Managing classroom behaviour in Mantle of the Expert

20th December 2018

By Tim Taylor

Behaviour is one of the biggest concerns for teachers new to Mantle of the Expert. The three most frequently asked questions are: “How can I control my class if I’m treating them as experts?” “Doesn’t this approach mean I have to follow everything the children say?” “What can I do if the children misbehave?” Let’s look at each in turn.

“How will I be able to control my class if I’m treating them as experts?”

Remember, they are only experts in the fiction. In the real world they are still themselves. So if your class is one that finds it difficult to get organised, work together, or share resources, then be prepared to step in and help out:

– “Let’s stop the story for a moment – this isn’t working, folks. There’s only a limited number of pens and there’s going to have to be some sharing. Now, how are we going to do this?”

– “Whoa, hold on! Jamie, I’m not happy with the way you’re throwing those scissors around. If Tom wants them, pass them to him carefully.”

– “Sorry to interrupt, everyone. Amy is looking for a group to work with – is there one that could invite her to join in?” – “It’s time to get started. There’s been a lot of talking, a lot of moving around, a lot of gathering materials, but that time is over. Please get going in your groups. If you need help, let me know.”

Some classes need more support than others, but whatever their level of need, don’t do everything for them. Give them space to muddle through and try things out, and only step in when absolutely necessary. If they never have the chance to fail, they’ll never learn how to succeed without having an adult telling them what to do. I like the metaphor of scaffolding: it’s only there for as long as it’s needed, and once it’s served its purpose, it comes down.

Heathcote talked about this process in terms of ‘commitment and demand’. The more the students’ commitment to the work increases, the more demands we can place upon them.

Of course this is not a simple transfer of power. Children won’t suddenly become competent because we give them the opportunity. It is a gradual process, requiring patience and care. Our job, as teachers, is to structure it such that the children learn over time to do it for them- selves. This, after all, is the purpose of a classroom.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re in charge. The class is not in charge of you. So if you feel your authority is slipping, come out of the fiction and take back your power. Don’t feel you will be damaging the work or impinging on your students’ creativity. Chaos and anarchy are not conducive to learning. There is nothing wrong with stopping the work, sitting everyone down, and having a discussion about what went wrong. Mantle of the Expert is an inquiry approach where everything, including your teaching and their behaviour, is a legitimate topic for conversation. Collaborative leadership requires honesty and openness; it’s not a sign of weakness to admit something isn’t working.

“Doesn’t using this approach mean I have to follow everything the children say?” No. Mantle of the Expert is about co-construction, building the context together, collaborating on the commission, and tackling challenges as a team. It’s not about giving children free reign and indulging their every whim. Not everything they suggest will be relevant or worthwhile; not everything they make will be of sufficient quality; not everything they want to do will be possible or desirable. It is the teacher’s role to guide the work, to keep it heading in the right direction, and progressing at sufficient speed. This is likely to mean that from time to time you will have to make unpopular decisions and be selective. But that’s all right: Mantle of the Expert is a pedagogy; it’s about teaching the curriculum and developing young people as learners. It’s not about reinventing the curriculum and handing over all the responsibility to the students.

“What can I do if the children misbehave?” Disruptive behaviour comes in many forms, from minor distractions to full-on wrecking. How you deal with it and what strategies you use will depend on factors such as the age of the children, their past history, causes for their behaviour, the needs of the class, the time available, your own levels of tolerance, and your current priorities.

Here are some guidelines:

  1. For low-level disruption that disturbs a lesson but isn’t serious, try to deal with it indirectly: “We’ll start as soon as everyone is ready. You might need a bit of space for what happens next. Please move if you don’t have enough room.” This language protects those involved from direct scrutiny, while giving advice on solving the problem. It gives the children the power and responsibility, but makes it clear that you’re aware of what’s going on and won’t start until it’s resolved.
  2. For serious disruption that the children can’t fix for themselves, stop and deal with the behaviour directly: “We’re going to have to stop the story for a minute. Jake, you’re going to have to move. Sitting next to Ryan isn’t working and we need to get on. Could you please move over there and give yourself a bit more space.” This strategy necessitates coming out of the fiction and temporarily laying aside your role as a colleague. Notice how this is made entirely clear to the children with the use of the obligation “We are going to have to stop the story.” For everyone involved the decision is clear and unequivocal. It might be done reluctantly, and only because Jake has made it impossible to continue, but it has to be done. It is not about telling Jake off in front of the class, but about keeping him involved and part of the group, while let- ting him know his behaviour has become disruptive. You politely ask him to move and give him a good reason for doing so. Once he moves, and everyone settles down again, you can restart: “So, what are we going to do with this lion?”
  3. For wrecking behaviour – deliberate acts of sabotage designed to destroy the work – act quickly and decisively. Wrecking is unacceptable and can’t be ignored. Even if you are making allowances and there are good extenuating circumstances, conscious and determined wrecking will quickly destroy any chance of learning. My strategy is to take disruptive children temporarily out of the group and give them the chance to find their own way back in. I’ll stop the fiction, as above, and ask them to move outside the group. If I have another adult in the room, I’ll ask the disruptive student to sit next to them. If not, they can sit on their own. I will ask them to continue watching, but not to disrupt or interfere with what is going on. After a while, I will give them the chance to come back and join in so long as they are prepared to respect the work. This is a negotiated process and I won’t tolerate students who are determined to continue wrecking from the sidelines. Occasionally, if things get really bad, then they will have to be re- moved from the class. This rarely happens, but sometimes there’s no choice.5

Every classroom is different and every group of students has its own idiosyncrasies. There are no hard and fast rules on how to deal with disruption, and you will have to rely on your own professional judgement. As a principle, Mantle of the Expert is an inquiry-based approach, so as often as possible try not to see disruptive behaviour as a problem to solve, but rather as a question that needs to be answered, and not always by you. Try, if you can, to give the children involved the chance to find their own solutions and protect them from feeling told off. Public scolding is rarely effective, serving only to further ingrain resentment and a sense of injustice.

Finally, although behaviour management can be a challenge for teachers using Mantle of the Expert, it is not necessarily any more of a challenge here than it is at any other time. In fact, many teachers find that the more interested and engaged the students become, the more behaviour improves. And since Mantle of the Expert puts a heavy emphasis on student engagement, many teachers find their students’ behaviour improves the more they use the approach. It is not a magic wand, and you will need to be practical and realistic, but as your skill and experience in using the approach develop, you should find many of the problems caused by boredom and disengagement will gradually disappear.

This is an extract from A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert by Tim Taylor



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