What is imaginative-inquiry?

Imaginative-inquiry is a wide-ranging teaching and learning approach that brings together three successful and effective pedagogic strategies – community of inquiry, drama for learning, and mantle of the expert. [Fig.1] By using imaginative-inquiry teachers can create exciting and meaningful contexts for learning, which can be used to engage their students in challenging and purposeful curriculum activities – extending their thinking, developing their skills, and broadening their understanding.

Imaginary contexts have the advantage of being free of the usual constraints of the classroom. In an imaginary world you and the children can be anyone, at anytime, anywhere, doing anything. You can travel to strange islands, explore new planets and different worlds, build pyramids for Pharaohs, run wild animal parks, organise a secret meeting between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, or travel up the beanstalk to rescue Jack from the Giant.

Imaginative-inquiry is about using subjects children are interested in to create effective and challenging opportunities for their learning. Imaginary contexts that can create purpose and meaning for children to acquire, practice and develop the knowledge, skills and understanding they need both within and beyond the national curriculum.

The planning units on this website have been written by practicing teachers using the principles of imaginative-inquiry. Each one is designed to take you step-by-step through the first sequence of activities that will create an imaginary context to engage your students and generate meaningful and demanding opportunities for curriculum learning.

What is inquiry learning?

Inquiry learning [Fig.2] is about seeing the curriculum as something to explore rather than deliver. It views children as active agents in this process, working together with each other and with adults to acquire, apply and develop new knowledge, skills and understanding. The content and subjects of the curriculum are seen as areas of research, to be examined, explored and questioned through a collaborative process of investigation. Children are encouraged to ask questions, contribute ideas and think critically. The work they do is applied in-context, with meaningful outcomes.

The teacher’s role is to plan learning opportunities to extend and challenge the student’s thinking and to guide and support them in the process of curriculum investigation. Reflection, evaluation and critical analysis play an important part in formulating deeper understanding and cognitive development.

The classroom is conceived as a community of inquiry where children and adults work in collaboration to create an effective and productive learning environment. The actual process of learning itself is under explicit investigation with students and adults analysing and reviewing teaching and learning strategies, co-designing success criteria and developing methods for evaluation and assessment.

What is drama for learning?

If you remember drama from your own experience of school as being in a hall, running around in your shorts, pretending to be a snowflake then relax, drama for learning is nothing like that. Drama for learning [Fig.3] is about using the conventions of theatre – point of view, tension, and narrative – to create exciting and meaningful contexts for learning in the classroom. Students and adults work together to invent imaginary scenarios that give meaning and purpose to curriculum study. No one is pretending or acting, there is no audience or need to perform. Drama for learning is more like a role-play game where the participants make up the rules and invent the moves.

There is always something happening now, something that needs our attention. Usually its a difficult problem (easy problems are boring), involving people who are difficult to deal with, and requiring those involved to think carefully and work together. The scenario often starts with a question or a dilemma, and then moves into a moment of drama where the children and the adults represent different points of view and were action is slowed down using the conventions of dramatic action, allowing the students opportunities to question, explore alternatives and make reasoned choices.

Lets look at two examples, one from Key Stage 1, the other from Key Stage 2.

Key Stage 1 example:

The context is an Animal Park, the children are representing park rangers, and the scenario is a lion being airlifted from Africa after being shot by poachers (this is actually a scenario invented by a student in a Year 1 class in Cambridge). The children have signed up the classroom by drawing the animals, their enclosures, and other features of the park – fences, paths, picnic areas etc. The lion is in transit, one of the adults, representing the pilot, calls from the helicopter.
“Hello, can you hear me?”
The boy who invented the story answers, “Hello, yes we can hear you? How close are you?”
“We will be with you in five minutes. Listen the lion is very ill, she’s got much worse in the last half hour. Are you going to be ready? She’s going to need an operation right away.”
“Don’t worry we will be ready.”

At this point the teacher uses the tension generated by the news to create a new opportunity for learning. “Is the operation theatre ready, is everyone prepared? I think we need to pause the story for a few minutes while we decide what happens when we operate on one of the animals…”

In this example there is very little acting, Ryan and the adult in the helicopter exchange a short conversation while the rest of the class listen, but that’s all that’s needed to create an exciting narrative, one the teacher can use to develop an activity that will explore the science curriculum (life processes) within a context which is both meaningful and engaging for the children.

