An analogy I draw upon increasingly to help with my thinking about teaching, learning and school leadership, is the contrast between a plantation and a rainforest. In general terms I feel that our entire education system is deeply inhibited, shackled and spoiled by Plantation Thinking. This affects government policy, school leadership and the day-to-day of classroom practice. The solution to a lot of our difficulties lies, I believe, in embracing another paradigm: Rainforest Thinking.
First of all, let’s consider the characteristics of the plantation:
The natural environment is heavily managed with interventions of all kinds to protect againsts pests and disease. There is a narrow view of what the desired outcomes are. Anything that grows outside clearly defined parameters is weeded out. It is important for all specimens to reach certain minimum standards but there is little or no room for diversity. This tendency towards a monoculture with a narrow gene pool halts natural evolution and increases vulnerability to long term or sudden environmental change. There is uniformity, conformity and an emphasis on control. The plantation managers are profoundly risk averse and, where improvements are needed, have a predisposition to seek out tried and tested methods with predictable outcomes.
Get the picture? It may already be pretty obvious but it’s worth spelling out: In schools, how does Plantation Thinking manifest itself? Here are some illustrative examples:
- School culture is dominated by the notion that, in all areas, there is a right way to do things and that, consequently, schools or teachers should be doing things in a certain way; this requires controls and accountability measures.
- Heads and school leaders are driven, to a great extent, by compliance with standards set by external bodies: OfSTED, DfE especially. Anything that is perceived to fall outside the OfSTED framework is avoided or dismissed as superfluous – or a luxury that can’t be afforded. There is an almighty panic when the rules change because it means the control systems will all need to change too. The capacity for self-direction is low; the ‘gene pool’ of leadership and learning is shallow.
- Teachers feel they are expected to deliver lessons that conform to a prescribed set of requirements. Eg learning objectives must be written on the boards, there must be a starter and a plenary, there must be timed lesson plan, the curriculum is non-negotiable. Consequently teachers are de-skilled in curriculum and pedagogical innovation.
- The curriculum is heavily content-driven, focusing on what can be easily examined; less tangible personal skills and dispositions – the attributes that actually make us successful and happy in life – are not explicitly developed except in an incidental manner.
- CPD is standardised, one-size-fits-all to ensure no-one falls through the net; there are lots of whole-staff meetings and compulsory workshops where registers are taken. Everyone must do AfL or must do IWB training.
- Data has very high status, often beyond the limits of validity, with little value placed on intangible or qualitative outcomes. A pseudo-quasi-scientific methodology and belief system are imposed on assessment processes such that linear input-output correlations are devised and numerical data sets are given meaning as absolute measures of attainment and progress.
- Learning is very firmly and narrowly focused on what is examined, measurable or has a clear functional purpose; students have limited scope to make choices or direct their own learning. A high proportion of learning activities and experiences are standard, regardless of students’ personal needs or interests.
- Interventions are heavily focused on short-term gains prior to examinations, with an emphasis on getting over the line set by the accountabilty measures.
- Any new ideas or initiatives that are believed to be beneficial are elevated to the status of a rule or become a standard requirement…so everyone must have an IWB, have three PM targets, stick to the homework timetable, use traffic lights in their marking, stick the PLTS audit in their planners.
- The curriculum is highly standardised and there is a strong line on content or modes of learning that matter more than others as if this is an absolute truth. Physics just IS more important than Art.. for example.
Gosh, just writing this, I’m feeling horribly claustrophobic…oppressed….caged. It is a bit too real – and I am guilty of imposing some of this stuff! Learning and teaching are not meant to be like this, surely?
Let’s think about the alternative. What does it feel like to take a walk in the rainforest?
There is enormous variety in the range of trees and plants that are thriving in the environment; it is lush, exotic, awe inspiring, unpredictable, non-linear. Each specimen is magnificent in its own right… with different organisms occupying their niche in an environment that is self-nourishing. Without the need for external artificial interventions, the soil is fertile and the process of evolution is continous. Whilst each plant has distinctive features and unique requirements, they all co-exist in an equilibrium that develops organically over time in response to changing conditions. But, it is not cosy or safe; this environment is harsh at times. Not everything thrives unaided and, occasionally, invasive specimens inhibit the growth of others. However, as a result, the plants that flourish are very robust with deep roots or they are nimble and adapt to change with ease.
