Adventures in Mantle of the Expert – One teacher’s journey

1st August 2019

Helen Chapman 
What have I leaned working with MoE: Assignment 3

A brief background
Growing up as part of a youth theatre who’s directors were very interested in drama for learning, one having been a student of Dorothy Heathcote herself. I was unknowingly and wonderfully immersed in Mantle of the Expert pedagogy. Those amazing journeys of dramatic discovery seemed the norm to me.

While studying for my drama degree I was formally introduced to the work of Heathcote and Gavin Bolton and although this seemed exciting stuff, it also seemed to be very ‘deep’ hard to grasp- something for academics and not for mere drama students like myself.
After my drama degree I completed a PGCE and I remember using some mantle techniques I had learnt in my teacher training. In my final placement my class met Henry VIII ( the head teacher who I had persuaded to be in role ) at court as he was deciding what to do about Anne Boleyn .

Throughout my 25 years teaching career I have always known the power of drama for learning and I have used it as a way of engaging children more deeply in their learning. However, the pressures of changing curriculums, SATS tests and other ‘accountability’ sometimes curbed my use of drama techniques. It wasn’t until my head teacher at Morda introduced our staff to Tim Taylor’s book, ‘ A beginners; guide to mantle of the Expert’ and we began to explore developing Mantle of the Expert and related pedagogies across our school that I began to see the much greater learning possibilities that MoE offered.

I was incredibly fortunate to be offered a place on a two year NEU Mantle of the Expert Advance Skills Course- and completely amazed and inspired by the course working with Luke Abbott and Tim Taylor and a team of enthusiastic teachers.

Over the 18 months I have experimented with MoE work in my own classroom and supported colleagues in the school in developing their practice, cascading the knowledge, skills and pedagogy I have been developing to other colleagues. As the course progressed, and I realised how powerful and transformative this way of learning could be- MoE dramatic inquiry did not just use drama as a vehicle to engage and inspire pupils, it went much further than that it provided them with a fictional context where learning happened not because it was what the teacher wanted children to do but because children were hooked into a dramatic inquiry. The work that needed to be done in that inquiry was urgent and entirely necessary in the fictional context.

I was excited and invigorated by the impact of my experiments with MoE in my own classroom and I wanted to ‘spread the word’. I led several introductions to MoE in other schools. Quite by chance I mentioned this to my mentor, the head our local secondary school who signposted me to The Paul Hamlyn Foundation – I applied for and was awarded a grant to develop MoE teaching in 9 local schools – and so although I am at the end of one journey of MoE learning I am delighted to say that I am just at the start of another.

What follows are some of the things I have been significant in my experimentation with MoE teaching. They are a busy jobbing teacher’s thoughts and by no means complete- but I hope that they present a snapshot of my ‘ Adventures in Mantle’ so far

20 things I have discovered during my adventures so far…

1)What you discover about children and they discover about you will surprise you.
When you work with mantle of the Expert I have found that you are constantly discovering things about the people in your class that perhaps you wouldn’t have found before. The usual hierarchy of teacher/ pupil is disbanded- although of course the teacher is always actually leading the class the usual structures of teacher as ‘boss or manager’ disseminating information while pupils receive the information is challenged. The teacher is more of a coach or a facilitator, supporting and challenging the work of the both inside and outside the fiction. The teacher may also seemingly relinquish all authority for example when portraying ‘man – in a mess’ a character that needs the children’s help. Using the imaginary voice- taking on the voice and standpoint of someone other than herself, a character from within the story- is a particularly powerful change in language register which allows exciting developments to occur within the classroom.

When the class become the expert team there is a sense of equality in the – everyone’s role and commitment is crucial to the success of the commission. Suddenly, Children who have always been quiet may find a voice in role and take the lead, pupils who struggle to express their ideas can find a way to communicate their thoughts to everyone, the teacher is no longer the font of all knowledge- she can admit that she doesn’t know something- she is learning with the team.

