Traditional Or Progressive? How To Get The Best Of Both Worlds

Key Takeaways

  1. Be wary of a one size fits all attitude to teaching and learning. Avoid simplistic binary thinking and get the best of both worlds.
  2. Explicit teaching or Mode A teaching can be highly effective. Knowledge is important and there are some great strategies for building it.
  3. Experiential learning or Mode B teaching can also be highly effective. This helps students consolidate what they’ve learnt.
  4. Effective learning needs a diversity of teaching approaches and experiences. ‘Manage the rainforest’ so students get access to great learning.

This is our second in a series of posts draw inspiration from Tom Sherrington’s book The Learning Rainforest. Check out the first post here.

Be wary of a one size fits all attitude to teaching and learning

As a profession, we have collectively fallen for a few myths over the years. We’re not suggesting that you, dear reader, fell for learning styles (you are much too discerning if you are reading our blog!). However, there would be very few amongst us that hasn’t at least overheard a teacher espousing the messianic value of visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners.

Education myths are persistent. For some further reading on this, see Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, or if you want to know how to combat the Voldemort-like reappearance of learning styles at your school, see this excellent article by Stephen Dinham.

While you may be able to spot the myths, choosing between the different sides of some of the polarising, binary debates in education is more challenging. We introduced some of these debates a couple of weeks ago  

One of the more pervasive of these debates is that of progressive vs. traditional teaching. In its simplest form, this debate pits traditional teaching (favouring direct instruction with a specific end-goal usually an assessment), against progressive teaching where schooling is seen as part of a much wider approach to education.

Not only is there a vast amount of quality research evidence on both side of this divide, but it’s also easy to find high-profile schools aligned with each approach.  Michaela in London or Uncommon Schools in Boston and New York (associated with Teach like a Champion author Doug Lemov) might be considered by some as bastions of traditional education whilst the worldwide movement of Steiner and Montessori schools or High Tech High in California (of recent documentary fame) are labelled as the flag bearer of progressive education by others.

In The Learning Rainforest, Tom Sherrington suggests that such binary thinking is too simplistic – the best path involves navigating across traditional and progressive lines to get the best of both worlds

Explicit, ‘Mode A’ teaching can be highly effective

Explicit teaching is often aligned with the traditional view of teaching and learning. Sherrington is a strong advocate for a knowledge-based curriculum. In his rainforest analogy, knowledge is the trunk that allows our students to grow into strong, tall trees that will stand the test of time. As this knowledge is vital to the ongoing development and wellbeing of our students/trees, the primary mode of teacher instruction should be explicit teaching – something he refers to as ‘Mode A.’

From The Learning Rainforest:

“The core elements of Mode A teaching are about effective teacher instruction: explaining concepts and procedures, imparting information and telling stories; modelling what is expected in terms of standards and thought processes; giving time to guide and independent practice; effective questioning to check for understanding across a whole class; immediate feedback that is responsive and moves student forward; assessment that is largely formative, focusing on specific areas of content.”

A range of key strategies that underpin Mode A teaching. These fall into two categories: ‘Explain, Model, Practice, Question, Feedback, Assess’ and ‘Feedback and Review’.

Let’s have a look at some great ‘Mode A’ teaching strategies. These might not necessarily be new to you. Indeed, they might be a part of your everyday practice if so, well done for getting your ‘Mode-A’ on. However, they could also be an old favourite that has fallen out of your daily practice during the busy school year. Consider how you can carve out time to concentrate on one of these strategies for at least a month and until it is part of your everyday routine.

Think, Pair, Share

This strategy allows teachers to move away from a ‘hands up’ culture. Think, pair, share is the process of asking a question, then giving students ‘think time’ before answering or talking to others. This allows time for the student to process their answer over a more extended period, hopefully avoiding the surface–level answers as well as stopping the ‘quick draw’ students from putting their hands up.

Students then discuss their answers in pairs; if needed, you can provide sentence stems for discussion. The final step is for the teacher to facilitate classroom-wide discussion. As you use this more, your students can play a more significant role in facilitating this discussion too.

From The Learning Rainforest:

“…think, pair, share focuses us to ask better questions…if we are looking for evidence of deeper thinking, answers that model literacy skills as well as content and, generally, are probing to a deeper level of understanding.”

Whole class feedback

Time is a commodity that all teachers need and want. Marking individual students work can be a laborious and time-consuming task. In addition to this, it can be ineffective in improving student achievement.

Whole class feedback involves collecting student work and considering the commonality of students’ areas of improvement to tailor your teaching, testing and revision practices to focus on this area of development. This doesn’t mean you can’t touch base with individual students, instead emphasise what the most effective use of your time and that of your students is.

Sherrington asks you to compare the process of individual with whole class feedback, “the laborious process of writing individual comments in each student’s book in the hope that they will then read your comments, interpret them correctly” or whole-class feedback that looks for commonality in areas of improvements with student’s work and deliver this back. This can be given in the form of explicit teaching, individual study notes or revision sheets.

