Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mantle of the expert - deceiving children or inspiring learning?

I have been teaching through the mantle of the expert approach for seven years now, having first seen it in action at Little Bealings Primary School. I had heard about it in passing from my headteacher and curiosity got the better of me, so I convinced him to send three teachers from school to an open event at Bealings. Our trio consisted of myself (trying to find my niche), our deputy head (and English coordinator) and a new teacher who I had mentored as an NQT.

Your cakes are too tiny for Giants!
Our thoughts about what we had seen differed greatly. We spent some time with a trainee teacher, whose lesson was pure drama from start to finish. Our deputy was concerned about the pace, the learning and the progress in what she thought was an English lesson. I saw it as more than that: PSHE, collaboration, decision making and totally led by the children. There was no written work at the end of it, but photographs and film clips were taken throughout. The planning made sense to me as well. It wasn't comprehensive, because things change. Energy was put into the ideas and resources for the lesson, not the paperwork. To me it was dynamic.

 Even more memorable was what was going on in the infant classroom (a gardening company). It was busy, the children were excited, they were making decisions and different things were happening in different areas of the room. It wasn't a conventional room either. It wasn't dominated by tables and chairs. The displays were not particularly neat, but they were covered with the children's ideas and work. I was hooked. This felt right to me. The learning had been put into a context and the children were thriving on it. I saw much evidence of their learning, but was astounded by the children's confidence and the way that they could reason and articulate their thoughts. Our new headteacher at Roydon felt the same the first time she saw me teaching this way.

My first major mantle

My first mantle S.T.A.R.S (space transportation and restoration services) lasted a whole term. It was with year 5/4 children. I worked in role as many different people throughout the term, but started the mantle as an angry professor who was cursing NASA's inability to launch a rocket. Did the children know it was me? Of course. Did they immerse themselves in the drama of the situation anyway? Totally.

A Chadburys employee
What was more noticeable was the 'buzz' that was created. Parents were interested in what was going on and they were telling me that their children were talking to them about their learning in ways they had done previously.
Teaching through this way seemed to naturally support children with SEN, whilst stretching TAG children. How do I know this? Through what I was seeing and hearing and through their results at the end of the year. I had lots of visitors and they were confirming what I was feeling - it is a positive way for the children to be in control, make progress and learn.

The importance of appropriate language

I have written this post in response to a comment on twitter that suggested I was 'deceiving' the children. It is true that you are creating an imaginary world, but surely this is what we want to do in school - feed and nurture their imaginations? I am careful with the language I use and favourite phrases include:

'I wonder what it would feel like ...'
'What would you do if...?'
'What would it be like if ...?' 
'When I put on this hat/tie/jacket I will become...'

There are many more phrases that I will use during a drama, but sometimes I drop right in role without warning. At these times, language is used carefully to debrief the children. I am not going to go into detail about mantles, as I have written about them elsewhere, but over the years I have worked with the children to rescue orangutans and polar bears (helped by Sir Richard Branson!), rebuild a Chocolatier that burned down, created documentaries and resources for publishing and broadcasting companies, become a rival company to RyanAir, catered for the needs of giants, gnomes and Australian documentary makers, been  trainee timelords and found many different artifacts that have led to huge investigations.

I could talk about drama and mantle of the expert for ever, because I am passionate about it. The benefits for me as a teacher are:

  • It suits my teaching style
  • Its creative nature keeps me happy as a teacher (I like dressing up!)
  • The enquiry approach lets children lead the way. I like pretending that I don't know the answers. It encourages the children to problem solve.
  • You never teach the same thing in the same way (so I don't get bored if I repeat a topic)
  • It promotes problem solving, collaborative skills, decision making and using initiative
  • It enables a personalised learning approach 
  • Amy Pond?!
  • There is never a dull moment!

I do not subscribe to the purist Mantle of the Expert approach that says the children need badges and identities in the drama each time. I have adapted the approach to suit my style and the needs of the children I am working with. That is why I like to call it drama in the classroom. Sometimes I am purely using drama to give a context for learning, other times we become a company. My mantles can last from a week to a term and are very flexible depending on the theme; there is no room for tenuous links. 

If you would like to know more about mantle of the expert, visit their main website. If you want ideas for using drama in the classroom, there is a booklet here. If you are still in doubt, imagine you are 5/6 years old and working for a gnome. Wouldn't that be fun?!

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