From Plantation Thinking to Rainforest Thinking

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 mono-cultural world of a plantation.
The mono-cultural world of a 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?

The lush rainforest; diverse, unpredictable, evolving, daunting, exciting.
The lush rainforest; diverse, unpredictable, evolving, daunting, exciting.

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.

From Plantation Thinking to Rainforest Thinking:  it's quite a journey
From Plantation Thinking to Rainforest Thinking: it’s quite a journey

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:

1. Probing  2. Rigour  3.Challenge  4. Differentiation 5. Journeys 6. Explaining  7. Agility 8. Awe 9.Possibilities 10. Joy


  1. Tom, this is simply superb, no other word for it. If you look at the recent Wellcome Trust work on informal learning you will see that a similar analogy is used about the whole education system in terms of the ecology of a forest. An evolutionary approach to discussing education (policy) issues places them in the context of scientific reality i.e. what really works in classrooms across the country, as opposed to that of: “this is what I know in my heart should be happening and they should adopt it immediately as it is bound to produce someone like X who I admire greatly”. In many cases X is substituted by the name of the person speaking.


  2. What an exciting piece of writing….love the analogy. Having lived in the Far East for a while I know exactly what you are talking about. You’ll be glad to know I strive to be a rainforest HT. We don’t have as many constraints placed on us here in Scotland.


  3. Reblogged this on Healthy Skepticism and commented:
    Minor issues with the analogy aside (…not sure about ‘deep roots’ in rainforest trees… maybe ‘sturdy roots’…) this includes absolutely spot-on descriptions of two types of working environment: constrained and free. Is there a way we can get everyone to read it?


  4. As always, a well presented argument. You’re right, most people would want the abundance of the rainforest and in reality, we need that in order to survive. It sould be argued strongly that resilience=survival.

    The big but is the ease of measurement of the managed plantation, understandable to an observer, individual trees identified and yield measured. ‘Twas ever thus, from Ken Clarke onwards, denigrating the “happy, clappy” Primary classroom. 1987 NC was overburdened, needed reform, time wasted. Repetition?

    We are in danger of losing all that has been built over the past fifty years. Glad you’re sowing new seeds.


  5. So relevant for the onslaught heading our way with the Govian Era. A very beautiful and gentle analogy worthy of the great poets and so enduring. I will use this wherever I can and my deep thanks for such a clever reverberating context.


  6. I’ve been a headteacher for fifteen years and this is one of the most accurate and intelligent descriptions I’ve read of where I think we’ve lost our way. We’ve almost got to a point where what can’t be measured can’t be taught.


  7. […] I now refer to early headship as my first phase and have since moved through second phase headship (from “I” to “we”) and onto third phase headship (from we, inside one school, to we the extended system of schools).  If you want to read something a bit more visionary on leadership try the Tom Sherrington blog on “Plantations & Rainforests”. […]


  8. […] I now refer to early headship as my first phase and have since moved through second phase headship (from “I” to “we”) and onto third phase headship (from we, inside one school, to we the extended system of schools).  If you want to read something a bit more visionary on leadership try the Tom Sherrington blog on “Plantations & Rainforests”. […]


  9. I have been bemoaning the fact that I can very rarely find a tomato, that tastes like a tomato should. This my friend pointed out is because most of them are now “forced”. Just like the teachers and children in our education system I thought, so reading your article was a real tonic to start the new year! Lets hope for a little less cultivating in 2014 and beyond!


  10. This is really well put, but it’s so hard to get there! It needs massive change and somewhat of a gamble from parents and administrators, it’s about going with what you feel/know is the right thing to do. I agree with it all and with most of your posts which I am getting through and sharing since coming across the blog. One thing I didn’t think fitted was in a post about your first term as head where you said you put in a zero tolerance system on uniform infringements – surely there would be no uniform in the jungle? Thanks for sharing.


    • Hi. Thanks for the comment. Interesting re uniform; that’s probably getting a bit too literal for the metaphor to work but we’d argue that, with uniform, students have to express themselves through their ideas and actions; it’s one of the features of the initial conditions that lets them thrive, free from peer pressure to dress a certain way. There are constraints in the rainforest for sure.


  11. […] It’s going to be a period of very mixed emotions.  I love KEGS; it’s an extraordinary school full of amazing people.  I hope that this blog has helped to shine a light on some of the wonderful things that go on here. I’ve learned so much about what excellence looks like and what can be done with students when aspirations and expectations are set to maximum.  I’ve described my impressions on arriving to KEGS in this post  and the experience has been instrumental in shaping what I call my ‘rainforest thinking‘. […]


  12. Reblogged this on Values Soup and commented:
    This is precisely the sort of systems thinking that drives our work at and through our projects such as

    I love the use of metaphor and especially so when drawn from the natural world that I think we have so often overlooked as a source of inspiration and learning. We have had rivers, rice paddies, coral reefs and our own learning through values tree (within the rainforest) and much of this pulls on eco-literacy thinking.
    Wonderful to find this and makes useful reading in my current work on resilience and learning for which I had already begun turning to nature and rainforests in particular for some valuable insights.


  13. I enjoy this blog. Unfortunately I work in a plantation rather than a rainforest. To blog as freely as you do would earn me a P45.


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