Educational outcomes of Learning for Sustainability: literature review

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

2. General impressions of the literature

Reading the articles generated by the searches led us to develop some overall impressions. Whilst the following is not supported by direct references to specific articles, it is indicative of some important findings and themes that we go on to describe in more detail in the sections below. We also feel it is important to note the absence of research, or perhaps the limitation that it was not situated in relation to the Scottish educational context.

We were asked to focus on LfS as the generic term, as it is both adopted in policy and practice in Scotland and relatively common internationally. However, as we have noted elsewhere (Higgins & Christie, 2018), and is evident in Scottish education policy documentation, this term has a particular conceptual frame in Scotland – linking ESD, global citizenship and outdoor learning. As such we found the searches provided a range of articles that focused on or made specific reference to one or more of these terms, but with the emphasis being on ESD. In the sections below, we use the terms LfS rather than ESD, as the latter does not specifically include an expectation of outdoor learning in its execution. Notwithstanding that, outdoor learning does frequently emerge as a significant theme in many articles, and this is discussed below and raised again in Section 3.7.

A high proportion of the papers show how LfS (and ESD) approaches have an impact on attitudes to sustainability. Whilst this was not an area we were expected to review, it is entirely understandable that word searches with the parameters employed would produce a high number of papers that linked these ideas. We include a brief note on this in Section 3.7.5.

Relatively few articles focus on how LfS may impact attainment directly, though as will be evident below, a number refer to the impact on aspects of learning and schooling that are attainment-related.

Similarly, a number refer to positive changes in school culture etc. and others to the development of higher order skills (e.g. critical thinking), 'skills for life' etc.

One of the dominant themes in a number of the papers is the role of the outdoors in general and outdoor learning in particular in attainment. Whilst this is again not the specific focus of the present review, we have noted this in the sections below.

Nonetheless, there is a clear theme emerging from this work – that learning outdoors does have a positive impact on learning. See for example recent articles by Kuo et al (2018, 2019) and Higgins et al (2018) – the more recent article by Kuo and colleagues being a significant review of the literature. In particular there is increasingly strong evidence that experiences in nature can boost academic learning, including in subject areas unrelated to the outdoor context. Further, 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. Further, there is a growing wealth of research around the broader benefits of the 'outdoors' in relation to, but not exclusive to, disciplines related to public and private greenspace (Richardson et al, 2017), health and wellbeing (Tillman et al, 2018 focus on mental health in particular), stress reduction (Wells and Evans, 2003; Chawla et al, 2014) school greenspace design (Browning and Rigolon, 2019), and physical activity (Thompson Coon et al, 2011; Lachowycz and Jones, 2011) that has not formed part of this review but should be borne in mind.

Additionally, 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. These perspectives should be noted as they bring a particular weight of evidence to the fundamental role of outdoor learning and time spent outdoors.

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.



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