Generating student concern for learning

29th September 2018

Tim Taylor

In my mid-twenties I spent some time working in Madrid. The job, like many that young people do with an itch to live abroad, was teaching English as a foreign language. On the whole it was pretty dull, I spent most of my time travelling across the city to teach one-to-one tutorials with lawyers, accountants, and executives who wanted to brush up on their conversational English. But one session stood out unlike any of the others and I found myself looking forward to it every week.

The session was on a Saturday morning with a small group of teenagers. To be honest I got the impression they didn’t really want to be there and to begin with it was difficult to get their attention. (Later, when I got to know them better, I learnt they’d been sent there by their parents and would have much rather been doing anything else).

After an initial disastrous session where they barely moved or communicated above a murmur, I decided I had to do something different, something that would catch their interest. During the lesson, in desperation to get them to talk, I asked them rather feebly what they what they were interested in. Among a rather desultory list was a reference to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Now, an interest in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers was something we had in common, and that afternoon I went home and had a think – What if I could combine learning English with their interest in music? That might motivate them. With this thought in my head I spent the rest of the week listening to tracks from the latest Peppers album (which I had on cassette) and writing out the lyrics on strips of paper.

The following Saturday I muddled up the strips for each of the songs and then laid them out in front of my students. After playing the relevant track, I asked them if they could work together to put the lyrics in the right order, speaking only in English. The difference was palpable. As well as loving listening to the music the students were interested in the lyrics and what the words meant. They’d already listened to songs hundreds of times, but now they had them in front of them and could talk to one another about their meaning. One song in particular caught their imagination, it was a song called ‘Under the Bridge’.

‘Under the Bridge’, if you don’t already know, is a song about loneliness and alienation, something it turned out this group of teenagers could relate to, and the conversation that followed was in total contrast to the ones we’d had the week before. Now they were animated and engaged. They spoke passionately about their own thoughts and experiences. Their English didn’t come naturally, but they struggled hard to find the right words because they had a reason to communicate. For me it was a revelation and was the first time I felt what it was like to be a real teacher. I went home with my head buzzing – What now?

For the next six months, I spent all week planning for those two hours with my small group of teenagers. My purpose was to find activities based on subjects that interested them and would motivate them to talk. I tried all kinds of ideas – balloon debates, mock bank robberies, murder mysteries, and lots of other activities centred on music – most of these ideas worked, but not all of them.

The problem was I didn’t know why and so my method was largely trial and error: I would think of something I thought they’d be interested in and then spend time planning activities based on those interests. I’d then try them out in the classroom and see what happened. If something worked, I’d use it again, if it didn’t I’d cast it aside. As a method, it was pretty ineffective and rarely provided insight. Fundamentally, I had no idea why one idea worked and another failed. It was frustrating.

What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that the ideas that worked were the ones the students felt concern for. The music of “Under the Bridge’ was interesting to them, but what really kept them engaged was their shared concern for what the lyrics meant. Back then, if a session was a success or not it was largely a matter of chance. Later, I learnt what was happening to those students was an emotional attraction to the subject, something that transcended their lack of interest and overcame their reluctance to join in.

My first step towards understanding this process came during my initial year of teaching in England when I met Luke Abbott and he introduced me to a heuristic device developed by Dorothy Heathcote. Her device involved eight stages:


Each one, took the students further along a path towards a deeper level of involvement. The teacher’s role was to plan resources and activities that first ‘attracted’ the students and then gradually, over time, draw them further, and deeper into the subject.

Abbott first came across this device during one of Heathcote’s tutorials in 1982 . Since then (largely thanks to Abbott) it has become one of the most important resources in the teaching of drama-for-learning, while never (as far as I know) appearing in any of Heathcote’s own published essays, or in ‘Drama for Learning’ or Wagner’s ‘Drama as a Learning Medium’ .

Recently, Brian Edmiston has reworked the list:

Extrinsic Motivation

In Edmiston’s list the demarcation line across the middle remains in the same place, but the term ‘Engagement’ has been removed. This, he explains, is significant: “I see the whole list as levels of engagement, so having the term ‘engagement’ as one of the levels doesn’t really make sense. For me, the crossover of the line into ‘concern’ is a shift from extrinsic motivation (where the teacher brings the energy and does more than the young people) to intrinsic motivation (where the young people take responsibility to propel themselves forward). ”

Rethinking the list as levels in this way has advantages. The first, is to provide the journey along the levels with a destination. Earlier, I called this destination ‘involvement’, but involvement is too passive a term to really describe what is happening. Engagement is a far more active process, as the etymology of the word illustrates:

“Engage comes from 16th century late Middle English and from the French engager, ultimately from the base of gage. The word originally meant ‘to pawn or pledge something’, later ‘pledge oneself (to do something’), hence ‘enter into a contract’ (mid 16th century), ‘involve oneself in an activity’.”