As Dorothy Heathcote explained in drama in education there is also a culture of agreement that anyone can bring in ideas- in created worlds there isn’t correct and incorrect- there’s trail and error. This can free up learners to be more proactive, to take risks, to take the lead.
Here are a few examples of surprises from my recent experiences:

AB a very quiet but conscientious year 5 girl in my class would never usually have put herself into the ‘spotlight’ However when she was asked to represent Dr Helen Nash – the anthropologist in our Stone Age Mantle who had discovered a cave with many new cave paintings inside it AO took me completely by surprise. She took on the role completely authentically, spoke with authority to the class about her findings and her passion for her work…it was Asif she had studied a script and rehearsed for weeks! Throughout the mantle I would ask her to step in and out of role as Dr Nash and she did so with ease- always taking on a different linguistic register and due reverence for the seriousness of the situation.

CD an angry and difficult young man in my class, who was refusing to engage with any class work at that time joined in with a Roman MoE session. He knelt down palms facing upwards in a gesture surrender and spoke in role as Vecingetorix ( leader of the Celts- laying down his arms in from of Julius Caesar ) – He spoke more eloquently than he had ever done in my presence about his character giving up on anger, forgiving the Romans and offering himself in order to save his fellow countrymen.

EF an 11 year old group , with a complex family circumstances, who has suffered bereavement, and witnessed domestic violence and who is often loud, uncooperative and disruptive in class, spoke with absolute compassion to an injured climber on the top of mount Everest, coaching her on life choices, explaining how she could make her life better.
During a science mantle I had been in role as an elderly bee keeper who had lost many of her bees to unexplained ‘empty hive syndrome’. A child (who is on the SEN register and often finds science concepts difficult to understand and can seem uninspired in class) came to life during the following week and told me that she was very concerned about the threat to honey bees…she had spoken to her parents about it and she was planning to plant some bee friendly plants in her garden as a result of the work.

The day after a MoE session when the class were a team of scientists commissioned to investigate a crime using their scientific knowledge AA – a very quiet child came to school with a hand written explanation of exactly what she thought had happened with scientific evidence as to why.

These are all anecdotal… and they could have been part of a ‘normal’ science, history or geography lesson…but the difference is in MoE work these moments seem to happen much more frequently and children talk about their learning with a much deeper engagement.

2)Literacy outcomes are richer and more personal – children use more precise linguistic registers. I have long had the belief that the best writing comes from having deep meaningful, exciting and vivid life experiences…that fantastic school trip, that wonderful piece of music, that moving book. When we are moved by what we see, hear, feel, think then we have a rich memory bank of experiences to draw our writing from. Mantle of the Expert provides these rich experiences, but can take them a step further- As Dorothy Heathcote writes, “[in Mantle of the Expert] learning is achieved through engagement from within events” not just experiencing something as an onlooker or learner, but being within the event- pausing or fast forwarding time, switching view points and frames of reference to explore an event in what Star Trek might call a ‘ full 360 diagnostic’
Let me give you some examples of where I believe great writing has happened as a result of MoE work.

In our year 6 Stone Age mantle the team had been commissioned to write a series of documentary programmes about the Stone Age. The client – the BBC – had stipulated that the third documentary (the team had already written two very effective factual documentaries) was to be a human story from the Stone Age- the story of the Doggerland flood.

We already knew the end of the story we were investigating, but we were able to rewind, zoom in and explore the event from inside the story. The team were able to recreate a Doggerland village before the flood – the sounds sights, smells relationships- through co-constructing the environment the team were able to view the setting in great detail as an insider…the exact colour, scent and texture of the berries on the trees…the sounds of the gentle river, the smell of the smoke coming from the Shaman’s dwelling. We collected a wealth of imagery with which could be used in our setting descriptions.

Having zoomed in on all this detail we could then meet a key character in our story- The Shaman- my TA in role. – The team could pause the action – examine what this woman was like in great detail- her stooped, walk, her talon nails, her matted hair and wild eyes…etc. We could enact her to speak…hear her warnings…rewinding, replay and improve her spoken words… creating a higher level linguistic register that we could use in our writing. (Greater Depth writing target achieved!!)

When at last the foreshadowed flood came into our drama story, we had built relationships with the people within the village…we had worked inside that village…we had decided whether we would heed the shaman’s warnings or stay put. The physical theatre we used to portray the coming of the flood- each of us either becoming part of the flood or an object within it created a really powerful writer’s viewpoint. Show not telling the terrible devastation. The class were inducted into the event not instructed in it – and the resulting writing was really powerful.

