Review by Becky Donaldson

3 Dec 2017, 5:00

The Learning Rainforest, by Tom Sherrington

The Learning Rainforest is an extended metaphor used to illustrate Sherrington’s ideas about what great learning experiences should look like.

His love of teaching, stated from the outset, comes over clearly in the way that he describes the examples collected from various classrooms over his career.

Conscious of the progressive/traditional debate, he places himself firmly between the two camps. His is “third-way territory”: his “learning tree” places routines and conditions at the roots, with knowledge as the trunk, but there is space in his vision for a wide variety of learning experiences within the leaf canopy.

The book is divided into two parts: in the first, Sherrington details his own teaching background and some of the research and thinking that has contributed to the concept he has developed. In the second, he describes strategies that teachers might wish to explore when working to establish their own “rainforest” classrooms or schools.

Part one covers a vast range of areas, topics such as curriculum, assessment and research.

I welcomed how honest he was about his own teaching experience – it allowed me to consider my own teaching context alongside his, and so have a better sense of how well his experiences might replicate in my own setting. It was also helpful to have such an extensive list of references in the chapter on research, as this section felt somewhat like a whistle-stop tour through various big debates and research topics.

Sherrington’s examples are strongest when he is drawing upon his own subject knowledge

Part two is separated into three sections: “establishing the conditions” at the root of the learning tree, “building the knowledge structure” represented by its trunk, and “exploring the possibilities” within the canopy of the rainforest.

It is designed for teachers to be able to dip in and out, with examples from various contexts and subjects. Sherrington’s examples are strongest when he is drawing upon his own subject knowledge in science, but all subjects are well represented.

There are many sensible ideas in the 20 strategies he identifies in each section – but it does at times feel as though 20 was a rather arbitrary target, and some strategies are less sound than others.

Some of Sherrington’s strategies could also do with a little more fleshing out to be truly useful to less experienced teachers; he advocates “teaching to the top” without detailing what this might look like in practice for a newer teacher faced with a less confident class.

Teachers who have already read books such as Lemov’s Teach like a champion may also find that there is a significant overlap in the suggested strategies. Having said that, there were many ideas I had not come across before and am eager to try – I particularly liked the idea of “build a timeline”, where subjects contribute to an agreed cross-curricular chronology.

While there were some ideas in the book that I was really excited by, The learning rainforest didn’t hugely challenge my existing views. I suspect that part of the reason I enjoyed it was because much of it resonated with how I already feel about education – I certainly recognised some of my own ideals in the philosophy Sherrington espouses.

The different chapters would have more or less relevance to readers depending on their job role or stage in their career – much like his learners, teachers need to establish their roots and branches before they can explore the possibilities. Some of the philosophical debate about curriculum design, for example, would be of more relevance to those who have influence over their own school’s curriculum than those who are just starting out in the classroom. This is therefore a book to keep on the shelf and return to as your school and career experience develops.

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