Hidden in the RSA’s report, Ideal School Exhibition, last week was a little sentence that made my heart sink:-
“Of all the schools I visited, it is perhaps Bealings Primary School in Suffolk that is most exposed to this risk, employing, as it does, the ‘Mantle of the Expert’ role-play method, the purest form of child-led, discovery learning I witnessed.”
While the report went on to point out that the school in question was highly successful with five consecutive Ofsted Outstanding inspections and great data to its name, it misunderstood the nature of Mantle of the Expert, which is not discovery learning and nor is it child led. It is inquiry based learning, rich in knowledge and it is very much co-constructed with the teacher clear about what the learning outcomes are and the steps required to achieve them. I was thinking of penning a response when I read another blog about academic versus non academic subjects, in which the suggestion was made that drama is all about creating actors and PE was mostly about creating accomplished sportsmen and women and that while both are worthy pursuits, they are not really academic. Academic subjects, it would seem, are those that are pursued purely for the sake of becoming masters of knowledge in those subjects. Maths is academic if you become a Mathematician, but not if you become a doctor/engineer/actuary/accountant etc. I think. In short, only subjects with no useful, practical, future application are academic. So we’ve cleared that one up. I’m being flippant of course, but on a serious note, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to try to categorise in this way..
The misconception that drama = acting or PE = football is laughable, of course. But it masks a deeper misunderstanding – both act as practical and intellectual vehicles for other curriculum areas, reinforcing and supporting other subjects. One teacher reported seeing a lesson in which concepts in Physics were being explored in PE and clearly there is a strong anatomical/Biological component. In Drama/Theatre we, of course, study plays. Plays have contexts. Historical, philosophical, social and cultural contexts. And unlike English literature, set texts can be drawn from a range of original languages. So in my time, I have taught existentialism (Sartre), the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of Hitler (Brecht), post war absurdism (Beckett), the political situation in Russia at the turn of the 19th century (Chekhov), gender and social politics in Ancient Greece (Euripides), the influence of the church in medieval society (the Chester miracle and mystery plays)…I could go on. In fact, it’s not really possible to pass advanced level drama by simply being a good actor. Knowledge is critical. But in addition to the knowledge, you have to interpret, design and create your own versions of plays – even if only on paper in the exam. You have to be critic, director, writer, actor, intellectual and technician. So, no, it’s not academic. It’s way more.
Mantle of the Expert is also way more than role-play based discovery learning, which is not to say that some forms of discovery learning don’t have their place. We come across this conflation between child led/child centred and discovery learning/inquiry learning way too often – it’s in Hattie’s work, in Willingham’s work, even in the reports of the OECD. And in confusing something that can be entirely without an adult or something that can be highly structured, we end up with tricky outcomes in terms of evidence. We hear that these methods are ineffective. And yet we then see that Bealings not only produce results, but have Outstanding judgments. Which is true?
Well let’s try to unpick them a little. Discovery based learning might be better spoken of as ‘child initiated learning’ and it’s most often seen in early years settings. At its best, the child initiates play and, through careful organisation of equipment/materials, questioning and observation, the adults will support the learning. Take for example Jonathan Lear’s example of the tap in the EYFS mud kitchen. When planning their outdoor learning area, staff had a choice of where to put the water supply for their mud kitchen. The obvious answer was to connect it to the tap at the sink. But they didn’t. They connected it to the wall, further away. That simple adjustment meant that the young children had to work out how to transport the water. But the staff had put holes in the obvious implements. So the children had to be canny. The process of learning, prompted and supported by questioning, led to children thinking more deeply than they would have if the answer had been, well, on tap. So it sits there, waiting to be played with and discovered. This is a lovely example of how discovery learning can work in some situations and settings, but of course, all other kinds of learning will be going on there too. Some of it explicit and some of it inquiry led.
At its worst, discovery learning is where the teacher has a cuppa while the kids run riot. Or where the children have been given a word/person/topic and told to get on their laptops and find it all out with no guidance. This is not really discovery learning. It’s idleness and in these days of high accountability and surveillance, you’re unlikely to see it happening anywhere in state education. But I think this is the conception of it that some have in their minds.
Inquiry led learning is probably the best fit for Mantle of the Expert. It is not child-led or initiated but more co-constructed. It allows the teacher and pupils to step in and out of a problem so that some areas of knowledge that need to be acquired in order to solve a problem, are taught explicitly. The context provides a purpose for what can be explicit teaching and once that has been done, the children can apply and transfer that knowledge to the problem they were engaged in. They move in and out of the role and problem as required. One mantle I ran with Yr 4 involved learning Russian language, geography and culture. It also involved creating spreadsheets, budgets, writing letters and reports and even applying for visas. All these tasks were planned for. They were managed by the teacher but the desire to know and do them came from children immersed in context. If you’d have asked the children what we were doing, they would have talked about doing all of this in order to save wolves in a forest in the Ural Mountains. The story provides the context for the knowledge and action to be enacted. And as we know from Willingham, stories are ‘psychological privileged’ in the human mind.
This is not the only way to inquire of course. I’ve seen few better examples of non role-play project based learning than that devised by Joe Pardoe at School21. There, all inquiry is rigorously accountable to knowledge. But it is also creatively transferred and applied. Take their chess board. A study into the cold war results in sculpted chess pieces – busts of the major historical figures of the cold war. The children are asked not just to know and to create, but to apply. Who would have been the King? The pawns? Why? They are being held accountable to knowledge. This is child centred learning, but the teacher is deeply present throughout – in conception, design, delivery and analysis. The teacher is always present in both inquiry led and discovery led learning. But much more so in the former.
So we need to move on. We need to move away from the quagmire of what constitutes academic or practical subjects, progressive or traditional ideologies, explicit or inquiry led teaching. We need to recognise (and to be fair the Ideal Schools report is attempting to move in this direction) that there are horses for courses. That knowing what you do, why you do it and the impact of what comes out of it, is far more important than what you call it.