In this sense we can see the continuum as a psychological pledge that the mind takes when involving itself in the activity of learning. The further along the continuum the students travel, the deeper the level of engagement and the more the commitment to ‘the activity’. The ‘levels’, in this way, are a kind of movement towards a greater commitment of time, energy, and personal resources and the further along the list the mind travels the more it becomes attached to the subject, and the more it identifies with the content.

How long this process takes is difficult to gauge. From experience, I would say the time it takes to move between the levels is inconsistent and that much depends on the students’ own interests at the beginning. The “Under the Bridge” session was a happy accident, brought about because the students were already obsessed with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, in most learning situations, however, we are unlikely to start with that kind of advantage and will have to build more methodically.

The second advantage of Edmiston’s version, is that it makes clear what the line across the middle of the list represents. When Abbott first showed it to me, I found the line confusing. It was obviously a demarcation point of some kind (rather than a barrier) but a demarcation point between what? My best bet was levels of importance, but Edmiston’s ‘extrinsic/intrinsic motivation’ seems a much stronger explanation and, while it might not be exactly what Heathcote had in mind, it does give a coherent account for its existence. For that reason, I’m happy to adopt it and so from this point on I’m going to be talking about Edmiston’s revised version of the list, rather the original one devised by Heathcote.

Using the Levels of Engagement

The Levels of Engagement list is fairly self-explanatory. The levels obviously follow a consistent order and it is easy to understand how they build, sequentially, one upon the other. What is far more ambiguous (and useful), however, is how the list can be applied in the classroom.

Earlier, I described the list as a ‘heuristic device’. By which I meant, a tool for thinking. A tool that can be applied in the classroom to generate new ways of planning and teaching, and will have the result of engaging students in deep levels of study.

A discussion on how to use the list for these ends is the topic of the rest of this paper. To illustrate I will be using a Mantle of the Expert example I have recently planned and taught in a primary classroom. It is called ‘The Troll Hunters’ and is available in full on the Mantle of the Expert website .

Troll Hunters

I first taught this context in a Year 1 class in a school in North Norfolk. The curriculum involved story-telling and descriptions. The idea of troll-hunters was the teacher’s, who knew the children well and wanted to use a context that she hoped would capture their imagination.

A team of scientists are commissioned by the Queen to track down and observe the trolls of the forest who are (according to reports) blighting the lives of her subjects. Some of her advisers are telling her that the Trolls need to be culled, but the Queen wants to know more about them before making any drastic decisions.

Expert team: Scientists
Client: The Queen of Fairy Land
Commission: To track down and observe the trolls of the forest. Then to report back to the Queen (via carrier-pigeon) with what the team have observed and what they suggest to do with the trolls.

Step 1
The children are sat on the carpet with their teacher. The teacher picks up a classroom chair and puts it in front of them. She talks, “When Mrs Brown (their classroom assistant) sits on the chair she is going to be someone in a story.”

With a sign from the teacher, Mrs Brown steps in front of the class and sits on the chair. Immediately her posture changes – she straightens her back and lifts her chin – and a troubled look comes over her face.

The teacher watches with the children.

[This step is designed to attract the children’s interest. First, Mrs Brown (someone they know) is not being herself, but representing someone in a story. Second, this person is different to Mrs Brown, more formal, more prideful. Third, this person has a problem, something on her mind. Importantly, the children are not told what’s going on, but shown it, as if it is happening in front of their eyes. There is an element of mystery here, an element of the unknown. Things aren’t lain out in front of them, but held back, giving their mind’s the chance to speculate and wonder.]

Step 2
The teacher gives the children a bit of time to stare and then asks, “What do you notice?”
There follows a discussion where the teacher guides the conversation towards what the children can see, rather than what they think is happening. The children are bound to speculate, but this is not the main purpose of the task. What the teacher wants is for them to look closely and say what they see.

[This is about paying attention, the teacher has shifted the burden of the work from the adult representing the role to the children who are studying her for meaning. The demand is higher and requires participation. The teacher is doing her own observing of the students, watching, listening, and drawing out their ideas through her questioning. She doesn’t want to put words into the children’s mouths and doesn’t want to lead them to conclusions, her purpose is to guide and support them.]

