What It Means To Cultivate A ‘Learning Rainforest’


Key Takeaways

  1. Rise above binary education debates. Most schools are fundamentally similar. Avoid getting sucked into polarised debates by considering the ‘plantation’ and ‘rainforest’ models of school organisation.
  2. Plantation schools use consistency and accountability to cultivate improvements in high stakes testing. This may work, but isn’t the best strategy for deep, long term student learning.
  3. Rainforest schools let excellent teaching and learning grow organically. Solely relying on an accountability culture will not develop ingenuity and innovation in your classroom or school, a rainforest approach allows good practices to thrive for the right reasons.
  4. Manage the rainforest to get the best from both models. Having a deep understanding of your local ‘soil’ or context is key to making things grow.


Rise above binary education debates


Most schools all over the world are remarkably similar. Most readers are working in a school with year level groups based on students ages, a curriculum centred on the ‘big four’ subject (i.e. the primary national language, Mathematics, Science and Humanities with the other subjects fighting it out for the rest of time in the curriculum), as well as a recess and lunchtime to round out the day.

However, any teacher that’s moved schools knows that small differences between schools can make it seem like these schools are operating in different worlds. It is these structural and cultural differences between schools that can make or break a school as a desirable place to work for teachers and a quality environment for students to study.

Education is complex. What works best for student learning is difficult to evaluate with certainty. Even when valid and reliable results are achieved in one setting, these may not be replicated or scalable. Teaching is a messy and human business, and this reality goes someway to explaining how opposing practices can at times both deliver positive outcomes. This results in polarising debates that often impact on differences seen at a school level.

Readers who engage with Twitter will be aware of the firm camps of progressivist versus traditionalist or those that emphasise knowledge and other who emphasise skills.  These camps will regularly slug it out over which approach is the right one.

Former Head Teacher, UK based edublogger and educational consultant Tom Sherrington can help you transcend these binary debates and mudslinging. His 2017 book The Learning Rainforest: Great Teaching In Real Classrooms equips teachers and school leaders with a practical narrative of how they can grow themselves, their schools and ultimately their students. The central premise of Sherrington’s book is to explore the pros and cons of both ‘the plantation model’ and ‘the rainforest model’.

 Let’s explore what these means for your teaching or school leadership.


‘Plantation’ schools use consistency and accountability to cultivate improvements in high stakes testing.


The metaphor of a plantation is used by Sherrington to depict an environment where tight management aims to control what grows and to protect against pests and diseases. Anything that is not a planned crop is weeded out to maximise the success of monocultural crops.

So, what does a plantation school look like? The plantation model produces a school with a command and control culture; this is often manifested in a belief in accountability, consistency and high stakes testing.  A culture that is uniform, managers who are risk averse and a school-wide focus on metrics.  


From The Learning Rainforest:

“School culture is dominated by the notion that there is a right way to do things and that, consequently, schools and teachers should be doing things in a certain way; this requires controls and accountability measures… School leaders are driven, to a great extent, by compliance with standards set by external bodies and accountability regimes; anything that is perceived to fall outside the accepted framework is avoided or dismissed as superfluous.”

In plantation schools, high stakes tests are often given a cult like status. The standardised data that these tests produce are given a very high status, which at times goes beyond the validity and reliability of these data.

In more extreme scenarios, this can also result in teacher performance being linked to high stakes testing and related data, despite the fact that educational research shows that student achievement is much more complex than this.

Curriculum at these schools is heavily influenced by what is examinable, particularly by that high-stakes testing the plantation loves so much, with students having a limited scope of control or genuine choices about their education.

Plantations do produce improvements in student data, but usually these focus on short term gains before examinations, not deep, long term learning. Similarly, adult learning at such schools is standardised to ‘ensure’ no one falls through the cracks.

Finally, when any new initiatives are developed in plantation schools, there is lack of flexibility about how they are adopted. At times such initiatives become a fixed rule, for example all teachers having to teach through an interactive whiteboard or adhering to a rigid homework and marking system.

Sherrington suggests that the plantation model is a product of the Global Educational Reform Movement or GERM. This term was coined by Finnish educational leader and now Professor of Educational Policy at UNSW Pasi Sahlberg, for more information about this see our post on Finnish education.

A practical example of an effective planation school would be Success Academy, a New York based charter school chain founded by Eva Moskowitz. The pros and cons of this networks of schools is explored in a season of the ‘start up’ podcast series


‘Rainforest’ schools let excellent teaching and learning grow organically


In contrast to controlled planation environment, Sherrington paints an idyllic natural environment of the lush exotic rainforest.


From The Learning Rainforest:

             “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 artificial interventions, the soil is fertile, and the process of evolution is continuous. Whilst each plant is distinctive features and unique requirements, they all co-exist in an equilibrium that develops organically over time in response to changing conditions.”

