“Are we more concerned with students reaching specific standards in subject disciplines or with developing them as rounded individuals? Can we have both without unacceptable tradeoffs?”

Tom Sherrington The Learning Rainforest, Chapter 1.

The above quote from the first chapter of The Learning Rainforest by Tom Sherrington is essentially the first question I ask whenever I consider the perspective of any treatise on teaching and learning. The most compelling aspect of this book is the lack of a dichotomy between the two sides on the educational debate about our core position. I believe that Sherrington has a “side” but his stance is more nuanced and valuable than that.

This book is available on Amazon and I would recommend a hard copy as opposed to the ebook. Illustrations are outstanding.

Dr Lingston, I presume?

Many of us often feel lost in the educational rainforest, I feel this helpful guide is also quite a balanced guide.

Sherrington takes quite favourable views on both the traditionalist and progressive sides of what appears to be in the UK quite a polarising debate. This debate appears to be driving in a similar direction in Australia, if not a little further behind. Sherrington takes an “it might be more complex than that”, non-binary view. This is quite a relief when starting an Educational book these days.

Sherrington’s analog of the classroom ecosystem is that of a rainforest (especially compared to the ‘plantation model’). This is not a strawman of some progressive ideals as might be predicted given some of the fluffy reading I’ve been doing lately – more on a future blog I’m sure. Instead, it is the compromise of a managed rainforest where rigour and an evidence base to best practice allow a wide and varied ecosystem of successful and progressing learners and teachers.

Sherrington still appears to come form a traditional “knowledge-based” approach. While that leaning does show through, it is tempered very well for the most part. I would argue a very similar standpoint for example, just with more of a bias towards the leafy canopy of inquiry and student-centred inquiry as a begining.

Sherrington’s Rainforest analogy is a three dimensional beast that refers to organisational structure as well as the learning conditions of the classroom. I find this analogy to be extremely useful on both fronts.

A note on “Bias”

I’ve used the term “bias” here perhaps too readily but only to illustrate the nonsense traditionalist take that inquiry can ONLY follow knowledge delivery. My mention of this is slightly exagerated and purely illustrative of that point. The very centred nature of this text initially allows the reader to import their own biases easily. As I said, I’m firmly in the camp where knowledge can be developed through inquiry (hence my overt use of “knowledge-based”). However, I work in a context where this is very against the grain with how students are normally treated and thus at times my hand is forced in the explicit knowledge delivery before inquiry. This probably explains my love of the Flipped Learning model – a subset of blended learning. I feel it fits Sherrington’s compromised (or simply reflecting reality) model very well. The Learning Rainforest is generally a broadchurch approach to education and I find that the balance of this book sat fine with me on both read throughs.

It takes all types of successful teachers in the ecosystem of the Learning Rainforest

However, it should be noted that Sherrington does veer a little into the traditionalist tropes in Chapter 2 when discussing the conflict between the two sides. In particular, the characterisation of the Prog not introducing students to new concepts or focusing on knowledge. Again, I believe that on this front the trads and progs are heading in the same knowledge rich place via different road. Yet he does alude to this in his defence (and rightly so) of the Michaela school as a school filled with educators working from a position of loving care as they most certainly do.

“Do Russians love their children too?”

Despite the tone that comes out of EduTwitter we’re not talking Nazis and it is entirely ok to both sides this discussion. Yet, I do think the progressive and skills focused curriculum sides of the debate are often mischaracterised as education not for education’s sake. I also believe the traditionalist is often equally unfairly characterised the same way. I think both sides arguably want the same whole and informed individuals as a product of our schooling; both sides seem to be simply taking different routes to get there.

I think the misrepresentation comes from the loud voices of educational commentators as opposed to those involved in education directly. I believe the teacher-led, back-to-basics approach to edication pushed by politicians (at least in Australia) to be a reponse to the neoliberalism which has infested the profession since the 1980s where the rise of market accountability has resulted in an divisive pressures in the profession.

Delving quite reasonably into research

Everyone is convinced the research is on their side. It’s not, some of it is on your side, some disagrees with you.

Research is contentious in education for many reasons. For starters teachers, unfairly in my opinion, have the defensive response of essentially gate-keeping pedagogical and educational practice from those who have not taught, or at least for a while. The severity of the backlash tends to be a function of time last taught X guru-ness. The role of the academic in the growth of our profession is important. Secondly, the results are highly contextualised and the relevance to the classroom and even more so when scaled up to generalisable, is often tenuous at best. This doesn’t mean its wrong, trash or even invalid, it just means that all ed research has limitations and as Sherrington points out it is important to understand these limitations.

I think the struggle with both sides is the desire for the silver bullet. The single approach that you can concretely put your hands on, shuffle out to your team and move up the rankings. This is a symptom, I believe of our neoliberalised profession. Sherrington articulates beautifully the need to understand the research beyond the headlines and an grasp the intricacies of what is being said.

But here is where I uncharitably expected to be what I consider the biggest red flag in educational discourse from the traditional side of the debate. Cognitive Load Theory. The bastions of traditionalist twitter and their devotion to the cognitive sciences as the be all and end all. Understand that the prog side has the same problems just this book while somewhat centrist has those strong traditionalist leanings.

