Mantle of the Expert

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By Jo Gray
on 27 November, 2016

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Using Drama to Inspire Learning

With many schools tailoring the National Curriculum to appeal to the needs of their own pupils, there is no time like the present to explore and research different approaches to teaching and learning; finding the best approach to engage, motivate and inspire your children.

Foreward

Jo Gray, Literacy Team Leader, One Education 

When I trained to be a teacher some years ago, we had our only session on Drama. This lesson was on an approach called ‘Mantle of the Expert’ and the example used linked to Fairy-tales; more specifically helping the Big, Bad Wolf persuade characters of Fairy-tale Land that he was a changed wolf! Through drama, problem solving, science, maths, DT and, of course, Literacy, a class of 30 adults helped persuade the other Fairy-tale characters that the Wolf was, in fact, good. We hot-seated the wolf, thought of a plan to persuade the Fairy-tale characters that he had changed (especially Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs), looked at materials that would make the best house, built a house (for the pigs), designed a picnic (For Little Red, Riding Hood) and read many versions of Fairy-tale stories.

What is ‘Mantle of the Expert’?

'Mantle of the Expert' was developed by Dorothy Heathcote at Newcastle University in the 1970s and 80s. This exciting approach to learning helps to improve children’s skills in reading, writing and many other curriculum areas;  inspiring children to develop their knowledge whilst giving them a purpose for their learning. Heathcote decided to call the approach “Mantle of the Expert” as she felt the acquisition of knowledge, or learning, is represented by a mantle (cloak or blanket) surrounding the learner, who in turn, becomes an 'expert' in what they are learning about. 

I could see the potential of using this as a creative approach to teaching instantly. I used this approach in school to help engage children with a purpose for learning using a cross-curricular approach.  I recently came across an expert on ‘Mantle of the Expert’, Tim Taylor. Tim is a freelance teacher and lecturer at Newcastle University. Here, he gives his experience on ‘Mantle of the Expert’. 

Introduction to the ‘Mantle of the Expert’

Tim Taylor

One afternoon, about halfway through my PGCE course, my fellow trainee teachers and I were asked to meet in the university sports hall; the purpose of the meeting was to do some drama. The tutor explained drama was about ‘self-expression’ and being ‘in-role’ (two terms guaranteed to turn my blood cold) and asked us to spread out so we would have plenty of room to move about. What happened next still makes my toes curl.

Walking In the Air

Next to the tutor was a DVD player, she pressed the play button with a flourish and out of the speakers came the cherubic voice of a young Aled Jones warbling ‘Walking in the Air’. “Now,” said the tutor, “I want you to imagine you are a snowflake floating through the night sky, some of you will be moving fast, blown hard by the wind, while others will be floating gently about in the air, some might cluster together in flurry, while others will fly on their own. Remember you are as light as a feather, so up on your toes and when the music ends I want to see you gently gliding to the floor. Off you go!”

What happened next is still a blur of embarrassment. Never light on my feet I plodded round the room, along with thirty other adults, all doing their best to avoid eye contact. Lord knows what it looked like to the tutor or to those drinking coffee in the viewing gallery.

I don’t suppose every PGCE student can have been exposed to such excruciating torture (at least I hope not), but this session along with several others as a student at school, where I was forced to role-play a drunken sailor and pretend to walk like a dinosaur, had cemented a pathological dislike for drama in all its forms. So when I started teaching, it is safe to say, drama was not high on my list of must-use techniques.

This however, was all about to change. The school I was lucky enough to end up working in was run by a dynamic head-teacher called Sue Eagle, who believed passionately in making learning interesting and spent every spare penny on in-service training. It was the early 90’s and there was a buzz about education. We all wanted to learn new things and in the first year we had training days on philosophy with children, assessment for learning, and something called ‘Mantle of the Expert’, which was about drama and sounded weird.

