Answering some questions on mantle of the expert

On 14th November the anonymous blogger ‘Andrew Old’ made some spurious accusations on Twitter about mantle of the expert being the next Brain Gym and being ‘totally insane’. I tried to answer these allegations but Andrew strategically blocked my account and ignored my repeated offers to discuss his allegations. On Saturday 16th he wrote a blog where he accused teachers who use mantle of the expert of dodging the argument and refusing to answer his questions. Why Andrew did this remains a mystery. The following text is my reply to Andrew’s blog, I have re-published it here to record the conversation as I think readers might find some of the answers to his questions informative. You can find Andrew’s original blog by following this link.

“Thank you for your questions Andrew.

In reference to your argument on Twitter, I asked you three times if you would like to discuss the matter. On each occasion you ignored me. I would happily have discussed mantle of the expert with you and why it is not the new Brain Gym, however, you decided to stonewall me instead. That is unfortunate.

I’m sorry you don’t like the sound of mantle of the expert and find the claims laughable. We can’t do anything about that. If you had provided reasons other than “It is easy to find many other claims that are, on the face of it, laughable.” Then we could make a start.

I must remind you that we are not trying to convert anyone, we do not make exaggerated claims and respect teachers professional choice to use or ignore any strategy or approach they do find effective in their own classrooms. We would never press any teacher to use mantle of the expert, I hope that is clear. We have invited you repeatedly to come and share your practice with ours in a spirit of mutual professional dialogue, you have refused each time. This is also unfortunate. The offer is still there.

In answer your four questions:

1. “Why should students, particularly those who don’t like it, have to do lots of extra drama?” This is a little odd for you. Since when did you start arguing that students’ enjoyment of a strategy was a reliable measure of its efficacy? Have you had a change of heart? I would argue that no student should have to do a lot of extra drama if they don’t like it. My experience over twenty years, however, is that students do like exploring imaginary contexts, so long as they are adequately ‘protected’ into the experience. This is a very tricky part of the approach and something that is easy to get wrong. Many people have had bad experiences of drama at school (and on INSET days) and hate it as a consequence. I considered myself one of those when I first started teaching and needed a lot of convincing and ‘protecting’ before I was persuaded it was something worthwhile. Therefore, I understand your personal reservations and concerns for children’s enjoyment. All I can say is, we never force anyone to join in and it is not a teaching strategy that everyone would want to use.

2. “How do you respond to the general discrediting of inquiry/discovery learning from empirical and psychological evidence in the last few years?” Two things to say about this. One, mantle of the expert is not ‘discovery’ learning. Heathcote was very critical of that approach. Two, I’m not aware of the ‘general discrediting’ of inquiry learning, could you please provide more information. I’d be happy to discuss it, but I fear we would end up arguing over ontology again and you seem reluctant to engage in that discussion.

3. “Is the role-playing not likely to be a distraction from the learning?” That’s a leading question. Firstly, you would have to define role play. I don’t consider mantle of the expert to be role play. And anything that distracts from learning is a very bad teaching strategy.

4. “Where is the evidence for effectiveness which should have been accumulated in the last 30 years?” This is a great question. We would very much welcome more research into mantle of the expert. Unfortunately research is expensive and time consuming. We are involved in an MA course on mantle of the expert organised by Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln and a number of teachers have written dissertations on the approach, there is an archive at Manchester Met of Prof Heathcotes work, including several MPhil and PhD thesis, and there is a growing amount of ofsted related evidence (which is, as you know, problematic). I would be very happy to send you more details if you are interested. What we really need is a university researcher who would be prepared to study mantle of the expert in detail, over time.

I hope this will be the start of an ongoing conversation between us. I think some of your concerns, particularly over the term ‘expert’, can be easily put to rest, this chapter by Viv Aitken is an excellent introduction. Some of your other misapprehensions are understandable, perhaps you would like to come to the weekend course we are running in March, I can send you details if you are interested. Teachers who come seem to find the course useful.

In the meantime, can I reiterate that mantle of the expert is an approach, it is not ’the’ answer, still less a magic bullet, but it is a strategy for teaching that some teachers, who have studied it sufficiently, find useful and effective as part of a range of approaches they use in the classroom. We are not trying to convince anyone who does not want convincing and we are not trying to make it ‘trendy’. Perhaps what you are picking up is some excitement among those who find it works. I’m sure this is something you would welcome and enjoy. No one is trying to make you use it.

