David Allen and Iona Towler-Evans look at an innovative system of teaching thinking skills through drama

Mantle of the Expert was devised by Dorothy Heathcote, one of the world’s leading drama teachers, and is currently being introduced in schools throughout the country, with support from the QCA. The approach involves pupils in developing a particular point of view, as people running a fictional ‘enterprise.’ For example, they might be running a library, factory or shop; they might be scientists in a laboratory. They undertake a range of different tasks in running their enterprise, building up a collective sense of expertise. There is always a fictional ‘client’ who needs help from the enterprise in some way. All the work, then, is done for the client; as Heathcote notes, this brings with it a demand for rigour, and breeds a growing sense of responsibility (‘We have to do it right…’). In running their enterprise, pupils engage with many aspects of the curriculum – mathematics, literacy, PHSE, etc, but Heathcote argues that the system alters pupils’ relationship with knowledge. It ‘changes thinking and learning about things, to thinking from within the matters of concern’: pupils have to think from within the framework of running an enterprise. They are not mere receivers of knowledge; it becomes information, evidence, source material which has to be interrogated and used. Working in this way, children will raise lots of questions and rather than the teacher being the one with all the answers (the ‘arbiter of the information’) they are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own learning.

How Do People Learn?

Midland Actors Theatre (MAT) recently toured a Mantle of the Expert programme to primary and middle schools and were interested in how different pupils responded to the challenges and responsibilities, of working in this way. The programme, devised in consultation with Dorothy Heathcote, was called How Do People Learn? QCA guidelines suggest that, in order to develop their thinking skills, pupils need to focus on ‘knowing how’ as well as ‘knowing what’ (metacognition). Our programme was designed precisely to help them to focus on ‘knowing how to learn.’ We worked in each school for a week with groups of children in Year 6. They were invited to run a life coaching agency, which would help people to make changes in their lives. They had to consider what new skills their clients would need in their new jobs – and also, how they would best learn those skills. Thus, the programme encouraged pupils to take responsibility for other people’s learning. We hoped that this would lead them to reflect on their own learning.

Looking at implications

The programme began with the introduction of a possible client for the life coaching agency, whom we called Anita Bond. Children were first invited to examine items that Anita might have on her desk at work – for example, a plant, a magazine etc. They had to arrange these items on the desk, as they saw fit, and draw some implications from them. Here then, pupils were presented with information, evidence and source material which had to be interrogated and used. The activity called for creative thinking skills; it encouraged exploration, hypothesis, and lateral thinking. Interestingly, at this stage, teachers sometimes noted a marked difference between the response of lower ability children, and the more able pupils in the class. Whereas SEN (and EAL) pupils often showed an immediate readiness to engage in the task, some of the high achievers could appear a little reluctant at first. We had to consider why this should be the case. Heathcote sees the current curriculum as being like a ‘railway line’, where one ‘station’ follows another, in linear form. The emphasis is on clear and easily measurable targets, as steps in a linear progression of learning. This is the system which more able pupils are used to, and where they are successful. For teaching through the Mantle of the Expert, Heathcote prefers the image of a river estuary. As an estuary is fed by different tributaries, so the work in Mantle of the Expert is fed by different strands of learning, enquiry and skill. In our programme, pupils were immediately presented with a situation – examining and arranging items on Anita’s desk – in which there were no right or wrong answers. Some pupils may have felt empowered by this: they were not at risk of giving the ‘wrong’ answer. As Heathcote observes, however, more able pupils often have an entrenched desire to be correct; to give the right answers, and guess what is in the teacher’s mind.

At one point in the programme, we asked pupils to consider the different ways in which people learn. We had prepared a number of cards, which listed some of the methods people use, eg:

  • looking up information
  • watching others do it
  • practising over and over.