Step 3
The teacher steps up and stands behind the adult-in-role. She lifts her hands and says, “What you can’t see is that upon this woman’s head is a crown.” With these words she places an imaginary crown upon the adult-in-role’s head. “What do you make of that?” she asks. There follows another discussion, supported by the teacher.

“Now you know she is a queen. What more would you like to know?” she asks. The children start to ask questions, which the teacher and the adult-in-role listen to.

Once they have come up with a number of questions, the teacher asks them to listen. On this cue the adult-in-role speaks to herself (not to the class), choosing her words carefully in order to answer some of the children’s questions: “What am I to do?” she says, “They are causing so much damage and unhappiness. If only they would stay in the forest and keep away from the village. Why do they have to eat the sheep? Isn’t there enough food in the woods? These trolls are the bane of my life!”

[These words are designed to grab the students’ interest. They have been carefully chosen to give the children snippets of information providing them with a growing insight into what is happening in the story, as well as the kind of details that will excite their imagination. Phrases such as: ‘damage and unhappiness’, ‘forest’, ‘keep away from the village’, ‘eat sheep’, and finally, ‘these trolls are the bane of my life!’ The story is gradually emerging a bit at a time, rather than being told to the class as a complete narrative.]

Step 4
The teacher asks the children to reflect, “What did you hear?” There follows a discussion where the children describe what they heard and she checks their understanding and clears up any misconception. During this discussion the adult-in-role sits perfectly still, as if frozen in time. She is in another place.

When ready the teacher says, “If you want to talk to the Queen you will need to come into the story.”

[These words are significant. First, they provide an invitation for the children to step into the fiction. The teacher is telling them obliquely that they too can have roles inside the story and it is not just for the adults. Second, they are an opportunity for them to make a commitment towards the make-believe. Sitting on the carpet and watching is no longer enough and if they want to find out more they are going to need to get up and join in. This is a motivation to get involved. The word ‘motivation’ being derived from the Latin term motivus, meaning ‘a moving cause’ or a ‘reason to move’. If interested, they are literally going to have to get up and become part of the story.]

Step 5
In order to set the scene the teacher asks the students, “What kind of chair do you think the Queen would sit on when she meets her guests?”

The children discuss the throne – it’s size, what it is made from, the carvings on its arms and back. Next they talk about the throne room, then the people in the room, and finally the tapestries on the wall. This is all part of ‘summoning up’ the context for the action that is about to happen. The teacher takes her time, she knows this is an important part of the process.

When ready she repeats the children’s ideas as if they are a description in a story and finishes by announcing, “Today the Queen is being visited by people who she hopes will be able to help her with the problem of the trolls. They are a team of scientists who she has heard are very experienced at studying animals in their habitats.”

[This is the team the children are going to represent in the story, introduced as if they are new characters in the tale. Once again, rather than telling them directly – “You are going to be scientists” – the teacher communicates the information obliquely, letting the children do the thinking.

She continues in the same vein, “As the Queen sits upon her throne, the doors swing open and the Team enter.” This is the children’s cue to come into the story. The teacher stops the fiction for a moment and helps them to get organised, asking them how they think they should greet the Queen (bowing etc), what words are they going to use (“your majesty”), and how they are going to stand (heads slightly bowed, never turning their back). All this is about creating a dramatic-tension that will hold them in the fiction and keep their interest.

Finally, with everything in place, the Team now approach the Queen and offer their help. (The teacher supports them as much as they need, possibly using the storyteller voice again – “The Team quietly approach the throne, their heads bowed…” etc.

The adult-in-role now talks to them as the Queen, she tells them about her plight and asks for their help. “I’m at my wits end”, she says, “I really don’t know what to do for the best. Some of my advisers are saying I should just kill the trolls, but I don’t want to do this unless it is absolutely necessary. Normally they are no trouble at all and rarely come out of the forest, and I really can’t imagine what has made them change their habits. Do you think you can find out for me? It would be such a relief. But, please be careful, I would hate if anything awful was to happen to you.”

[These words are carefully chosen and the adult-in-role is fully aware of what she is doing. As well as assigning them with their commission (to find and observe the trolls) she is piling on several layers of responsibility. First, their responsibility to the Queen (helping her to deal with the trolls); Second, to the trolls (not hurting them); Lastly, to themselves as a team (“be careful, trolls are dangerous, look after each other”). Each of these layers is about handing over responsibility for the narrative to the children (crossing over the line in the middle of the ‘Levels of Engagement’ list) and developing a concern for the characters in the story. Concern is a crucial step along the levels. Once the students are concerned about the context then the motivation (as Edmiston has argued) shifts from the teacher to the class. Their energy, their focus, and their commitment is now on the task in hand, not on other concerns that might distract them from learning].

