Schools can buy clay in bags. The bags are heavy and you need a risk assessment as long as your arm before even placing an order. But here in Redditch, Worcestershire, there is rather a lot of the full-on-natural-down-in-the-ground clay – you are never far away from it in this part of the world – so we dug it up, made tiles and fired them in the school grounds.
The big empty space left by our excavations was then carefully turned into a pond with a few metres of pond liner and some paving slabs. This was all great for learning – maths, science, geography and so on.
But the learning really began to deepen when one of the Year 3 children asked if the pond was a sink hole.
At Woodrow First School, these are the small moments that we look out for in order to construct a curriculum that children love. It has at its heart Mantle of the Expert.
What is Mantle of the Expert?
Mantle of the Expert is an approach originally developed in the 1980s by Professor Dorothy Heathcote at Newcastle University. It is a dramatic, inquiry-based approach to learning that puts the student at the centre of the curriculum. For example, in the sink-hole example, this is how the project developed:
“I wonder if, together, we could build a story all about a sink hole?” suggests the teacher.
For this, the students will need to know about the four layers of soil, why sink holes happen and where they appear, as well as their impact on communities.
A “hotelier in Florida” soon contacts our team to tell us that his premises has disappeared into a sink hole. We investigate the problem and provide an analysis of the land that his hotel was built upon. Through the skilful use of language and carefully planned tasks, children work as if they are geologists and willingly suspend their disbelief to respond to the needs of this imaginary client.
Taught in this way, the curriculum has meaning and purpose: letter-writing, calculating, communicating, as well as working scientifically, are all urgent and important. Take a wander through our school on any day and you are likely to meet Amazonian tribespeople, architects, museum curators, hydrologists, location managers, fairytale problem-solvers, transporters and more besides.
Ask children what they are doing and they reply: “We are doing Mantle.” They tell you, “It’s our story,” they tell you, “We have fun learning,” they tell you, “We are using our imagination.”
You will see children who work together in a responsible team, use drama, wait for the right time to speak, ponder, wonder, write, as well as respond to tasks of high demand and to the high expectations of a fictional client. Mantle of the Expert at Woodrow First is very much embedded across the school.
How does it work?
Children who join our nursery will work on a drama that might last 20 minutes, whereas for children further up the school, a Mantle can last up to two terms as lines of inquiry take the pupils deeper into their work.
How do you choose the Mantle? We do so with the children. When the question about the sink hole was asked, the teacher was able to build the exercise around the following point of the national curriculum: “Linked with work in geography, pupils should explore different kinds of rocks and soils, including those in the local environment.”
As you can see, the dry statements of the national curriculum often need more than a little rehydration and rejuvenation before we are able to create those sought-after compelling learning experiences.
Planning is obviously key to this, but beautifully presented lesson plans on school-specific pro-formas are not a pre-requisite; rather, a well-planned lesson is more important and, indeed, vital.
We need to ensure that this is not just “fun” but that every task is learning-focused, as well as engaging. Any thoughts of this being simply an opportunity for students to play, with no structure, are very wide of the mark.
There is a lot of flexibility within the Mantle approach for teachers. Children might use drama’s many conventions to explore a problem and points of view; they may write in response to the needs of a “client” or produce a report; it could be that they are applying mathematics, or working scientifically. It is truly cross-curricular in scope.
The key ingredient is high expectations – the children take the work particularly seriously, as do we. Visitors often comment on this, as well as the pervading calm across the school. This is not performance drama, where the extroverts take centre stage; this is drama where there is a problem and we need to work together to sort it out.
The strength of the work is not just how we talk with children, how we use questions and how we make agreements through discussion, negotiation and compromise; it is also how much knowledge our children build in class. Learning isn’t limited by the glass ceilings of rigid learning objectives. The level of demand and expectation make sure that our children know they have to graft, too.
Of course, this is not an easy way to teach. Staff at the school have spent five years getting to this point and have never repeated a Mantle – it is not an off-the-shelf, packaged approach.
They are given the time to teach together, to reflect on mistakes, to talk and to plan. There are many opportunities provided to work with each other, with visiting teachers and with great external consultants, who we expect to teach children in proper classes if they want to work in our school. It is a lot of work, but the learning outcomes for both teachers and students have proved worth it.
We have had hundreds of visitors to our school from as near as local schools from down the road, to as far as Japan, the US and the Middle East.
Closer to home, our parents are wholehearted supporters of Mantle of the Expert – they now know what their children are doing in school; they know how they are doing it, through the workshops that we provide to explain our approach; and they now have something to talk with staff about at parents’ evenings.
Our pupils, however, are its strongest advocates. They love to talk to visiting teachers, who always want to borrow planning (to which they are welcome). Visiting heads tend to ask about Ofsted (we are rated good) and our use of data.
The best measure is what children can do when they join our school and what they can do when they leave. We ask: has their school experience offered opportunities to understand more, gain new skills and broaden and deepen knowledge? We believe that it has.
Richard Kieran is headteacher at Woodrow First School in Redditch, Worcestershire @rkieran
Find out more
I have used a number of sources to help us set up Mantle of the Expert. Here are just a few:
Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert approach to education by Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin M Bolton (Pearson Education, 1995)
The blogs of Hywel Roberts (createlearninspire.co.uk), Debra Kidd (debrakidd.wordpress.com) and Tim Taylor (imaginative-inquiry.co.uk)
The website mantleoftheexpert.com offers a wealth of background, plans, ideas, research and starting points.
How Mantle works in practice
Dorothy Heathcote (pictured) was very concerned with the relationship of the child to knowledge. She wanted to create active and inquisitive learners, gatherers and users of knowledge who would act with grace and responsibility.
So in Mantle, children take on the role of a team serving the needs of a client with a problem. The idea is that the team is responsible – ethically and collaboratively – for the work and so it brings debate and dilemma into learning.
The students are not left to their own devices entirely. I look at what I’m expected to cover in the curriculum and see how the content might fit into a Mantle. I ask, “Who in the world would need to know that?” – it could be surveyors, doctors, mechanics; there’s always someone because in working life, subjects don’t sit in neat boxes. You then build a Mantle around it.
While the children set up the organisation, the teacher plots the Mantle, planning twists and turns to test the students’ values and the capacity to react to the unexpected.
The Mantle approach does not assume that children are experts, as some critics have suggested. Rather, it is about making sure they are engaged in an enterprise in which they are acquiring knowledge in response to a perceived need.
Because the children are imagining themselves as adults, working in an adult world, they tend to mimic adult behaviours – heightening their language, admonishing each other for not behaving “professionally”, asking bigger questions that move beyond the domains of the curriculum.
It creates autonomous, thoughtful learners who consider possibilities and who are able to articulate and use the knowledge that they have gained.
Debra Kidd is a teacher, education consultant and author of Teaching: Notes from the front line. She is also co-founder of the Northern Rocks education conference, bit.ly/NorthRocks @DebraKidd