They worked in groups, sorting the cards into three categories: ‘Most useful,’ ‘Sometimes useful,’ and ‘Not very useful.’ Their lists were then displayed, and compared. One group of EAL pupils said that ‘guessing’ was a very useful strategy. This clearly reflected their own experience – they had to guess what people were saying a lot of the time. A more academic group of pupils in another school, however, said that guessing was not a good way to learn: it could be very exposing, because it could show people what you didn’t know. We can see, then, that creative thinking skills are embedded in Mantle of the Expert, as a way of working; and this may present certain challenges to gifted and talented pupils, who are more used to a system that values ‘knowing what’ over ‘knowing how’.

Group work

The Mantle of the Expert system demands social collaboration. Children may work individually at times, but all work contributes to a collaborative endeavour – running the enterprise. This involves a shift in power. Pupils have to assume more responsibility for decision-making, planning and organisation. (As Heathcote notes, this shift is not achieved by ‘leaving them to it’ – it is constantly in process of ‘becoming’ as work progresses. The challenge for the teacher is to enable the shift to occur, and still be leader/collaborator.) Tracy Stone, headteacher of Rookery School (one of the venues on our tour), observes that more able pupils tend to be self-contained learners, rather than collaborative. This may be another reason why some pupils were initially slow to participate fully in our programme. One strategy that we found worked, however, was to invite them to take on a specific responsibility within the enterprise — for example, as ‘head of finance.’ This, perhaps, empowered them, and gave them an increased sense of status. On one occasion at Rookery, a group was preparing to make a presentation to the rest of the class. They were struggling with this task, until we asked a G&T pupil to step in and chair the presentation. Up to this point, he had been only marginally involved, at best; but he seemed to relish his new-found authority, to the point that he even declared that he was the ‘boss’ of the company! Gifted and talented pupils can make a significant contribution to group work, through their leadership and organisational skills. It is possible, of course, that within a group, certain personalities may tend to dominate. (At Rookery, one pupil said he didn’t like the group work because ‘one person wanted to do everything.’) We sought to counter this by ensuring that all pupils were given opportunities to take a lead. In group activities, the more able can support the work of other pupils, and help them to learn. At another venue on the tour, Alvechurch Middle School, one teacher was surprised and pleased by how much a pupil with SEN was contributing to the programme; she always wanted to get involved in the different tasks, and ‘sort things out.’ The teacher also felt the pupil had blossomed through working in mixed-ability groups (instead of the usual ability sets). For example, she noted how, on one occasion, the girl was unable to read a certain word on a graph; knowing this, she ‘just made eye-contact’ with another (more able) pupil, who quietly told her what that was. This kind of collaborative work can also benefit G&T pupils. Helping others to learn can consolidate their own knowledge and learning. In the Mantle of the Expert system, for example, they might work with other pupils to draft a letter to a ‘client,’ and help them to identify mistakes, correct punctuation, etc. In the process, as Heathcote observes, they can learn ‘to value other people’s skills and approaches, and develop greater insight and empathy for those less swift in the same ways as the gifted.’ All of the fictional ‘clients’ whom pupils were given to help, had different problems and learning needs (lack of confidence, poor organisational skills, etc). Each team had to design a learning programme for their ‘client,’ paying attention not only to ‘what’ they needed to learn, but also to ‘how’ – to the methods which would help them learn. For Anita Bond, for example, they had to decide: ‘We think Anita would learn best if she could deal with this first, and then go on to this…’ At Rookery, Isabelle suggested that the first step should be to encourage Anita to open up and talk about her problems. ‘At the moment,’ she observed, ‘she is like a limpet attached to a rock, so we have to ease her off and loosen her from the rock.’ At the heart of the Mantle of the Expert is a simple idea: we can best learn about ourselves, by taking responsibility for others. In our project, we hoped that, through helping other people to learn, pupils would begin to reflect on their own learning needs.

The project was deliberately aimed at pupils in Year 6, who are themselves on the verge of making a major change, in moving from primary to secondary school. Not all pupils, of course, would make the connection between their work as ‘life coaches’ and their own lives; but Isabelle Monteiro reflected: ‘I think if we keep on remembering this experience and referring to it through our lives, then, when we get our own problems, we can think around them. And if we do that, it will definitely help us.’