Monday, 27 October 2014

Part 3: The strange label

Continuing my commentary on DH's 2009 keynote. My comments in italics [I'm dispensing with the convention of square brackets as I think it is clear enough which bits are which...!]

After her opening comments, DH talks a little about why she chose (and stuck with) the name she gave this teaching approach - Mantle of the Expert. As she does so, she compares the approach with what she sees as the limitations of traditional teaching. First she talks about the word 'Mantle'. 
Let us first examine the strange label. Mantle is not a cloak by which a person is recognised. This is no garment to cover. I use it as a quality: of leadership, carrying standards of behaviour, morality, responsibility, ethics and the spiritual basis of all action. The mantle embodies the standards I ascribe to. It grows by usage, not garment stitching. 
DH is very clear here that the 'mantle' or 'cloak' of expertise is not to be seen as something gifted to a learner by the teacher: it is an inner quality in the person themselves that is fostered through the learning process. She also stresses that the teaching and learning process in Mantle of the Expert is about developing ethical, moral, spiritual and social standards: qualities of leadership that develop over time and through practice. 

Now she goes on to talk about the word "expert"
Expert is essential in the name because I value learning and curiosity to enquire. Schooling imposes such burdens of “out there” information upon students, that ways must be found to inspire and reward curious enquiry and give children the first steps towards pleasure in exploring new fields, and shedding the insidious fear of error or making mistakes. 
Here DH makes a number of points about why repositioning students as experts is so important. First, she suggests, it allows them up to ask questions and be genuinely curious in ways that traditional schooling may not allow. Then she implies that working as experts means students encounter information in a context - so that it is immediately relevant. She mentions that the repositioning of students lifts engagement - makes learning a pleasure - and also that it helps students feel confident about mistake-making and true inquiry. 

Next,  she shifts her focus onto the relationship between Mantle of the Expert and children's real lives - including their play.  She suggests that for children, school can feel like something separate from their real lives and how by using drama and the imagination, the teacher can bring those real lives into the classroom and bring them alive for children. 
At one fell swoop this system prevents children from leaving their real lives in the cloakroom with their coats and lunchboxes. Because it uses the nature of drama to shift context into the classroom.  
Its root lies then in the instinct to play. To transform the power-less structure of most classrooms to the power-full exploration of being human in controllable domains, selected for learning purposes.
When she talks about the instinct to play, she does not mean children wish to "mess about": she is referring to the way Mantle of the Expert is based in drama and how appropriate this is for young children given that they naturally use dramatic play (pretending games) to explore and understand the world. Finally, she remarks on the shift in power dynamics that occurs when teachers work in Mantle of the Expert. The final sentence gives a pretty good summary of what Mantle of the Expert is: "the power-full exploration of being human in controllable domains, selected for learning purposes". 

This final sentence also reminds us that the domains, or areas of learning within Mantle of the Expert are bounded, controllable, limited. This is not open-ended inquiry which could go anywhere... The teacher will direct and select which areas are explored with a specific purpose in mind..

This section of the address concludes with several more passing comments each of which are enormously rich in themselves: 
We transform, by contract with our students the contexts in which we shall function. 
So the first law of theatre is invoked. Our enterprise gives us the boundaries so we can focus on the fields of experience we want to explore with our classes. Because we promise as teachers to introduce information as well as experience, the Mantle structure is neatly efficient and “elegant” in form. 
Should it ever be seriously adopted as a system our schooling would change. There is no reason why a “Mantle” school could not be administered within the portals of the nineteenth century model which most schools operate in. Montessori and Waldorf schools can do this already.
First she comments on the importance of a clear contract between teacher and students - both need to agree on where we are pretending to be and how we agree to behave there. She comments that this is at the core of theatre too - and thus Mantle of the Expert is an essentially theatrical pursuit. She returns to the idea that the inquiry is boundried: as teachers we choose the enterprise or company we will work in and this takes us into particular areas of learning and experience. 

