Tension – making learning exciting

25th August 2020

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

Tension plays an essential role in Mantle of the Expert. It is, in a sense, the fuel that powers the engine of the approach, making the work feel important, exciting, and challenging. It grabs the attention of those involved and pulls them into the fiction. As Norah Morgan and Juliana Saxton observed, “Tension is mental excitement, fundamental to intellectual and emotional engagement, not only as a stimulus but as the bonding agent that sustains involvement in the dramatic task.”

From a child’s point of view, tension adds excitement and purpose; it means having to deal with stressful situations, difficult people, and dangerous circumstances. In short, it provides just the sorts of things they love to imagine doing: jumping from aeroplanes on to strange unexplored islands, helping injured and sick animals, reporting on the working conditions of children in Victorian mines. These are the sorts of adventures that bring the curriculum alive and make learning enjoyable and exciting.

There are many ways to introduce tension into Mantle of the Expert. Dorothy Heathcote identified twelve ‘levels’, which she used to add depth and dramatic interest to her work.
Each of these categories can be used to plan and generate tension inside a context. There is no obligation to use everyone, and they are certainly not a prescriptive list. The idea, instead, is to provide a starting point or a prompt to stimulate your thinking. Once a context is up and running, you will probably find yourself coming up with all sorts of your own, not to mention those invented by the children.

The most important principle to remember is that although tension introduces excitement and interest (which can be used to engage the children in the business of classroom learning) to a context, it won’t do the teaching for you. Keep this in mind when you plan, and continually ask yourself these three questions: what are the students learning, how is the context supporting their learning, and how does the use of tension help them to stay focused and engaged? These questions will guide you and make sure the work you plan is purposeful, interesting, and constructive.

In addition, it is not enough just to introduce a ‘big bang’ at the start of the context and then expect the children to stay interested long-term. Many teachers have had the experience of watching their ‘mantles’ go flat after the first few sessions, and it is almost always because they stop focusing on the tension that grabbed the students in the first place. This happened to me quite regularly in the early days when I spent more time planning team meetings and work schedules than I did creating exciting encounters. It took me a while to learn the importance of keeping an eye on the current tension and looking out for where the next one would emerge.

Mind you, tension in Mantle of the Expert is rarely about the children having to deal with the most dramatic thing you can imagine. There is only so much mileage in putting out fires, defusing bombs, and catching burglars. After a while, even thrill-a-minute dramas can become a bit boring. The really interesting and sustainable tensions are located in dramas that involve people having to make difficult decisions or face uncomfortable truths.

They are rarely about direct open conflict or opposition to authority. As Heathcote emphasised, “Productive tension is quite different from conflict. It is the key to deepening the exploration of motive influencing action and therefore the journey. Conflict is the shallower concept, for it tends to lock people into negative repetitive response during the interactive process and prevent more subtle exploration.”

For this reason, the owner of the zoo in Animal Park is represented as someone who meant well but has lost control of the situation. As we saw earlier, the teacher is careful not to portray her as an evil villain, one the children can feel superior to or in opposition with, but rather as someone vulnerable and out of her depth. The idea is for the students to feel her loss of power, the end of her dreams, and to recognise the signs of shame and humiliation all around her. This tension is not one of blunt, direct conflict, but rather one that engenders concern and disrupts their initial assumptions about her actions and motivations.

The strategy of casting the owner as someone who meant well but has made mistakes, is about realigning the students and bringing them into the fiction as people with the expertise, power, and resources to help. In this way, the obligation for solving her problems passes to the students (operating as the team), giving them influence and responsibility within the fiction.

Thus Mantle of the Expert is not about creating melodrama in the classroom, involving caricature villains and heroes. Rather, it’s about creating realistic situations, with realistic people, facing realistic dilemmas: the stuff of human life, in all its messy complexity.


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