Note: Our conversation continues in the comments section of Andrew’s site

The following is a conversation I had with Sue Gerrard:

 by Sue Gerrard November 16, 2013 at 9:21 pm

In medicine, if patients showed significant rates of recovery after a experiencing a novel, complex treatment and doctors wanted to know exactly which component(s) of the intervention caused the recovery and why, each of the components would need to be tested independently.

I suspect that there are components of Brain Gym and of MoE that have real, positive effects on some aspects of children’s learning. It doesn’t follow that Brain Gym or MoE as whole approaches are what’s effective, nor that they improve all types of learning, nor that the explanations for their efficacy given by advocates are valid.

Brain Gym exercises, for example, involve students taking a break from whatever they are studying and doing something that requires physical movement, some concentration but little mental effort. Exactly what most people do, and feel better for, if engaged in long sedentary tasks. The type of movements and Brain Gym’s explanation for them could well be irrelevant.

I can see how MoE could enhance a student’s ability to see a situation from another perspective – a useful skill. But the way the term ‘expert’ is employed flies in the face of what we know about expertise, and no one appears to have carried out a rigorous evaluation of the efficacy, or the theory underpinning this technique.


Reply:  by Tim Taylor November 16, 2013 at 9:50 pm

You are right on all three counts Sue. moe is not a whole curriculum approach, but part of a range of different strategies.

Any research claiming efficacy would be subject to critical interpretation, this is always the case in the social sciences.

And if the term was ‘expert’ in regards to the students’ expert knowledge you would be absolutely right. However, Heathcote chose the term ‘mantle of the expert’ with the emphasis on ‘mantle’ rather than expert knowledge. The ‘mantle’ part of the term is in regards to the students adopting the responsibility of experts (within the fiction), the responsibility to learn appropriate information, the responsibility to deal with people with understanding, and respect, and the responsibility to do their work with due regard and diligence.

The purpose of the ‘mantle’ is not to pretend students know what they don’t (this would be a cargo cult) but to create contexts in which their curriculum learning is purposeful and meaningful, and to engender intrinsic motivation to learn more. It draws heavily on the idea (discussed by Willingham & Hirsch) that stories can help students develop language, knowledge and skills.


by Sue Gerrard November 16

Thanks for responding, Tim. Although I can see some value in moe, I think Heathcote’s choice of the word ‘expert’ is unfortunate. Moe undoubtedly encourages students to think about situations ‘as if’ they were experts, reveals some misconceptions, and challenges them to extend their mental models of experts’ behaviour – all good things, in my view.

But that’s not how expertise is acquired. It’s acquired via accumulating and understanding relevant information – usually vast quantities of information, by long periods of watching experts at work, and by applying expertise to a wide range of tasks in the real world. The problem with the imaginative world is that although it can provide valuable insights, it doesn’t have quite the same constraints as the reality that’s out there.

I’d add that a major problem with research into the efficacy of educational interventions has been that they have been subject to ‘critical interpretation’ rather than rigorous evaluation – the two are very different.

I attended a ‘progressive’ (and very effective) primary school in the 1960s. The head teacher would have been comfortable with moe – it’s quite possible that she knew Dorothy Heathcote. But there was a clear, explicit, robust rationale underlying the HT’s educational approach – one which I have yet to see set out for moe. The nearest I’ve found is a comment in ‘Pieces of Dorothy’ that elements of her approach can be seen in ideas such as transactional analysis, neurolinguistic programming and gestalt. Well, of course they can, but those similarities between elements hardly constitute a coherent rationale.

Reply: (Tim Taylor) Nov. 17

Thank you again Sue for your thoughtful comments, I’ll do my best to answer.

“I think Heathcote’s choice of the word ‘expert’ is unfortunate.”

It certainly has become a much more loaded term in the last few years. Maybe if she were inventing the name now should use a different one. I prefer imaginative-inquiry, although that is a wider approach than moe.

“expertise is acquired. It’s acquired via accumulating and understanding relevant information – usually vast quantities of information, by long periods of watching experts at work, and by applying expertise to a wide range of tasks in the real world”

Agreed. The term is ‘mantle’ of the expert’ not ‘pretending to be experts’, there are no short cuts to expertise, it takes time, study and hard work.

“The problem with the imaginative world is that although it can provide valuable insights, it doesn’t have quite the same constraints as the reality that’s out there.”