She concludes with some advocacy. She delights in the elegance and efficiency of her teaching approach and suggests that if adopted, it could see a real shift in the schooling system.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Part 2: Opening Comments

Dorothy Heathcote opens her 2009 Keynote with these words: [My attempt at explanation / commentary is inserted in square brackets]
This will not be an academic treatise. I'm a practising teacher still – learning as I go. It seems almost yesterday that some of your New Zealand colleagues were wrestling bravely with Those who sailed with Cook, copies of which are used in the Heathcote archive in Manchester Metropolitan University. Thank you for inviting me to share some thoughts regarding Mantle enterprises, as the “Cook” work initiated,
[After positioning herself firmly as a teacher and emphasising that her theory emerges through her practice - DH refers back to work she did with New Zealand teachers during her trips to the country in the 1980s. Interestingly, she implies that this early work was a significant starting point for what went on to become Mantle of the Expert.] 
Mantle of the Expert way of teaching is a clear system and I am slowly discovering the operant laws which underpin this style of helping students to learn in formal schooling settings. I realise that a common thread which has always run through every classroom encounter is that I operate a community point of view in which “casting for parts” has never interested me. This, from the very first classroom encounter, is instinctive. As also is the other thread – that I shall be participating as an active member of the community we shall create together. By doing this, a very seminal element emerges – that of now-immediate drama / theatre TIME, and that of creating an other’s presence for the ‘community members’ to respond to. This duality is the genetic element in Mantle of the Expert system of drama work.
[DH stresses that Mantle of the Expert is a clear system with 'operant laws' - ie ways of working that need to happen to make it function well. She states that the system is designed to work in schools. Then she draws out two key threads which she has come to realise are fundamental to the approach: first is that the group works together as what we would now call a 'community of inquiry' (she's very clear that this is NOT about treating children as actors making a play). Second is the fact that the teacher will be part of the community of inquiry - included as co-participant working and creating an imagined world alongside the students. She stresses the importance of working in "now" time (agreeing to imagine that this stuff is actually happening to us - NOW) and the importance of creating 'other people' for the community of participants to respond to, play against or indeed empathise with through role taking. To paraphrase crudely - she says it is about creating a strong sense of "us" and for that we need a sense of "them". She concludes by saying that this essential split between the community of the classroom (us) and the world we are responding to (them) is right at the heart of how Mantle of the Expert works.]

Part 1: Introduction

This blog is devoted to one of Dorothy Heathcote's final pieces of writing, Mantle of the Expert: My Current Understanding. The 25 page document was written in 2009 as a keynote address for the Weaving our Stories conference at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, NZ. As convenor of that conference I felt very honoured when Prof Heathcote handed me a photocopy of her handwritten transcript and said "you might want to do something with this."

The handwritten document has stayed in my possession ever since. As one of her final writings about Mantle of the Expert, Prof Heathcote's address is an important piece of work for those with an interest in her work but it is also quite densely written and hard to follow in places. So as well as offering a full transcription I thought it would be useful to offer some kind of commentary - or reader's guide. I originally thought of producing something hard copy - a booklet or academic paper. But recently it came to me that a BLOG might be the ideal medium for the purpose - offering an opportunity to encounter the text in 'bite sized chunks' and potentially getting out to a wider audience of teachers and practitioners in an open source way.  So, here goes!
I do hope that readers of this blog might dialogue and respond to my comments - whether to ask questions or elaborate and improve on my commentary. I know there are many scholars and practitioners who know Heathcote's work better than I do and I invite you to collaborate in this blog through the comments. 
If you'd like to see a 'clean' transcription of the address please visit CLICK HERE. The transcription is a work in progress and will be produced as the blog is written.

A video recording of Prof Heathcote delivering the keynote can be viewed via the UK Mantle of the Expert website CLICK HERE (*I believe the link is currently under repair... hopefully it will be working again soon)

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