Learning Rainforest Workshop

On Saturday, I attended a workshop by Tom Sherrington, on the ideas behind his book The Learning Rainforest.

To understand why this is significant for me, you need to understand my context.

My teaching career has been split between Mandalay, Myanmar, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While both cities have their strengths and things I enjoy, you wouldn’t describe either as a buzzing metropolis. Teaching conferences and weekend workshops are rare events.

So, I make my own PD. Books, Blog posts. Twitter. Scrolling past pictures of ResearchEd and other events on the other side of the world, hitting ‘like’ and ‘retweet’, wishing I could be there.

So, when I saw on Twitter that Tom was going to be in Bangkok, and I can hear from, in-person, one of the people who have shaped my thinking on education, I jumped at the opportunity. And it came with a copy of the book, which is a bonus, because I haven’t read it yet.

Sunburnt from a beach vacation in Phuket and fighting a cold, I scrawled twelve pages of notes in that drama classroom where Tom presented. A lot of it I was already familiar with, from my self-guided PD. Here are some things that were new to me, or challenged my thinking on education.

And because I actually went somewhere for this learning, I have pictures! Okay, one picture and some screenshots of slides.

Tom Sherrington in Bangkok, Thailand

The Extended Metaphor

Now, I already knew Tom titled his book The Learning Rainforest because the rainforest serves as a metaphor for good teaching, but I didn’t know that it had two meanings as a metaphor.

The first is rainforest versus plantation thinking in education. Plantation thinking is everyone implementing a particular idea, regardless of whether it is needed or suited to their subject area. I think it was Christine Counsell who said we shouldn’t break our subject in order to conform to a generic approach to education.

Rainforest thinking, on the other hand, leaves space for more diversity, for students (and teachers) to generate excellence in ways you can’t predict or mandate. This is not an ‘anything goes’ approach. A rainforest is not a random collection of flora and fauna, but an ecosystem, and a rainforest school is shaped by guiding principles, a fusion of values and evidence. This is the rainforest more at the school level.

In its second meaning, the rainforest is more at the classroom level. Behaviour management and a culture of high expectations create the conditions for learning, the roots. Knowledge and skills are the trunks of the trees, holding up a canopy of exploration and possibilities.

It is an elegant metaphor, and has stuck in my mind since I first read it.

Tensions in Education

Edu-Twitter can have some divisive spats, between progs and trads, and sometimes with people who say they don’t see the dichotomy at all. Tom argues, as I did in my review of Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure?, it is not a case of either-or, but both-and, not a question of which one to use but when. He brings up a few examples of how to balance this tension.

The first is Martin Robinson’s idea of the 21st century trivium. I have read Robinson’s book, and while I didn’t enjoy the book itself (it was a lot of philosophy), I was captured by the idea, to the point where I would say the Trivium21C is my teaching philosophy (learning rainforest might be a strong contender, though).

The second example was Peter Hyman’s Head, Hand, and Heart, which was unfamiliar to me. The head is the structure and knowledge of a subject, the hand is creativity and problem-solving, and the heart is character education.

The second tension brought up in the workshop was compliance versus autonomy, though I would phrase it as consistency versus autonomy or coherence versus autonomy, as compliance has negative connotations. On the one hand, a carefully horizontally and vertically aligned curriculum means each teacher needs to teach their part, and students benefit from consistency in routines and expectations between classes. On the other hand, teachers resent too much centralized control (I know I do). A balance needs to be struck between creating a coherent, consistent system in a school and giving teachers freedom to explore their own possibilities.

The final tension is not one Tom explicitly identified, but more one I realized when he asked “Do our values count?”: the tension between values and evidence. A lot of what we do in schools we do not have evidence for, like uniforms and oracy. But schools toss around phrases like ‘evidence-based’ and ‘based on research’, implying there is a strong evidence base for certain practices when there simply is not. I believe schools need to be self-aware and honest when something is value-based. It isn’t shameful.

Curriculum

Curriculum is more than what we measure. These are words I needed to hear. When we limit the curriculum to the measurement we are using, whether a test or project, we flatten the curriculum. We de-value that which defies easy measurement. And we shouldn’t become so data-driven that data becomes the purpose, rather than a tool for a purpose.

The whole curriculum (what we value) and the assessed curriculum (what we can measure)

This means curriculum is more than just subjects. I like this idea, because I value a robust extra-curricular program at a school.

Tom discussed the role of knowledge in curriculum. I think it is obvious that I am in favour of a knowledge-rich curriculum. But Tom added something I need to be thinking more about, the different types of knowledge: declarative, procedural, and experiential. That last one connects nicely with my previous readings on expertise. Tom used the example of science demos, but field work or trips to historical sites would also fit into this category. There is the question of sequencing, however. Do you do the demo first, so students have a concrete experience to help them make meaning of more abstract knowledge taught later? Or do you start with the knowledge, so they can make more sense of the experience? I am more inclined to the latter, as I find I can see more when I have more of an understanding of what I am looking at.

Growth Mindset

Growth mindset is a well-known idea for educators. I personally have been neutral towards it. I can see how it can lead to more learning, and I can see it in myself: a growth mindset when it comes to cognitive psychology, a fixed mindset when it comes to sports. But I’m not entirely sure what I am suppose to do with it as a teacher, other than be careful in how I phrase praise. So, Tom’s comments were useful for me, such as how our mindset can change as we move between tasks and domains, and the mixed results found in research studies.