Key Stage 2 example:

The context is a Tudor House, the students have been involved in various scenarios representing different points of view including the people of the house and the various factions making up Henry VIII court. A new scenario begins when Henry sends a letter to the lord of the house making it known he intends to visit and wishes a secret meeting to be arranged with Anne Boleyn away from prying eyes.

Terrified he will make a mistake and displease the King, the Lord gathers together the members of his household. (Teacher in role) “Well you’ve all had chance to read the letter. It goes without saying not a word of this must leave the room. I would welcome some help in this matter. Has anyone any ideas? I am myself at a lose.”

Once again there is very little acting in this example, the teacher has written the letter from the king and shared it with the class, the children understand the situation and have studied stories of Henry VIII, they know what happens if you incur his anger. They are in tight spot. The tension and the narrative give a purpose to the children’s work; requiring them to work together as a team, to create a coherent and successful plan, and to communicate it, as Henry stipulates in his own letter, by secret correspondence.

Some of the curriculum opportunities are obvious – letter writing, planning, communicating, studying – others less so – map making, reporting, designing. The context also generates meaningful reasons for creating success criteria – ensuring the letter is well written and presented – since Henry is a very tough client, and for evaluating the success of the plan using formative assessment methods.

What is mantle of the expert?

The first thing most people ask about mantle of the expert [Fig.4] is, “Why does it have such a strange name?” On the many occasions Dorothy Heathcote, it’s inventor, was asked this question she would always reply – “Because that’s the best name I can think of.”

Which does not help much, except she must have thought the name was important or she would have changed it, its not exactly ‘catchy’.

So, and this is the question must people ask next, “what does it mean?”

In a nutshell mantle of the expert is a teaching and learning approach where the class adopt an expert point of view within an imaginary scenario. For example, a mountain rescue team, rescuing a stranded climber trapped on the side of a mountain. The ‘mantle’ is the range of responsibilities, duties and roles they have as a team of experts. For example – working safely, checking equipment, planning and preparing, training for rescues, knowing the mountain terrain, advising climbers on the dangers of the mountain, etc.

Of course, the children are not real experts and would never really fly helicopters or rescue people off the side of mountains in the middle of a snow storm. However, many would like to imagine themselves doing it and this is the attraction of using mantle of the expert in the classroom. In the normal teacher-student relationship the teacher is the ‘one who knows’, the expert, and the students the ones doing the learning. In mantle of the expert this one-way learning relationship becomes more collaborative and dynamic. Consciously the teacher re-positions herself in relation to the children, deliberately playing with roles of power and authority. When the children agree to take on the ‘mantle of the expert’ they enter into the fiction as the ones who know, with the power to make choices, take decisions and influence events. But, crucially, they also agree to take on the responsibilities, duties and roles of the expert team. This is why Dorothy Heathcote felt the name was so appropriate and one of the things that differentiates it, as an approach, from conventional drama for learning.

Another is the specific use of a ‘client’. Clients who commission the expert team, either explicitly or implicitly, are always used in mantle of the expert and have a defined range of functions. The most important is as a focus for the expert team in their work, someone they consider as important, someone they are answerable too, someone their work is influenced by. Clients, by implication, give meaning to the work of the expert team and require the work is of a sufficient standard. Some clients – such as the climber – have little direct power ‘over’ the expert team, others – such as a safety inspection service – have much more direct power and can demand certain tasks and standards. For example – up to date maps, safety manuals, rescue plans, reports and records of activities, accident logs, etc. Which the teacher can use to create as opportunities for curriculum learning.

This, of course, is why mantle of the expert works so well as a teaching and learning approach. Not only can it be used to create interesting and meaningful contexts of the kind children enjoy but it can also generate authentic and purposeful reasons for them to work hard at learning. There would be little point in using it, other than as a parlour game, if it was only about having fun, but moe also works as an effective and challenging pedagogic approach for exploring the curriculum and helping children develop as successful learners.

Key Stage 1 example:

To find out how to download the full context visit the planning units page
Name: Dinosaur Island
Theme: Dinosaurs
Main curriculum focus: History & Science: SC2: Humans & Other animals
Inquiry Question: “What can evidence from the past tell us about the history of our planet and the place of human beings?”
Expert team: Scientists
Client: The Worldwide League for Nature (WLN)
Commission: To preserve, protect & study the dinosaurs, protect the island and keep it secret

Context: Hidden from the rest world on a mysterious island a team of expert scientists strive to protect, preserve and study a colony of creatures previously thought long extinct. Working in difficult conditions and constant danger the scientists responsibilities are both to the animals themselves and to the ecology of the island which has sustained them for millions of years.