Of course this writing did not just ‘happen’ In teacher mode I was able to take the children’s experiences and draw out the vocabulary, tension building techniques, similes metaphors etc. that I wanted to see in the work. But there was no…’I don’t know how to start’ or ‘What should I write next’ Everyone had a really vivid lived experience to write about, and everyone …even the least able writers in the class was able to do that.

3)History becomes so much more personal
Everyone has been in a history lesson where the teacher has said, “Imagine what it would be like if you were living in the ….time”. And yes, it is a good idea to try to imagine- but a huge imaginative jump – and not something everyone can achieve.

Mantle doesn’t just ask you to imagine- it casts you in the centre of the action- together- the knowledge and imagination of the whole class (adults and children) co-constructs the historical setting. Of course the teacher steers the pupils towards the factual information knowledge they require to build an accurate picture and the teacher will question and address historical inaccuracies in the children’s understanding and clarify what is happening.
The real power of dramatic inquiry is that once the environment/ historical figures have been co-constructed and represented the learners can actually interact with them- explore their world from the inside; try out what it would feel like to be in the situation or make the decisions these historical figures had to make.

There will be historical ‘givens’ which the teacher needs to ensure are in place – otherwise this is not history we are exploring , but fiction. However within the dramatic ‘historical laboratory’ the learner acts as if they were there, as if it were happening to them , and therefore there is an understanding of history at a human level which is much more deep and personal.
In our Roman Box mantle the children in role as either angry rioting Celts or a Roman family being burned out of their villa and burying precious possessions beneath their house. In one ancient history context the tribe told stories and recounted the great deeds of bravery courage and wisdom of their departed tribe leader. They then recorded these images as a mark of respect on the cave walls. From inside the drama learners were able to experience the sad, the joyous, the terrible and the momentous human experiences that are within a historical narrative.

4) Children will ‘play the game’ much easier than adults’
When you ask adults teachers to try out some of the ‘dramatic’ ways in to learning they can be rather self-conscious and worried thinking; ‘How will it look?’…. How will it sound’… ‘Will I make a fool of myself doing this?’

Children, in my experience are much less self-conscious about trying out roles- as long as they are ‘protected’ into the drama- The work should be high challenge – low threat- They are not ‘performing’ being ‘looked at and judged’ They are still themselves, but in role they are working on something important, something that requires the appropriate amount of serious consideration, they are ‘trying to understand and make happen by what we do and how we behave’ . This is a game or an imaginary scenario we are working in, but it should be played with the authenticity it requires.

5) TAs can really enjoy working in role if they are protected into the drama
When I first began to ask my TAs to support the drama by working in role they were, quite naturally a bit apprehensive- especially those who had not experienced drama for learning before or who were naturally more introverted. The key was to protect them into the work just as I tried to do with the children. We would meet briefly before the lesson and I would explain the steps into the role work and the key information that the character will need know and portray. I would brief them on what I needed them to do (sometimes it was simply to stay as a still picture for a length of time in class, other times it would be responding to questions the children asked and once they had gained confidence I could ask TAs to speak in role.)

The TAs working as adults in role in my class have been key to the success of the drama work. One TA represented Boudicca as a still picture- then met the class in role at a rebel meeting before a planned revolt. On another occasion she portrayed the ‘Shaman of Doggerland’ while the class co-constructed what this wild magical woman looked, sounded and even smelt like! By this time she was confident enough to speak in role as the character and for us to pause rewind and change her spoken words to elevate the linguistic register.
By being outside the role I was able to step in, pause the action, and support the TA if the situation was getting tricky or children are asking difficult questions.

TAs across school have all taken part in MoE work- I observed a fantastic ‘Trial of the Troll’ courtroom drama in the reception class where one TA took on the role of the troll and another (wearing a T-towel on her head with absolute dignity!) portrayed the solemn, quiet but essential tension holding role of the judge.

6. Sometimes the best use of a TA is having them not moving at all!
Until I saw the power of an adult in the room remaining absolutely still in a still picture representation of a character, I would never have believed that this was a powerful use of TA time! Sometimes, having an adult present in the room as a still image for 5, 10 even 15minutes can provide a real sense of tension and focus to the work. The questioning, research, discussion that goes on around the character holds the attention so that when the character when enacted to speak or move or respond to questions – the class are transfixed !