Demonstrating ‘Mantle of the Expert’

The trainer for this approach was called Luke Abbott. Luke was well aware that the name sounded strange and that many teachers had had a bad experience of using drama at school, and so he told Sue in his opinion the best way to introduce the approach was to demo it first with a class of children. Sue liked this idea and volunteered my class of Year 3s.

Luke came in on the arranged day and met my class in the hall. ‘Hah’, I thought, ‘I know where this is going’ and looked around for the DVD player. There was none to be seen. Instead Luke asked the children to sit on the floor, where he joined them. “Hello,” he said, “My name is Mr. Abbott, and I’d like to tell you about a story. It starts in a village, just an ordinary place, with a church and a post-office, and a little school, and several rows of cottages. I don’t know how many people live there, but I could guess about a hundred. Anyway, one day a terrible thing happened. The people of the village still argue about when it first started, but the children are sure it began when they heard the noises in the playground. To begin with, they thought it might be the sound of the lorries, grumbling up the lane to the quarry, but then one of them noticed the noises weren’t coming from the lane, but were coming from under the ground.”

My hard-to-engage class were transfixed, their eyes glued to Luke’s face. “What,” he asked, “do you think was making the noises?” A forest of hands shot up and the students flooded Luke with suggestions. He listened carefully, nodding and asking for more details. At the end he said, “These are just the kinds of thoughts that ran through the minds of the children. But none guessed the truth and when it happened, it happened at night. One minute the people of the village were quiet, asleep in their beds, the next they were all swallowed up by a giant hole. And that’s where they are now, trapped and in need of a rescue team.”

He stopped for a moment to let that sink in and to answer the children’s questions. Then he fixed them with a quizzical stare and began to roll up his sleeves. “Would you like to come into the story?” he asked, “It would mean working as the rescue team.” “Yes,” they cried. “Good,” he said, “Because there’s a lot of work to do. The first job is to get our rescue vehicles packed and ready to go. I guess we’re going to need the helicopter, and the fire engine. Who’d like to work on those? What about the ambulances? Why don’t you grab a sheet of paper off that pile and draw the rescue vehicles you think we’re going to need for this job, don’t forget to load them up with all the equipment and we’ll meet back here as soon as we’re ready.”

And off they went. There were no giggles, no arguments about who gets to use the pens, just a fired up and excited group of people eager to get on with a task that made sense to them and had a purpose they understood. Within thirty minutes I was involved too, as a villager trapped under a pile of rubble. The team had found me using their remote control robot and were talking to me on a walky-talky. “Are you injured?” they asked. “Yes,” I replied, “I can’t move my legs, they’re trapped and I’m starting to feel faint. Can you help me?” “Don’t worry,” they said reassuringly, “We’ll be with you very soon.”

That was me; doing drama, and I didn’t feel stupid. Luke wasn’t asking me to act or pretend to be injured, he didn’t want me writhing in agony or pleading for help. “Just be yourself,” he said, “less is more in this kind of work. You don’t need to be an actor. Let the children use their imagination.” Classroom drama it turned out, wasn’t about ‘self-expression’ or being ‘in-role’ (and certainly not floating around the hall pretending to be a snowflake), it was about giving the students something to think about. The sort of thing we teachers do every day, just in a different form. I could do that.

And I did. For the next fifteen years I worked with Luke whenever I could, watching him teach over and over again, writing down everything he said, and did, every strategy he used, every question he asked, until I learnt how to do what he could do. This was ‘Mantle of the Expert’, it wasn’t something that only drama teachers could do, it wasn’t only for the initiated, it wasn’t something you had to be an extrovert or an actor to use. It was something practical and possible, something that could be learnt over time, and something that transformed my teaching for the better.

Tim Taylor edits and writes for mantleoftheexpert.com and imaginative-inquiry.co.uk. His book, A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert was published in July 2016.

For more information about the One Education Literacy Team, contact Jo Gray on 0844 967 1111.

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