Step 6
[This step involves a series of tasks where the teacher and her TA (now out of role as the Queen and working as another member of the Team) support the children on a series of tasks].

The first is to make a list of equipment they think they are going to need for the job – binoculars, wet weather clothing, compasses, etc. The adults supplement the list with things the children may have forgotten or don’t know about, including (if none of the children mention them), observation drones’. These are introduced carefully with the agreement of the Team – “What do you think of drones, you know the ones that fly up in the sky with cameras (the teacher uses her hand to represent a drone flying in the air), do you think we’ll need those for this job?”

The second is to use the drones to explore the forest and make maps of what they find. The teacher tell the children this is before the Team find the tolls. [She wants them focused on the task of creating the forest and once the trolls arrive this is where all their interest will go.]

The third is the troll’s cave, which the teacher introduces using the voice of the narrator: “As the team’s drones fly over the forest looking at all the animals living there, they come across a cave.” [She places a large picture of a cave at the front of the class]. “This, they hope, is what they have been looking for!”

The fourth is creating what might be found around the entrance of the troll’s cave. “If this was the troll’s cave”, the teacher asks, “what do you think the team would see around the entrance?” The children make drawings.

The fifth is a discussion about what these objects might mean. The teacher looks for opportunities to develop the children’s thinking: “You can see bones! What kinds of bones are they?” Etc.

[This whole sequence of activities gives the students the opportunity of investment. Once again, it is worth looking at the etymology to understand Heathcote’s thinking here. ‘Investment’ has two etymological roots: the first is the “act of putting on vestments” (as in ‘investiture’), as well as the “act of being invested with an office, right, endowment, etc.” Which is very closely related to the biblical interpretation of ‘Mantle’ as a “covering that represents a calling to service, protection, sanctification and covenant relationship with God .” The link with Mantle of the Expert is obvious.

The second meaning is in the commercial sense of “an investment of money or capital” . Now, Heathcote wasn’t particularly interested in teaching children how to make money, so, I suspect, she was thinking about a different kind of investment, one that involves them in giving freely their energy, ideas, and time. Children don’t own money, so their most valuable asset is their commitment to an idea. The more they get involved, the more they are invested. This is a significant idea and goes a long way towards explaining why Mantle of the Expert works: it works because it provides opportunities for children to make an investment in the context (one they are building and developing in collaboration with the adults), and creates an environment where learning becomes a part of their identity, their sense of self, and their sense of belonging to a community.]

Further development
While monitoring the students’ energy, focus, and commitment the teacher moves onto the next step and beyond, setting the children new tasks and new challenges as they go . Of course, she can never take their engagement for granted and will need to keep a close eye, taking breaks, introducing new tensions, and moving the narrative on when necessary. But, for the most part, the most difficult stage of the process is over. This is the biggest advantage of using a story as a context for learning. Once the children are invested in the context, you can go back to it as often as you like, and pick up where you left off.

After a time, possibly a week or two, the teacher notices the children are becoming more and more interested in the context. They start bringing toys into school to play in the fairy castle, they start drawing pictures of trolls and other mythical animals from the story, and reading books about fairytales. They start writing longer stories, with less reluctance. Their ideas come faster, they remember events, and characters more easily, and start applying the vocabulary of the context in their writing. The teacher takes advantage of the situation and introduces them to the real history of castles and medieval life. She shows them how to make maps, using a key and drawing to scale. She introduces relevant maths problems in their regular lessons with links to the context – measurement, weight, and counting. She tells them about the wildlife and habit of a forest, and they visit a real one, comparing it to the one in the story. Their behaviour improves, there are less arguments, and when they happen they are easier to resolve. Inside the fiction the Team have to collaborate – their life depends on it – and overtime this fosters a greater sense of community and mutual regard in the real world of the classroom. Parents notice the change to and start to ask the teacher what are they doing in class. They tell her their children are obsessed with fairytales and can’t stop talking about what they are doing in school. At Christmas they know what to get them.

This is an ideal scenario, obviously, but not uncommon. I can still remember the first time I taught a single context all year (Boudicca’s tomb) because my class didn’t want to stop. I was amazed, and asked them at the end of every term – “Do you want to carry on after the holiday?” “Yes!” they would shout and I was happy to plan as much of the curriculum I could inside the fiction because I knew I could rely on their engagement. This is the wonder of Mantle of the Expert, Dorothy Heathcote’s great invention, once it gets going it heads in the direction of the children’s own energy and commitment: not against them, but with them.

This article was first published in the NATD journal.


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