7) Don’t flog a dead mantle- if they are not hooked you need to rethink and change tack
Sometimes the best laid plans just don’t go the way you thought they would. You think you have a fantastic way into the drama, you’re very excited about it, you’ve planned the steps carefully but it doesn’t grab the children- they are not hooked into the learning – they haven’t been attracted and engaged you need to rethink- change tack and adapt. It doesn’t mean that you are not going to teach the thing you need to teach, it just means you need to rethink how to hook your children into the learning. This may be thinking on your feet time and changing your plan – or it may mean taking time to rethink in preparation for the next lesson. Either way…you need to make sure that the kids are hooked. (Hooks can come in all shapes and sizes, a teacher in role, a letter, a question- they can be Iconic – an image / a carefully arranged artefacts/ adult in role in a still image; Symbolic – a letter, poster, sign, marking of significance or expressive- a question, an action, adult/s in role presenting a snippet of a scene – or an overheard conversation etc. Whatever it is it needs to grab the children’s attention and gain their interest.

8) Concern Key : Tension is tantamount!
Sometimes I have found that the class have been hooked into the drama, we have created a really great co-constructed dramatic scenario, everything looks great…and yet it is just flat. There is no life in the work – it feels ordinary. I have realised that this is almost always when there are two essential elements of the work missing – concern and tension.
If things have been a bit flat in a session- at first I thought it was probably my delivery. I had not made the drama story exciting enough…perhaps I had not represented the character in role well enough. But I now realise these times were almost always when there was not sufficient CONCERN in the Mantle. Children have to care about the work…the person who is in trouble (man in a mess) the situation and the relationships within the drama. In addition if there was not enough TENSION. even the most concerned audience can find the situation getting a bit dull.

Concern: We need to care about the people, the situation, the creatures, the environment that are central to the dramatic context. This concern needs to be carefully built up by the teacher- When building our team of Stone Age anthropologists, I needed to make the children care about the cave they had discovered and the cave painting inside it – otherwise why would we want to protect it when the funding ran out and there was a threat of the site being left unattended We invested a lot of time replaying (through still pictures) all the work that had gone into discovering the cave paintings. We spent time researching significant cave painting sites around the world. We created still images of great events that had happened in the tribe and turned theses into our own our own cave paintings, we created a large cardboard re-enactment cave in the classroom chose where our paintings would be situated inside the cave itself.

When our cave was threatened- there was tension- it meant something to us!

In the Roman Box MoE at the beginning of the autumn term we had created a Roman Village – like the one we had visited at Wroxeter. Everyone could happily show and describe what happening in their area of the village and the lesson was fine…fine but flat. It was only when we spoke to one of the pupils representing a child cleaning the hypocaust underneath the gymnasium and I narrated that ‘the child began to cough and splutter a gasp for breath under the village as everyone went about their business above her’ that there was a sudden change in the feeling in the room- we were all concerned for the child…there was immediate danger…. tension !

Tension doesn’t always have to be a life or death situation- the client can introduce tension by giving time constraints, tension can be created by having two opposing views in the drama or a decision to make…but it does need to be planned into the work carefully…it is the thing that makes you want to find out more…play the next episode so to speak.

8. Dramatic inquiry doesn’t have to be a whole lesson – Just a touch of returning to the drama story can re-trigger all the emotions and engagement of a previous lesson
Sometimes the pressures of time and accountability require you to get on with the ‘real work’ e.g. the writing, research, recording etc. and it can be a concern that the drama (which doesn’t always have a ‘written outcome’) takes up a lot of time. However, once the commission and expert team are set up – more formal work and outcomes can come at a pace.

The client is always there to hurry things along and demand quality , “Ok colleagues, we’ll need to get our letters of acceptance off to the BBC by 12 o’clock today…We will of course need to make sure that they are presented well, in an appropriate tone and with the correct punctuation. We don’t want the BBC rejecting us at this stage because or errors in our letters do we?!”

