The Paradox of Mantle of the Expert: “How can children be experts?”

This extract is from, “A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert” 


On the face of it Mantle of the Expert seems to involve a paradox: how can we expect children to be experts when they know so little? Doesn’t being an expert require long years of dedicated study, experience, and reflective practice? Won’t asking children to think and act like experts be a silly pretence and a waste of valuable teaching time?

This is a serious objection and if you are intending to use Mantle of the Expert you need to be clear in your own mind what the term ‘expert’ means in the context of the approach. Children really aren’t experts and we can’t just pretend they are and hope the learning looks after itself.

Mantle of the Expert involves the children taking on the responsibilities of people with expertise (this is the mantle), in much the same way as when they take on the role of a character in a game of imaginary play. This is a form of make-believe where they imagine they are someone other than themselves and are endowed with abilities and powers beyond those they really possess.

While they operate within the fiction, the real world is still all around them: it never actually goes away and, importantly, children are fully aware of this. Thus, if they imagine they are Superman in their game, they understand this doesn’t mean they can really fly or catch speeding bullets. They run around as if they can – making noises, rescuing victims, fighting enemies – but they know none of it is real. Children understand this intuitively. There is no need for adults to explain it them: they just know and are willing to suspend their disbelief for as long as it lasts.

This is how Mantle of the Expert works. The children know they are not real experts, they know they are not really in charge of a park full of dangerous animals, and they understand their knowledge and skills are limited by what they really know and can actually do in the real world. Thus, when they imagine themselves as experts in the imaginary world, they understand this is a make-believe, a fiction that is contained within the limits of what they can really do.

Let me illustrate by using a sequence of activities from Animal Park:

– Inside the fiction the students imagine they are park rangers, responsible for keeping the animals safe, healthy, and secure.
– Outside the fiction (in the real world of the classroom) they work as students finding out about animals, their varieties, habitats, and diets.
– Back inside the fiction they use this knowledge to run the park as park rangers. They are commissioned by the owner to find ways of educating visitors about the animals.
– Outside the fiction the students apply their developing knowledge and create leaflets, booklets, and illustrations to provide information to visitors in accessible and meaningful ways.
– Inside the fiction they meet the owner to report back on their work and share the resources they have made. The owner gives them feedback and asks for various improvements.
– Outside the fiction the students go back to work, revising their materials based on the conversation with the owner.

In this way the students and the teacher move in and out of the fiction at various times, creating a sequence of different episodes and opportunities for learning. At no point does the teacher leave them alone or expect them to know things they don’t know or do things they can’t do. She continues to provide them with the resources, support, and feedback they need to meet the challenges of the fictional context and the demands of the owner.

The teacher and the children are in-effect the authors of the fictional world, creating it together, collaboratively. By stopping the story, as and when needed, the teacher gives her students the chance to step back and discuss the challenges they face, offering them encouragement and support as they need it. In this way the students can see what they need to know and what they need to do. By moving from one world to the other the teacher creates a reflective space for the students to think about the purpose of their work and what they need to do to improve.

The children are, therefore, both experts and not experts. Inside the fiction they take on the role of experts, people who know a lot, can do things skilfully, and have a great deal of responsibility. Outside the fiction they are still themselves, students at school studying and developing as learners.

The children are never real experts in the real world (in the sense of having the skills and knowledge required of professionals). They are instead imagined experts – a cast of characters in a story who invent themselves and the narrative of their lives and experiences.

By creating this duality, Mantle of the Expert gives students the chance to experiment with possibilities and different points of view, to try on the mantle of responsibility and the burden of power, and to make decisions and guide events. This is what Dorothy Heathcote meant when she said the classroom should be a laboratory – a place where children can experiment with and reflect on different ideas, different ways of being, and different ways of acting. For real learning to be going on the students… need to be conscious of their new skills and concepts as they acquire them – that is, they have to recognise what they are learning – and they have to take responsibility at some stage for their own learning… the ‘spectator’ in them must be awakened so that they perceive and enjoy the world of action and responsibility even as they function in it.”


Note: While taken out of context, I hope this explanation is clear. If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below.

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