I agree with this, but it doesn’t have the same dangers either. The imaginary context creates a ‘safe’ environment for students to explore ideas, scenarios and points of view. Similarly, although the ideal would be for students to work in ‘real world’ contexts this is very difficult, time-consuming and expensive to do in reality.

“I’d add that a major problem with research into the efficacy of educational interventions has been that they have been subject to ‘critical interpretation’ rather than rigorous evaluation – the two are very different.”
Again I agree. As I said to Andrew, we would welcome more empirical research. Although moe has ‘been around’ for thirty years, it is only very recently started to be used in schools – I would say the last six or seven years. Those schools that use it and invest in training and research have reported encouraging outcomes. I’ve certainly found it very effective. However, I understand that counts for little on Andrew’s Battleground.
“there was a clear, explicit, robust rationale underlying the HT’s educational approach – one which I have yet to see set out for moe.”
Heathcote was nothing if not robust about her rationale. However, she had little time for academic theory. during her life time she wrote little about the theoretical underpinning of her work, however, many of her PhD and MPhil students worked on these aspects, I can send you a list of their thesis’ from the Heathcote archive if you are interested. Also, Prof Edmiston (a former student) is writing a book about this and I can put you in touch with him if you want to follow it up.


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  1. bt0558 November 16, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    Hi Tim

    I believe Oldandrew has probably done you a great favour raising the MoE issue as it has brought the approach to the attention of many people on the web.Most will understand OA’s lack of argument and even attempt to engage in such as the silliness it is.

    Clearly much of what was written in Brain Gym was not supported by evidence and we would all agree with OA that some elements of Brain Gym were just daft.He/she gets upset when people who use it suggest that it has general benefits resulting from gaps/breaks/short exercises etc i.e. not from the precise nature of the activity. He/she has a NIGYYSOB game approach in which he has to right, everytime.

    I don’t believe he/she is going to answer your questions as that is not his/her style. Those who read his/her writing regularly will see a number of issues he/she may take issue with:

    1 Children enjoy the activities and eveyone knows that fun gets in the way of learning
    2 The Drama approach is constructive and engaging and we all know that, in a Willingham’s biscuits sort of a way this will distract from the main message
    3 Knowledge is constructed and as we all know, constructing knowledge is nonsense.
    4 The approach is students centred and as we all know student centred is bad and actually equates to student led.
    5 Power is shifted to the learner and as we all know shifting power to the learner is very dangerous and must be avoided at all costs
    6 Knowledge is constructed by learners and teacher and as we all know knowledge is there to be transferred to the learners
    7 Learners are active in the process and as we all know learners need to be sat quietly in rows paying attention to the teacher
    8 Learners have the right to opt out of some or all of the process and as we all know, learners must never have the option to opt out (heaven knows what would happen if you allowed learners to opt out)
    9 Learners get the chance to talk, and as we all know only teachers are allowed to talk (especially with any authority after all what do they know, I am the teacher)

    I have taught History at KS3 for a while and I found that the learning from simple role play to be both profound and long lasting. Long after we completed an activity (and after I stopped teaching History) learners would approach me and ask if I remembered when we did role play about the Industrial Revolution and the agricultural workers moved to the town. They rememberd details, causes and could make excellent judgements. This was simple role play and I can see that MoE would present similar opportunities but magnified many times.

    I have only taken a short examination of MoE, but I am reminded of Willingham’s advice to structure learning as a story, as stories are psychologically privileged. The MoE approach seems to me to have similar characteristics to Willingham’s description of a possible story structure and for me that starts to switch lights on for me. Combined with the fact that it is advocated by Tim Taylor, Debbrakidd and Heymisssmith (who are highly skilled, knowledgable and experienced in primnary sector which I am not) I am faced with powerful motivation for investigating further.

    Others seem to adopt an “as we all know” approach or an “any normal teacher will agree with me” approach or an “unless it fits with my worldview” approach. This does not however just mean that they choose not to investigate further but that they feel they have the right to try to belittle others who can see further than they can.

    I am investigating the use of MoE to teach The Tolpuddle Martyrs and once I have finished I think I will better be able to decide when and where it is appropriate. I won’t be an expert but I will know a bit more.

    Really interesting and potentially profound method as long as one thinks carefully about “what we all know” or don’t.

    Thanks for the post, explanations and links.


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