A few carefully constructed ‘ flash backs’ can be used reignite the children’s physical and emotional memory of the previous session’s work so that they can write about it. e.g “If we are going to record the events in Doggerland really effectively for the documentary, we will need to be really precise in our descriptions of the people of the village. I wonder if you can recall what the village and Olga were doing just before the flood…Can you show what your character was doing in a still picture when I count down from 3?” etc .

A minute or so of recap- physically recreating the scene that we had previously looked at in detail can be enough to re-ignite the physical and emotional memory of the event. I find having lots of notes, key words and information on the learning wall can really help this. I often get another adult in the room to make notes on large pieces of paper and record key information in the drama which we will then use in our written outcomes.

9) SATS, Assessment week and other such necessary evils may stop you from being an authentic MoE teacher! – but only for a short time.

Teaching using MoE is not possible all of the time. There are times when it is just not the best way of working, when other more traditional strategies need to be used. Sometimes other ‘stuff’ gets in the way…your class need to learn the vast amount of grammatical knowledge they require to jump through the KS2 Grammar paper hoop… or practise past papers so they can be up to speed in the timed tests. Theses may have to be done…but I have found my class very forgiving. They will remind me and give me a nudge…” We haven’t done our Mantle work for a while”…” “When can we do the drama again” “ We haven’t finished our documentaries yet” and they will easily step back into the ‘story’ and pick it up again…a bit like pausing a film then restarting it again.

10) Tricky behaviour can make you feel like giving up…but don’t
I have a lovely class of year 5 and 6 children… but some of them are really tricky…A few individuals will…if they are having that sort of a day try to ‘wreck’ the session. There have been times when I have had to stop the drama work…talk about behaviour expectations and restart again. There have been times when children have had to be withdrawn from the work because they were making it difficult for others to work effective. There have been times when I have thought that the whole lesson was a disaster and one particular time when a child in my class (who now has a shared placement in a local behaviour support unit) was so disruptive in the hall that I had to move the whole class out of the hall space and continue the lesson in the classroom. (that was actually a day when we were being inspected- and the inspector really liked the lesson he saw!)

However, I know that the learning in the vast majority of the MoE lessons has been really deep and definitely worth the ‘risk’.
Although in many ways It is easier to respond to difficult behaviour by becoming more regimented in class and allowing less inquiry and pupil led learning, I believe this would only be a short-term gain. I want children to be able to explore and inquire and have those deep learning experiences that mantle provides- the children who are finding it difficult to conform to the behaviour expectations of the class are exactly the children who need to be able to develop the skills to work collaboratively in a team, support each other and take responsibility for the important job in hand. It is worth working through tricky times.

11)Don’t underestimate what the youngest children can achieve- Reception class can get really serious about their drama work!
Just because you are only 5 doesn’t mean you can’t take the learning really seriously. I supported our reception teacher in developing a mantle based on The 3 Billy Goat’s Gruff’ The children became a team of police investigators trying to find out if the Troll was guilty or innocent of the charges placed against him. I observed an amazing court trial where every child was totally engaged in the serious business of the court. Children took on the roles of prosecutor and defence lawyer, there was a jury, court reporters, and photographers, members of the Billy goat’s family and friends and supporters of the Troll in the public gallery. Adults in role took on the part of the judge and the Troll while the teacher kept order and managed the smooth running of the whole proceedings.

The commitment and seriousness of the children in the drama amazed me. Even a child with a 1-1 TA and quite severe SEND issues who rarely engages in classroom interaction was totally engaged and at one point went to the witness stand unprompted and said ‘I saw the Troll, he took food from my garden’

Afterwards on the playground, children were still talking about the drama that had unfolded in the classroom and wanting to write about it.

12. Be prepared for the drama to spill out into the playground, to go home to effect children much further than within the walls of the classroom.

As I mentioned above, the learning doesn’t stop at the classroom door when children are really engaged in MoE. I have experienced many examples of children going home and coming back with work that they have done independently.

A child brought back a police record of evidence to help with our Science Police in investigators Mantle. Another came in with an explanation of what they thought had happened to a stained glass window which had been broken in another inquiry drama. Children have brought in books, artefacts and independently researched areas of our inquiry. Parents and parent governors have reported that their children have been talking excitedly about the work they have done in the classroom and that they seemed to have a deep knowledge of the area of study.

