionally, this timeframe dovetails with our previous literature reviews which were published in 2012 (Christie and Higgins 2012a, b).

Table 3 Growth in Recorded Publications 1900-2018

Date range Years Increase of records returned
1900-1950 50 years + 1,827 records
1950-2000 50 years + 9,046 records
2000-2005 5 years + 7,844 records
2005-2010 5 years + 15,178 records
2010-2015 5 years + 25,488 records
2015-2018 3 years + 19,063 records

Figure 1 Increase in Search Records (returned 1900-2018)

Figure 1 Increase in Search Records (returned 1900-2018)

Refining the primary database further by narrowing the year search to 2013-2018

When analysed further, the records returned within 2013-2018 span 50 journals (Appendix C)[5]. There may be more publications within the range, however the university database only revealed these titles. Taking that sample, we opted to more closely consider those journals with a high impact factor[6] (see Table 4) and those which we knew held relevant articles. This screening reduced the records returned to 1,392 records returned across 14 journals. We manually reviewed each of these records by title, keywords and abstracts and reduced the total to 76 articles (see Appendix D for a full list of these articles).

Table 4 Impact Factor of Journals Selected

Journal Title Impact Factor (from data available in 2018)
British Journal of Sociology and Education 1.504
British Educational Research Journal 1.696
Developmental Psychology 2.934
Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 1.902
Environmental Education Research 2.595
Environment Research 4.732
International Journal of Educational Development 1.403
International Journal of Science Education 1.325
Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning No data
Journal of Experiential Education No data
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 3.476
Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment No data
Journal of School Health 1.935
Journal of Environmental Education 2.472

Analysis of study quality

As a general rule, journal articles were selected on the basis of whether the focus was in line with the parameters of the review as described previously and if they were deemed robust in terms of a clear research/evaluation dimension.

We used three questions to guide this process:

  • Is the research relevant – does it relate to the specific aims of this study?
  • Is there a clear, justified methodology?
  • Is there a clear analysis?

Each paper in the primary database was ranked accordingly using a four-star scale.

  • Good: positive assessment against all three questions
  • Fair: positive assessment against most of the questions; no negative assessments
  • Unclear: unclear quality in accordance with all the questions
  • Poor: negative assessment against one or more of the questions

See Tables 5 to 7 for details and totals. The star rating appears alongside the papers in the database as held in Appendices D, E and F.

Table 5 Results of Analysis of Study Quality (primary search – Appendix D)

Quality Star Rating Number of Studies
Good **** 15
Fair *** 28
Unclear ** 14
Poor * 10
Not relevant 10

We have based this quality analysis process on a system employed by Gill (2014) who adopted and produced a simplified version of a framework created by Bell et al (2008).

Phase 2: Broad Search: Miscellaneous records and articles

During the process of refining the formal literature searches (search 1 and 2 described above) and given our expertise and knowledge of the field, we have been able to gather a number of articles and research literature that have informed the formal literature review. These are listed in Appendices D and E and we applied the same star rating process to them.

Table 6 Results of Analysis of Study Quality (miscellaneous papers - Appendix E)

Quality Star Rating Number of Studies
Good **** 0
Fair *** 1
Unclear ** 3
Poor * 1
Not relevant 9

Table 7 Results of Analysis of Study Quality (personal knowledge - Appendix F)

Quality Star Rating Number of Studies
Good **** 5
Fair *** 2
Unclear ** 4
Poor * 0
Not relevant 0

In summary, 102 journal articles were accessed, and 51 were awarded a 3 or 4 star rating. The full list of journal articles accessed is available within Appendices D, E and F.

It should be noted that there are some key articles that pre-date the period under review and, where appropriate, these are cited in the narrative. There is also additional literature relating to the methodology, general conceptual issues and analysis, and this is cited where appropriate. All references cited in these general discussions (whether from our own broader reading or the literature search conducted for the present study) are included in the reference list of these articles which is included below and before the appendices.

Thematic Analysis

We have adopted a thematic approach to the data analysis. The tender document (Appendix G) outlined the research specification, detailing the seven educational outcomes of interest and the key research questions to be addressed.

The specific educational outcomes deemed relevant to this review by the Scottish Government were:

  • 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

The outcomes were related to the research questions posed in the tender document which were:

  • What kind of impact does LfS have (positive or negative) and what is the level of that impact?
  • How and why are these impacts achieved? This could include but not be limited to:
    • the engagement and/or experience of learners studying LfS
    • the relevance of LfS to 'real world' challenges commonly encountered outside education
    • the extent to which LfS can support delivery of other areas of the curriculum
    • the extent to which LfS aids the development of skills and knowledge commonly used beyond education and in later life and work
    • the influence of curriculum structure on the prevalence of LfS
    • the knowledge of teachers or education practitioners in the field of LfS
    • the physical environment of an educational setting
    • any other barriers or facilitators to the delivery of LfS

1.4 Limitations

This review was restricted to articles written in English. Whilst English is an international norm for academic publications, we acknowledge that this restriction may have excluded pertinent material.

We further acknowledge that by focusing the review through the databases we have identified and by setting the search parameters and refining in the way that we

did, we may not have captured material located in specialist publications of other disciplines. The search will also have been partially limited by the specific terminology used in the context of LfS in Scotland, namely ESD, global citizenship and outdoor learning. However, by including the second phase wider review, we attempted to mitigate for that as far as was possible within time and budgetary constraints.

1.5 Ethicalconsiderations

All data was sourced from peer-reviewed databases existing within the public domain via the University of Edinburgh library system. As University of Edinburgh staff we operate all research under the university's Ethical Guidance Framework.



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