Experiential learning or Mode B teaching can also be highly effective

The Learning Rainforest suggests that ‘Mode A’ teaching should be the main form of instruction, but around 20% of class-time should be experiential learning or ‘Mode B’ teaching.

‘Mode B’ is as anything that is not Mode A teaching. This includes rich and hands-on experiences that are interwoven alongside Mode A teaching. Although Mode B teaching gets less classroom time, it’s still a vital element of successful pedagogy and is critical for students to strengthen and reinforces the knowledge they develop through Mode A.

From The Learning Rainforest:

“…to be as rich, challenging, motivating and multi-faceted as possible so that we have the best chance of truly developing ‘the whole child’ with the maximum level of knowledge and cultural capital…sometimes we don’t do something because it is necessarily the most effective – because ‘it works’; we do it because we give value for its own sake – we think it should form part of a student’s learning experience. Many of the Mode B strategies fall into that category.”

Like Mode A, a number of important strategies underpin Mode B teaching. These fall under two categories: ‘Projects and Hands-On Learning’ and ‘Further Possibilities’.

Let’s unpack a couple of excellent Mode B strategies that you can integrate or reintegrate in your classroom or school


Hands-on tasks allow students to make the things they’ve been learning ‘real’ and reinforce their codified and formal knowledge through the new tacit knowledge they gain.

This can be as simple as allowing students to handle historical object from the period they are studying or if students are studying cells in science, allowing them to look at are cells underneath the microscope. It could be more complex trips and field experiences. One thing this is not is busy work; it is not a simple walk outside, a word-search or colouring in a coat of arms. It is planned memorable and relevant experiences that allow the students to make ‘real world’ connections.

Reciprocal teaching

Reciprocal teaching is the process of student learning or being guided by an expert to learn (usually you) and then having to teach the concept, idea or process to others. Challenging students to go beyond writing down the right answer towards teaching what they have learnt to others.

This is the classic ‘teach a person to fish, and they can eat for a lifetime’ stuff. This works great as a revision approach before significant assessment tasks. Students can be allocated a part of the course to prepare a revision lesson or a mini-lesson to teach to their peers. However, it can also be used at any time in a sequence of work if the context is right.

From The Learning Rainforest:

“When preparing to teach a set of concepts, it requires a deeper than a straightforward explanation might; at the very least it demands a greater level of clarity in the way the explanation is communicated.”

Effective learning needs a diversity of teaching approaches and experiences

We know that developing a ‘Managed Rainforest’ relies on teachers being good ‘gardeners’, able to understand 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. Not to mention how to protect and further cultivate what is already growing and what strategies will quickly weed out what might take over, if left unattended. 

This is the essence of an excellent classroom teacher. They know their students really well not just in terms of their personalities and goals but their current skills and knowledge as well as how best to personalise the learning in the classroom to get the most out of each student. Teachers also need to monitor and influence the culture of the cohort, shaping expectations and giving students challenge as well as the belief that they can achieve.

When teaching in Mode A, we should constantly be striving to meet a student at their point of need and challenge them with quality feedback to take the next step. For some Mode B challenges, students need specific knowledge and skills before they are able to properly engage in the experiential learning on offer. Excellent classroom teaching strikes a balance between the two  – increasing student knowledge and expertise through effective explicit teaching and then offering students rich experiential learning to solidify what they’ve learnt.

This can be tricky and depends a lot on contextual factors at individual school sites, within teams of teachers and between different classrooms. Although every school, class and child is unique, there are certain ‘safe bets’ in terms of teaching strategies that are likely to maximise the learning experiences for all students. Whilst a classroom teacher is able to tailor these to their class in both Mode A and Mode B teaching, these practices are more effective when they are given the same label  and emphasis across a Domain/facility or school-wide context.

It is important that school leadership teams can ensure that they adequately resource staff with time, opportunities, distributive leadership structures, and a framework for working collaboratively. It’s also important that teachers are given genuine autonomy to adapt school-wide goals and strategies to the specific learning needs of particular Domains/facilities and classroom contexts . In addition to this, school leadership should also ensure that all teachers have access to coaching/mentoring, and the chance to observe other teachers who are excellence in certain areas of teaching and learning practice as well as offering staff structured time to reflect on their practices and progress as a learner.

Key Takeaways

  1. Be wary of a one size fits all attitude to teaching and learning. Avoid simplistic binary thinking and get the best of both worlds.
  2. Explicit teaching or Mode A teaching can be highly effective. Knowledge is important and there are some great strategies for building it.
  3. Experiential learning or Mode B teaching can also be highly effective. This helps students consolidate what they’ve learnt.
  4. Effective learning needs a diversity of teaching approaches and experiences. ‘Manage the rainforest’ so students get access to great learning.