The Worldwide League for Nature (WLN), the island’s owners and protectors, are concerned that while the team work they are careful not to damage the island’s environment and to work in utter secrecy, keeping the island and its inhabitants away from the world’s prying eyes and those who might look to exploit or damage it.

Main Curriculum areas:

• Chronological understanding
• Knowledge & understanding of changes in the past
• Historical interpretation
• Organisation & communication
• The passage of long periods of time
• The process of evolution and its effects
• The chronology of the planet and its species
• How to look at evidence of the past
• How to interpret evidence and make reasoned conclusions
• To explore, understand and critique competing theories, for example evolution, the extinction of the dinosaurs, global warming

Science Sc1: Scientific enquiry
• Ideas and evidence in science
• Investigative skills
– Planning
– Obtaining and presenting evidence
– Considering evidence and evaluating
• How near extinct species are classified
• Examples of extinct species during the history of the earth
• Explore different theories concerning the extinction of the dinosaurs
Science Sc2: Life processes & living things
• Life processes
• Humans & other animals
• Green plants
• Variation & classification
• Living things in their environment
• The names of dinosaurs
• Their distinguishing features
• Their diets and habitats
• Their breeding habits
• What human beings and other animals need in order to survive and flourish – water, food, shelter etc.

• Significant geographical features
• How to make & read a map
• Factors that affect weather and climate
• How animals and other living species are affected by human beings and their actions
• About organisations which campaign for and protect the planet, for example WWF

Key Stage 2 example:

To find out how to download the full context visit the planning units page
Name: Titanic
Age Range: KS2 & 3
Main Curriculum Focus: History and English
Inquiry Question: “What might the Titanic disaster tell us about changes in attitudes towards life and people’s place in society and how these have changed since 1912?”
Expert Team: A team of marine archaeologists
Client: The British Museum
Commission: to explore the wreck, as sensitively as possible, and to find personal objects that can be used in an exhibition to tell the forgotten stories of those who were involved in the disaster.

Context: A team of marine archaeologists, with a long history of exploring and studying shipwrecks are far out at sea, onboard their specially equipped research ship, two miles above the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

After an initial exploratory dive, using unmanned submersibles, the team make a final check of their equipment and discuss the operational parameters of their mission.

Under commission from the British Museum, the team’s objective is to explore the wreck, as sensitively as possible, and to find personal objects that can be used in an exhibition to tell the forgotten stories of those who were involved in the disaster.

Main Curriculum areas:

Knowledge and understanding of events, people and changes in the past
a. about characteristic features of the periods and societies studied, including the ideas, beliefs, attitudes and experiences of men, women and children in the past
b. about the social, cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the societies studied, in Britain and the wider world
c. to identify and describe reasons for, and results of, historical events, situations, and changes in the periods studied
d. to describe and make links between the main events, situations and changes within and across the different periods and societies studied.
Historical interpretation
Recognise that the past is represented and interpreted in different ways, and to give reasons for this.
Historical enquiry
a. how to find out about the events, people and changes studied from an appropriate range of sources of information, including ICT-based sources [for example, documents, printed sources, CD-ROMS, databases, pictures and photographs, music, artefacts, historic buildings and visits to museums, galleries and sites]
b. to ask and answer questions, and to select and record information relevant to the focus of the enquiry.
Organisation and communication
a. recall, select and organise historical information
b. use dates and historical vocabulary to describe the periods studied
c. communicate their knowledge and understanding of history in a variety of ways

English – Writing
a) to imagine and explore feelings and ideas, focusing on creative uses of language and how to interest the reader
b) to inform and explain, focusing on the subject matter and how to convey it in sufficient detail for the reader
c) to persuade, focusing on how arguments and evidence are built up and language used to convince the reader
d) to review and comment on what has been read, seen or heard, focusing on both the topic and the writer’s view of it.
10. to use writing to help their thinking, investigating, organising and learning.
11. A range of readers for writing
12. A range of forms of writing including narratives, poems, play-scripts, reports, explanations, opinions, instructions, reviews, commentaries.


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