In real world of school life and education policy, Rainforest Thinking is a powerful concept. It suggests the following:
- The dominant mind-set of leaders is to nurture the individual talents of staff and students, providing nourishment and creating a culture that is motivational and rewarding to operate in… but not to control or micro-manage the processes or predetermine the outcomes. There is a high-trust/high-challenge culture.
- Teachers and leaders recognise that the learning process is complex and, to a large extent, unknowable on an individual basis. Different learners can and do learn in all manner of ways. As a consequence, it is better to try a range of approaches; some will work better than others, but it is not possible to know which in advance. There is, therefore, great variety in the approaches adopted over time.
- Where teachers are thriving, delivering excellent lessons and securing student outcomes, there is a high level of autonomy. Maverick or eccentric approaches are certainly tolerated; they are actually celebrated – provided that they deliver.
- Data is recognised as providing a rough guide to some aspects of learning – in a complex and non-linear fashion. Much of what matters is not measurable and value is placed on teacher knowledge that derives from interpersonal interactions and observations.
- It is understood that there is no ‘right way’ for most things we do in schools. There is still a recognition that there are aspects of bad practice – things that rarely or never seem to work – but, in the main, all kinds of teaching approaches can be effective in different contexts. The effectiveness research that promotes certain approaches is evaluated in context and is understood as suggesting an average general pattern with fuzzy edges… not an absolute truth.
- Organisational structures never operate in a linear, hierarchical manner. People exchange ideas is a dynamic, organic manner and each person has their own personal values, goals and priorities – that align to a varying degree with the stated school values, goals and priorities. In the Rainforest, this is expected.. and valued.
- Professional Development is highly personalised – on the basis that it is counterproductive and demotivating to impose a uniform model on every teacher. CPD sessions are offered as options; coaching and mentoring are deployed to those that need or want it and the whole thrust of Performance Management is to nurture self-driven reflection and professional learning – not to satisfy external accountability pressures.
- Classroom learning is often characterised by a ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. Teachers try out new ideas all the time, do not expect standard responses and create a culture in which students can select from a wide range of possible options – for example in the pace of their learning, the sequence of tasks or the mode of response.Importantly, despite the rich variety and openness of the Rainforest, it isn’t a case of ‘anything goes’. Only learning and teaching that are effective survive… there has to be quality and rigour in whatever shape or form the learning takes. There is nothing soft or safe about it.
- Technology and other resources are seen as one of many options; no one textbook or computer device is the absolute solution. In the Rainforest, the approach is to make resources available as and when they are needed – by those that want to use them. So, ipads are given to those that need them amongst other alternatives; they are not issued as standard.
- Learning and achievement are recognised in the widest possible sense. It is understood that learners will have all kinds of talents and skills, personal goals and interests and in the Rainforest, these all have value. There is no sense in which Art could be less important than Physics for everyone; no-one is in a position to make that decision on behalf of someone else. The curriculum has embedded within it a layer of learning that makes teachers and students focus on dispositional, attitudinal development that enables them to self-nourish their intellectual and emotional lives.
Finally, we need to consider the down-side of the Rainforest: not everything survives… and occasionally vines creep and strangle the life out of others specimens. So… there may be a need to mediate the full blown Rainforest experience to factor-in some safeguards. Rainforest Thinking is actually based on a ‘managed Rainforest’. Teachers and leaders are the rangers, walking the forest floor making sure that anyone floundering is nurtured without imposing restrictions on the others. At the same time, if anything is having a negative impact – an ineffective teacher, a disruptive student, a bureaucratic policy- action is taken to remove or resolve the issue leaving the rest of forest to reach its climax form… in all its lush glory.
I’d say that generally we are deeply conditioned to be Plantation Thinkers.… it is how we are forced to think by the pressures exerted upon us. Paradoxically, it is only by becoming better Rainforest Thinkers that we can face those pressures. As with many mind-shifts, it takes time, it takes courage and it requires persistence. But, once there, it is liberating, invigorating and inspiring. This is what schools should feel like; this is what it should be like to be a teacher… and a learner.
Great Lessons Series: Read the full set here: