Christmas is a time for giving and New Year is a time for reflection. So, what better present to buy a teacher than a book?
The past year has seen the usual crop of "what works" books. Among the best is What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson. Built around a series of conversations with experts on key topics, it bridges research and practice.
In much the same vein is Tom Sherrington’s The Learning Rainforest: Great Teaching in Real Classrooms. The aptness of the ecosystem analogy is obvious – think of the soil and its nutrient store as the conditions for learning, the trunks supporting knowledge and the leaves representing the range of ambitions and possibilities. In an ecosystem, as in a school, each component depends on the others. Individual organisms are unique, yet share common characteristics with others in the species.
Sherrington contrasts the beauty and magic of the rainforest, dripping with possibilities and teeming with life, with its antithesis, the plantation: regimented, regulated, exploitative and deadening. The analogy with stifling, accountability-driven school environments is stark and effective.
But of all ecosystems, why choose rainforests? Rainforests of the tropical variety are famously rich in biodiversity and productivity, but everything is on the surface. The wealth of flora sits precariously atop impoverished soil. Roots are shallow, hence the buttress trunks of tropical trees. Decaying matter that isn’t recycled very quickly simply gets washed away. This isn’t the “nutrient-rich soil” that Sherrington supposes. It makes rainforests, counterintuitively, highly fragile. Remove the canopy and degradation ensues – hence the phrase "From green hell to red desert", referring to the disastrous consequences of Amazonian deforestation. Great learning deserves a more fertile soil.
Book time off
These books are well-written and worth reading. But every now and then, teachers like to look up and out from our classrooms, survey the field and scan the horizon. We seek nourishment from reflection on the very roots of our practice: what makes us tick, what makes us teach.
Beyond the manuals, Alex Standish and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert have curated a book about subjects, What Should Schools Teach? This is a great place to start if you want to restore the balance between how we teach and what we teach. Indeed, it helps to remind many of us why we teach.
A great way to recharge the batteries is to go back to books that bring to life the humanistic purpose of education, like Fared Zakaria’s In Defense of Liberal Education, and Daniel Denicola’s Learning to Flourish. This year my pile of prospective reading is topped by Geoffrey Harpham’s What Do You Think, Mr Ramirez? I have high hopes. The blurb affirms the author’s commitment to teaching as the key to creating the thinking agents crucial to the health of a participatory democracy. In the United States, Alabama’s epiphany notwithstanding, this clarion call is sorely needed – but in Blighty, the case for education as the key to social and cultural knowledge is no less pressing.
Oh, and my preferred ecosystem analogue? It has to be the saltmarsh: bracing winds, a flatter hierarchy, the horizon ever-present – and a tidal flood twice a day, bringing nutrients and new life, retreating to leave a subtly reconfigured but reinvigorated landscape. The only problem? On the mudflats, as in schools, if you stop moving, you sink.
Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1