So, what does a ‘Rainforest’ school look like? Sherrington suggests that like the rainforest, the school is organic in nature. Although there might be organisational structures they do not operate in a linear manner as people with the organisation freely exchange ideas in a dynamic and natural manner. It is understood that there a leadership structure, but the role of this structure is to support the development of individual practices.


From The Learning Rainforest:

“[the rainforest should] nurture the individual talents of staff and students providing nourishment an creating a culture that is motivational and rewarding to operate in but not to control or micromanage the process or predtermine the outcomes. There is a high degree of trust/challenge culture.”

Where teachers are able to thrive and produce excellent classroom environments and student results they are given a high level of autonomy with ‘out of the box’ approaches being celebrated. There is a recognition that all students are different and the same approach will not work for all students; therefore a range of great approaches to learning are developed by teachers to ensure all learners can be engaged in a variety of challenges and personalised learning experiences.

Similarly, personalised learning is emphasised for teachers with coaching and mentoring acting as vehicle sfor growth and development rather than monitoring and accountability.

Most notably, Sherrington emphasises that in the Rainforest there is no ‘right way’ do things. This is not to say it’s a case of ‘anything goes’, only learning and teaching that is effective survives. However, he suggests that rainforest teaching is risk-taking and experimental with “an average general pattern with fuzzy edges, not an absolute truth”. This is reflected in the use of data, which is held to be a rough indication of progress, not the ‘holy grail’ of achievement.


From The Learning Rainforest:

“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.”

Accountability may improve test results, but solely relying on a plantation-style accountability culture will not develop ingenuity and innovation in your classroom or school.


Manage the rainforest to get the best from both models


So, how does your classroom and your school align with the ‘Plantation’ and the ‘Rainforest’?

The vast majority of teachers will have encountered elements of both rainforest and plantation thinking. Indeed, at various points of the school year, plantation or rainforest thinking can seem more appealing. Given a new class to teach that has no clear previous curriculum, scope and sequence documents or unit planning and the plantation may be the best way to support student learning. However, later in the school year when you know your students, but feel smothered by an over burdensome accountability-based assessment policy, you may find yourself yearning for a hike into the rainforest.

The reality is the most schools do not sit at either end of the planation-rainforest spectrum. Indeed, even Sherrington himself, who has a passion for what can be found growing naturally in ‘the rainforest’, suggests that both models have their drawbacks.

As a well-seasoned and practical school leader, he acknowledges although the analogy is laced with bias towards the rainforest, rainforest thinking is not always effective. At times, Rainforest thinking can be over-idealistic depending on the circumstance that a teacher faces in a classroom, or a school faces more broadly. The utopian notation of the Rainforest could quickly become a dystopia


From The Learning Rainforest:

 “…occasionally vines creep and strangle the life out of other specimens”.  Is it acceptable that we are leaving a student’s learning to chance – dependent on the whims and capabilities of their particular teachers? Obviously not. Could it be in school context we just get away with trying out weird and wonderful teaching strategies – because the students will learn anyway? This doesn’t make good practice. ‘It didn’t do any harm’ isn’t sufficient to justify a teaching strategy.”

Therefore, being able to critically evaluate not just the metaphor of the Plantation and Rainforest model, but the research that sits behind Tom’s narrative is critical to be able to apply this thinking to your school context. Indeed, although Sherrington would like to be able to walk through the rainforest admiring its beauty simply, he acknowledges that in reality, the best schools can aim for is a managed rainforest with minimal intervention in which teachers and school leaders take on the role of gardeners or curators. 

So how do you best manage your rainforest? Having a deep understanding of your local ‘soil’ or context is key to making things grow.

As Sherrington acknowledges is his interview with Craig Barton, understanding your local context is key to being able to successfully implement an evidence-based approach that is right for your classroom or your school. To extend on Sherrington’s gardening metaphor, a good gardener understands their local climate, seasons and soil types. This means not just understanding what you wish to grow, but when to plant it, how much to water it, what fertiliser it needs and when, how to protect and further cultivate what is already growing and what strategies will easily weed out what might take over, if left unattended.

We’ll follow this post with further explorations of exactly how to cultivate an ideal ‘managed rainforest’ at your school.


Key Takeaways

  1. Rise above binary education debates. Most schools are fundamentally similar. Avoid getting sucked into polarised debates by considering the ‘plantation’ and ‘rainforest’ models of school organisation.
  2. Plantation schools use consistency and accountability to cultivate improvements in high stakes testing. This may work, but isn’t the best strategy for deep, long term student learning.
  3. Rainforest schools let excellent teaching and learning grow organically. Solely relying on an accountability culture will not develop ingenuity and innovation in your classroom or school, a rainforest approach allows good practices to thrive for the right reasons.
  4. Manage the rainforest to get the best from both models. Having a deep understanding of your local ‘soil’ or context is key to making things grow.