In terms of MoE development it seems that through the work these children have progressed from ‘attraction’ to ‘interest’ to ‘concern and investment’ and in some cases to that Holy Grail of ‘positive obsession’.

13) Running out of ideas is and getting a bit stuck is normal…but there are lots of ways you can reignite the creative spark

Sometimes I have found myself getting stuck in a mantle …Where do we need to go next with this? How can we move the learning forward? I have found that it is very important to have some fixed points which you want to achieve through the work. These are the knowledge, skills and values you want to teach in the curriculum area, but also could be the particular literacy outcomes. It helps to have these clearly in mind and create some steps to get there.

If I have found myself getting stuck I have tried to reframe the learning – look at the drama from a different point of view, change the commission brief slightly, so that children are working towards a slightly different goal in their expert team. I find talking through my mantle with other colleagues can really help develop my teaching steps and strangely enough so can going for a run or doing something unrelated…I often find some ways through the conundrum I have been pondering after doing something like this.

14) You don’t have to be a great actor to be able to use drama for learning and tale on a role
MoE is not about producing an Oscar winning performance for the children. It is about authenticity. Agreeing with the class that what you do together will be as authentic as possible so that we can all learn together. This also means trusting the kids to take on some of the most important in-role representations. I think it was Dorothy Heathcote who said that too many times in drama lessons the teacher gets to play the best parts!

15) I talk too much! I need to shut up the teacher talk and open up some roads to inquiry!
Teachers talk too much…well I do anyway. And, unless I really think about it I engage in teacher talk – rather than carefully selecting the sort of inquiry questions which can open up a learning inquiry. Working with MoE has helped me consider and adapt my talk in class. I have found myself writing down the wording of questions so that I can avoid teacher talk- I try to use some learned sentence starters like: ‘I wonder what would happen if … What do you make of….. Do you think we should….’ To avoid falling into the teacher talk trap!

16) MoE has no boundaries
Working in an imaginary world can take you to any place – no matter how remote or dangerous. It can take you to any time- past present or future. It can allow you to meet any person – alive or dead. It can help you see the world differently- step into other people’s shoes.
In this last 2 years alone my class have travelled back in time, explored Stone Age villages, met Tudor Kings and Queens, become expert scientists, solved crimes, rescued stranded climbers on Mount Everest, fought in the Colosseum, created BBC documentaries and helped save Bees from extinction…

17) MoE shows us that the world is not binary- It makes us think about why people make the decisions they do and can help us make decisions in our own lives.
When we work in drama we can view the world through other’s eyes- see different points of view- in reception class the team who investigated the Troll found that he wasn’t the monster that he had first seemed to be. There were reasons for his actions and he needed to be listened to.

Through the work children have been able to consider difficult choices and avoid viewing the decision as simply right or wrong.

18) Mantle of the Expert is great fun for the kids and the adults!
When the world of teaching is feeling a tad stressful and grey…MoE is really great fun…It is exciting, inspiring and absorbing…It gives teachers back the zest for teaching and learners the love of learning.

19) MoE pedagogy can help to develop the citizens of the future
In an uncertain future MoE can ensure that schools develop a learning culture where learners take responsibility for their own learning. Moreover MoE pedagogy has human relationships and moral values at its core. By putting our learners at the centre of human dilemmas, giving them responsibility within the imaginary context, allowing them to explore first hand, make important decisions and understand the impact of those decisions, we are preparing learners to become the values led problem solvers of the future.

20) It is not magic…but it is magical when really great drama for learning happens in the classroom.

When I first saw Luke Abbott working in my class I though he was a magician… but I now realise this is not the case. He is a very skilled and experienced virtuoso and deeply authentic MoE practitioner.

Dramatic inquiry can be used to great effect by any teacher- with the right training and the enthusiasm and commitment to give it a try. It takes practice, like any skill. I do not profess to have mastered the magical arts that Luke Abbott and Tim Taylor appear to achieve so effortlessly, but I am slowly developing my skills… and though I may not be quite ready for the magic circle yet… there have been moments in my classroom, when there is a crackle in the air…when everyone knows that some really deep meaningful learning is talking place , and these are truly magical !


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