Teaching and learning in the real world….

Logo: The University of Edinburgh

The UK has a long and rich tradition of teaching and learning outdoors. A common understanding of outdoor education, however, may still rely on images of teenagers ‘building character’ as they haul heavy rucksacks up windswept, rain-lashed mountains. In practice, outdoor learning has always been a very broad field that draws on a wide range of values and traditions. These include some of the earliest incarnations of what we might today consider to be environmental, ecological, or even sustainability education.

An intimate, personal connection to the landscape and coastal areas of the UK is central to an understanding of our country’s history, culture, and natural heritage. It is vital for the planet and our young people that we maintain this tradition of learning outdoors and encourage educators to champion the exploration and enjoyment of the wide range of learning experiences that exist within urban and rural landscapes alike.

Holyrood Park, Edinburgh (University of Edinburgh)
Holyrood Park, Edinburgh (University of Edinburgh)

Readers of this journal are well-versed in the issues that threaten the ability of human beings and other species to flourish and, in some cases, even survive on the planet.   The most prominent of these is climate change, but other threats include loss of biodiversity, impacts of manufactured chemicals, health, financial and social inequalities and related concerns of human well-being and economic stability. Such global environmental change and a commitment to social responsibility are daunting to address -- both personally and through professional practice. Educational experiences that integrate concepts of global citizenship, sustainable development and ecological connectedness can help learners face these issues in positive ways. Such educational aspirations cannot rely on book and desk learning alone.

Outdoor learning experiences are fundamental to a broad, inclusive form of education; they offer countless opportunities to stimulate, inspire and connect teachers and learners of all ages. Additionally, such concrete experiences can encourage those involved to care for the communities that they engage with – communities of the natural and human worlds. That which we have no contact with or experience of caring for, we are unlikely to care about -- whether it be on a local or a global scale. In recognition of this, recent developments in the structure of the national curriculum in Scotland have embedded outdoor learning and learning for sustainability at the heart of every child’s education from age three to 18.

Outdoor Education at the University of Edinburgh

For four decades, the Outdoor Education section of the University of Edinburgh has been at the international forefront of providing postgraduate degrees in all aspects of outdoor education. They offer three postgraduate programmes in Outdoor Education, Outdoor Education and Sustainability Education, and Learning for Sustainability.   Whilst each programme has a particular focus, they all incorporate an experiential approach and the academic aspects of each programme draw upon students’ personal experiences wherever possible.  

The three MSc programmes attract applicants from a variety of backgrounds and who hold a range of practical and professional qualifications. Those who enroll on the programmes include recent undergraduates from a range of disciplines, older professionals looking for a change of career, outdoor instructors seeking to develop their theoretical or ecological understanding, and those from a scientific or environmental background who wish to understand more about the pedagogical possibilities open to them. This diversity creates a rich teaching and learning environment where students can learn from fellow students and from the programme staff.

Urban outdoor learning on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh (University of Edinburgh)
Urban outdoor learning on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh (University of Edinburgh)

Postgraduate qualifications

As being a professional in this field demands practical involvement and outdoor teaching competence, the MSc Outdoor Education and MSc Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education both comprise a Professional Development Programme, where students can gain instructional training in a range of outdoor activities.   The MSc Learning for Sustainability does not include a separate practical dimension, but instead more subtly weaves indoor and outdoor teaching in local and urban spaces into its courses.   All three programmes foster a critical and reflexive ethos, where programme members are encouraged during courses to analyse their existing practice in relation to the theories and concepts introduced.   This approach enables students to more deeply consider personal, social and environmental issues and examine ways in which meaningful responses to these complex circumstances can be developed through individuals, schools, and communities.  

The dissertation offers students an opportunity to identify, reflect upon and explore a topic that has implications for professional development. This includes projects related to on-going professional practice and projects with a range of partner organisations. This approach may be especially useful for those who chose to combine their studies with full-time work.

Gaining Experience

Those who are considering embarking upon or developing their career within outdoor learning would be encouraged to gain some practical experience by volunteering or gaining seasonal work within residential centres, environmental organsiations, youth groups and the education sector.  

Jobs and careers in outdoor learning

Careers can be developed within educational, community, environmental, cultural, and heritage sectors.   Employment opportunities exist through schools and local authorities, within field studies centres linked to governmental and non-governmental agencies (such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland), and within residential and community based outdoor centres.

The range of employment opportunities is widening, as outdoor learning and learning for sustainability becomes more central to lifelong education for children and adults, schools and communities.   What better way to transform the ‘real world’ that exists outside the classroom than by teaching and learning within it?

Please visit our website for more information:

Or for specific postgraduate programmes details please contact:

MSc Outdoor Education:

MSc Outdoor Education and Sustainability

MSc Learning for Sustainability:

First published in CJS Focus on Environmental & Outdoor Education in affiliation with NAEE UK - the National Association for Environmental Education (UK) on 19 May 2014