Again, Sherrington is much more restrained thankfully than many other writers on this front. The cognitive sciences definitely have a place but I’m yet to be convinced in their equally as poorly measured results and similarly long bows being drawn that they add more to the conversation than the social science research that has dominated education for so long.
The cognitive sciences and cognitive load theory (CLT) have that impressive veneer of hard facts that allow us to become blinded to the fact that they are indeed a political and contextual as any other ed research.
Sherrington correctly points out that we are far past the anything goes point, not all ideas are created equal. However, one must be exceedingly careful when research agrees with our predispositions. My main concern with the research into the cognitive sciences as I’ve been exposed to it, is that it is consistently measured in inauthentic ways within learning labs. Because of course it is, same as the social sciences approach to education is necessarily woolly and hard to tease out the details. Thus my concern when it is held up as a shield against progressivism.

The use of CLT as a shield is also wrong, because it is embraced by the progressives as well. Perhaps not as homogeneously according to twitter, but it is a very useful tool. I think the take on CLT and the lionising of the cognitive sciences may be the primary exception that I’d take with the majority of writing coming from the traditional side of education but not so with Sherrington’s chapter on research. I think he really manages to strike new ground in what has surely been an influential and very interesting book. However, I would also argue that teachers trying out new pedagogies or using their experience is hardly generalisable as “anything goes” – leaning back to the metaphor of a managed rainforest.
The broad and critical approach of this research is valuable and on those merits alone I would recommend this book to most teachers. Not only do I find his model of the classroom and indeed the entire ecosystem of the school useful, I’ve found Sherrington to be quite a reasonable author (I also read his blog fairly regularly over at teacherhead.com ). Yes his presentation of the research is pushed towards the traditional side but I wouldn’t call it conservative. Where we differ I guess, is there is less emphasis on memory for myself and more on the problem solving heights of the canopy that I actually believe is accessible to students of with a wider variances in base of knowledge. In fact, I also believe it’s possible to build a knowledge base from Sherrington’s canopy.

Sherrington’s Rain Forest metaphor via his excellent blog

A definition of Learning

I think often the argument centers around difference in definition of Learning. Both of which are entirely acceptable but but both I think lead to different approaches. I tend to to roll with Oxford – “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.” The cognitive sciences tend to align with Sherrington’s “a change in long-term memory”. This, also fine, functional definition really works when it comes to the lab environment. However, I feel as though it’s a rather impoverished view of learning when it comes to the education of children in the classroom. There’s so much more to it than what can be measured in a learning lab.

Data, data everywhere …

The Learning Rainforest has arrived temporally precisely as needed in my Data journey. I’ve spent much of the last six months rethinking educational data and indeed mostly the responsible use of data by educators. I’m quite concerned these days by the lack of data literacy and irresponsible use of data educationally that I encounter with some regularity. This is particularly the case online but also more frequent than I would like with many local teachers that I catch up with. I thoroughly enjoyed the reasonable approach to educational data presented here.

Where the rubber tree meets the road

The second half is the most telling in its leanings but there are still many things that teachers with leanings on either side of the aisle could gather. The second half of the book is Sherrington outlining in very simple terms how to achieve his dream of a managed rainforest. Something I very much appreciate.

School should be hard work but it shouldn’t be drudgery. School should be a joyful place. More than that it should be a happy place in the classical platonic sense. But in that I get concerned about the colonial overtones of this (and most books about education from the white middle class (and I do apologise for the assumption if I’m incorrect) book. I enjoyed it, I think the straw man approach to both “Trads” and “Progs” needs to stop but I also think we need to acknowledge that there have been a great many academic and learning traditions that have existed beyond the Eurocentric model. I hope that I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe this is a position that Sherrington is intentionally taking. I simply feel as though many of the activities or strategies outlined in the final half of the book undercut the first half from that perspective alone. I guess I find it leads to a narrow and authoritative view of teaching “the best which has been thought and said” which will undercut the experiences of students at the fringes. This noble attempt to give these students the cultural capital in someway only reinforces the disadvantage by not allowing schools to change and direct a more open and inclusive version of cultural capital. In no way does it make it an inconsistent book, just incomplete if you come at it from a perspective of strength in diversity of educational thought.

My final thoughts

I think, as I’ve stated before, that this very centrist book would look similar but with some key differences if written from the perspective of the progressive educator. A key difference would be the size of the rainforest. Perhaps the progressive educator would have a Learning Shrubbery or a Learning Mycological Copse. Perhaps a less awe inspiring of a metaphor – although I always loved mycology in my undergraduate studies – but no less useful as it’s only a structural metaphor. I think there is a lot that the progressive educator would agree with here but our trunks would be smaller, our underground network to set the conditions and and our glorious myconoid caps would be the dominant feature feeding the central trunk of knowledge and skills that we all agree we should be building. To reiterate this book is very good and you should read it in detail, but like everything else, with a critical eye.

I think this is book that all teachers could get something out of and I recommend that everyone in every context read it. If you’re a first year or two I might recommend that you hold out, but a “Prog” would say that. Double thumbs up Mr Sherrington. A good and informative time was had.