Layers of text

23rd April 2021

By Tim Taylor

This blog is an extract from a soon to be published online course called, ‘Using Mantle of the Expert‘.

One more thing to look at. Earlier on I mentioned ‘Primary Text’, in the context of the ‘givens’ that provide structure and direction to the narrative.

This idea comes from game theory and was first introduced to me by Brian Edmiston.

Basically, it suggests there are – in role-play games – three layers of text:

  1. The Primary Text, which is the layer dictated by the world the game is operating in – the rules of the universe, as it were.
  2. The Secondary Text, which is the layer co-created by the players – their actions and the choices they make which influence how the game is played.
  3. The Tertiary Text, which is the layer of individual actions and choices made by each player independently of the other people playing the game.

It is useful to think of these three layers when using Mantle of the Expert since they allow choice and agency within the boundaries of the imaginary context, whilst avoiding the time consuming and potentially divisive undertaking of having to share every student’s idea and agree every student’s choice.

Let’s look at an example.

In Step 2 of ‘The Gardeners’ the students were asked to imagine the animals who lived in the park and to draw a picture of somewhere in the park where an animal lives and might be sleeping or awake.

The Primary Text here is a derelict park, the animals, and (the soon to be arriving) team of gardeners. These, in drama terminology, are the ‘givens.’

More than that, however, the world of this story is not a magical world – like Cinderella, with fairies and glass slippers – but an ordinary world operating by the same rules as our own. A world where people can’t talk to animals so the activity has to be, ‘imagine what the animals might hear or say’, and not, ‘talk to the gardeners’, which would make no sense.

As I said earlier, we, as the teachers, are as much beholden to respect the givens as the students are. If we start bending these rules the whole thing starts to fall apart very quickly.

The Secondary Text is the things the students draw in response to the activity which are shared and agreed on.

For example, imagine, after the students have finished their drawings, the teacher says, “Can you please bring onto the carpet all the different places in the park. Let’s put them together and see what this park looks like. Has anyone got a shed? Ah, right so we have three sheds, where should we put them – in a line altogether or in different places around the park?”

And so on, building the park together a piece at a time. By the end, everyone can see what the park looks like and the teacher might take a photograph and put it on the whiteboard as a record of what it looked like before the gardeners arrived to tidy it up.

The Tertiary Text is the things that are created by the students individually but never shared. They are ideas and choices which they create for themselves and remain their own.

For example, the teacher might say, “Can I ask you to invent something that happened in your part of the park, something the animals saw but the gardeners never knew about. Perhaps it was the day a chick was born in a nest of a tree or maybe the night an owl swooped down and took a mouse in its beak. Why don’t you think of something for yourself?”

Of course, the children could write these ideas down and share them with the rest of the class – in which case they would become Secondary Text – but the teacher might decide this idea could be something they would like to keep to themselves, as a secret part of the story, something they’ve invested in and doesn’t need to be shared. It would be their bit of the story.

These are all choices of course.

Knowing you have them and you can use them, in combination and in sequence, to draw the students in and make the work more engaging and meaningful, is what this approach is all about.


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