One suggested alternative to growth mindset is Eduardo Briceno’s idea of performance zone versus learning zone. The learning zone is a low-stakes environment where practice and development is the focus and failure is seen as an opportunity to learn. The performance zone is a high stakes environment where failure is to be avoided. In mindset theory, there is a negative connotation to fixed mindset, but in Briceno’s theory, both zones have a role to play. This is a viable alternative.

learning zone versus the performance zone

Tom also highlighted how growth mindset interventions are most effective when paired with specific strategies that students can use that lead to success. I think of the Learning Scientists’ study strategies as an example. The idea is, instead of telling students to persist, or praising them for their effort, we give them something specific to apply their effort towards. After all, the purpose of growth mindset is not just for students to fail better, but for them to eventually be successful.

This leads me to question whether growth mindset is a helpful theory for teachers. If a theory is useful, it will lead to teacher behaviours that have an impact in the classroom. If it is more effective to teach specific strategies, then perhaps we should just focus on those strategies, rather than muddying the waters with discussion of growth mindset.

Psychology

Every teacher needs a mental model for how learning forms in the mind. Obviously I strongly agree with this statement. Whenever a member of my team asks for some recommended reading, I usually suggest cognitive psychology and Daniel Willingham. So, of course, a lot of what Tom said was review, like retrieval practice and the value of fluency and automaticity.

New to me was the value of memorizing phrases in language development. I don’t teach foreign languages, so I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this, until a primary teacher at my table told me about the Talk for Writing program she has used in her classroom. A simplistic explanation of the program is this: students memorize a text, such as a story, along with actions and intonation, for the purpose of studying its structure and eventually writing their own. The primary teacher talked about the value of learning English intonation for ELLs (we all work in an international context), and how students would use words and phrases from the text in role-play without prompting from the teacher. I looked up the program on the EEF website afterwards, and while the study had mixed results, I think this is an interesting avenue for further research.

It got me thinking about memorizing poetry at the secondary level. Tom talked about studying a poem through enacting it, through memorization and recitation, but I also think there is value in internalizing the rhythms of complex language.

We also looked at breaking down complex problem-solving into its components. For example, this math problem:

example of a math problem

You need to know what gradient is, which I am assuming is British for slope. You need to know the formula, which has followed me for years, lurking in long-term memory: rise over run! You need to know what that wacky symbol is (square root), what coordinates are (x,y; y to the sky). And, even though it is not mentioned in the question, you need to know about the Pythagorean theorem. A little procedural knowledge would be useful too, like that it would be a good idea to label the diagram.

Here is my attempt to math this. Disclosure: not a math teacher.

math problem solution

You can see where I took the wrong path, went back and found my error, and continued down the right path. This is from experiential knowledge, from solving lots of problems before; I got a number with a lot of decimals, and I knew problems like these on tests tend to have nice round numbers. Old habit from school to put a box around my answer.

The point being that a complex skill, like solving that math problem, is composed of smaller skills and pieces of knowledge. Students need to be comfortable and fluent with the smaller pieces if solving the complex problem will be achievable. Sometimes that means practicing to the point of fluency; sometimes that means memorization. I could have looked up those formulas, but I’m not sure if I would have bothered with the problem if I had to go through that extra step.

This gets me thinking about writing. How often do we get students to practice extended writing, without focusing practice on any of the components? Which is what The Writing Revolution gets at, another book on my to-read list.

Exploring Possibilities

This is the part of the workshop where I was challenged the most. Because I realized I was not doing these things, like providing student choice, using flipped learning, or having students construct lessons or units.

And I have my reasoning. I teach very mixed ability classes, so having students take responsibility for the material may only work for part of the class. When I don’t provide choice in how students show their learning, it is because I want to teach them not only content, but also how to communicate in particular mediums. The whole class does an essay so we can talk about what makes a good essay. The whole class does a presentation so we can talk about what makes a good presentation. But now I’m thinking about ways I can provide choice.

What Tom makes clear is the canopy of the rainforest is not optional. Joy and awe are core, not a frill, which he demonstrated by enthusiastically talking about electric motors and outer space. Once we have created the learning conditions and developed the knowledge structure, we must use what we have built to take student learning in new directions. But, at the same time, Tom gives us possibilities for exploring possibilities. To say we must all do this the same way is plantation thinking.

Value of External PD

By external PD, I mean going somewhere and learning alongside teachers from other schools, not PD from school staff or having a guest speaker at the school. It had been two and a half years since my last external PD.

While internal PD helps get all staff on the same page, external PD helps us collide with new ideas. At my table were teachers from three different schools, located in Singapore and Bangkok, and it was great to hear their thoughts. I wish there was more time in the workshop to discuss. There is also opportunity to hear new ideas from speakers, particularly at a conference where there are multiple workshops.

Finally, external PD delivers a spark. Teaching and the school year become quite routine; external PD breaks that routine and delivers new energy to my teaching practice. I find World Scholar’s Cup does the same, which I wrote about before. This year I had the opportunity to take students to the Global Round in Kuala Lumpur, and while it was a tiring week, it was also a reminder of everything I love about the event.

I have new ideas bouncing around in my head, a new book on education to read, and am grateful Tom undertook the length trip across Eurasia to share what he’s learned from his teaching career.

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