Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert

Dorothy Heathcote died in October 2011 at the age of 85. Although an academic for most of her life, first at Durham and then at Newcastle, Heathcote continued to teach in classrooms almost up until the year she died. For her, teaching was an art, practised in the “service of a process of change” where classrooms are “laboratories… contributing to the welfare of the local community and the environment.” She hated the idea that schooling denied children social status, requiring them “to feel useless, to exist in a limbo of learning which relied solely on the de-functioning maxim that ‘one day, you’ll be good enough to really do it’ but never today.” She made it her life’s mission to challenge this false-premise and to create other ways of working with children, ways that drew on their imagination, respected their ideas, and worked in collaboration with them.

Drama was her medium for teaching and learning and by the 1970s, thanks in part to a programme made by the BBC, she was an internationally renowned teacher with educators from all over the world flocking to watch her lessons and attend her courses. Despite this fame, however, Heathcote became increasingly frustrated by the lack of impact her methods were having on the education system as a whole and on classroom teachers outside the realm of the drama studio. Her answer was to create an approach that would guide teachers into using the elements of her method without them having to be experts in the use of drama. Her new approach involved creating an imaginary context (invented by the teacher) using a series of components – an expert team, a client, and a commission – to create purposeful and engaging scenarios for students to study the curriculum. She called her new approach, Mantle of the Expert.

Mantle of the Expert was based on the idea that children learn instinctively through imaginary play and that play, far from frivolous, is a generator of culture. Importantly, although play often matters to those involved, it carries no genuine penalty in the world of reality. It is a ‘safe space’ where children can explore ideas, events, people, and narratives without ever having to be in any danger or having to cope with real consequences.

For Heathcote, this was the “miracle” of drama because it created what she called ‘now time’ that is a dramatic switch in time and place that enables children to step into a narrative and participate as if it were happening to them as characters. In this way much of the content of their learning becomes something they interact with and contribute to. Thus, students studying Henry VIII can step into an imaginary context as a team of advisers working with Cromwell on the dissolution of the monasteries and write letters to the King explaining their progress and the problems they have encountered dealing with the abbots. Exciting things can happen, problems arise, betrayal, deceit, anger, political unrest and the students have to deal with it all from inside the story.

Of course, the story can stop at any time, allowing participants the opportunity to discuss events, negotiate possible alternatives, and take different routes. Real time and fictional time are two separate paths and while real time continues unabated, fictional time can be paused, rewound, and replayed by those involved, giving them the chance to explore alternatives, make mistakes, and put things right.

Behind many of Heathcote’s ideas were deep concepts about learning, culture, and identity. She saw, as Huizinga argued, that play is a generator of culture allowing the exploration of ways of being within a safe space. She applied Evin Goffman’s concept of ‘framing’ into something that allows students to investigate events and people from multiple points of view. She drew on the work of Edward T. Hall, seeing culture as something constructed through the bonds formed between human beings with shared experiences. And she understood, intuitively, that stories are somehow ‘psychologically privileged’ and a fundamental (and ancient) medium for learning and making meaning.

Her invention of Mantle of the Expert gives us a practical and coherent strategy for incorporating these ideas and bringing them alive in exciting and meaningful ways for students. In classrooms using the approach stories are not just things in books, but events children can step into, interact with, and create. It’s a great way to teach and a great way to learn.

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