31 Jul 2023
Try This is the latest addition to Mantle of the Expert author Tim Taylor’s canon, this time in collaboration with Dr Viv Aitken, a European New Zealander of Cornish descent. While sharing much of the rich heritage of Dorothy Heathcote’s ‘dramatic inquiry’ approaches, which Taylor has long been an exponent of, this book is a much more practical work when it comes to applications in the classroom.
The book is designed as a series of stand-alone teaching sequences – the ‘keys’ – that can be adapted to multiple contexts. The authors say they hope teachers will use the book the way they would use a bunch of physical keys on a keyring – “keeping it nearby, to pick up and select from as needed”. In this respect, the book works really well. The ‘keys’ are organised into ‘bunches’: categories such as ‘getting started’, ‘working with place’ and ‘using the senses’ group similar ‘keys’ together so it is very simple to locate a sequence that would be appropriate when planning a unit of work.
Each key is structured with a brief description of what it does, how to plan it and a step-by-step method for that key. There are also two accompanying examples for each one: one based on a UK-centred example and the other on a New Zealand-centred one. Both show how the key could be applied to different contexts very effectively. This makes it a much more accessible approach for busy teachers than the more involved ‘mantle of the expert’ method.
I tried out ‘step into a moment’ with my year 4 class using the context of Shackleton’s journey (based on the William Grill book). I took on the role of a crew member removing stores from the Endurance just as the mast collapsed. The suggested questions were easy to use and adapt using the examples given, and I felt the quality of the discussion and their subsequent writing was better as a result. Adapting my existing planning to incorporate this key was very simple, so I can see it would be an approach I would use again.
The keys combine the elements, techniques and conventions of dramatic inquiry without getting bogged down in the technical terminology. As the authors say: “When we reach for a key in the real world, all we care about is starting the car or getting the door open. There’s no need to understand the intricacies of how the key was made or how it works”.
I really appreciated this idea; they have done the research so we don’t have to. They also make the important point that many people have not had a positive experience of drama and consequently dismiss it as ‘messing around’ and pretending. Their approach, they maintain, is not about pretending: the keys are “systematic activities, with a focus on learning, involving the students in thinking deeply, and engaging them in the exploration […] through different points of view”.
The way the instructions are worded and the ‘scripts’ for engaging with students have clearly been carefully thought through to keep the focus on the learning and emphasise that both the teacher and students are stepping in and out of the learning context rather than pretending. It’s a fine line, but I think the keys succeed in doing this on the whole. It certainly worked with my primary pupils, but I’m not sure it would have the same effect with a secondary class.
Cultural sensitivity is a thread throughout the book. It contains some good advice about taking on roles from cultures or genders other than our own or using real characters from history. Much of this is framed around the need for sensitivity when exploring the stories and culture of the indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand but it is clear they are applicable to all contexts. Many of the keys explore other cultures through objects or clothing, without having to embody people.
Overall, I can see myself quickly adding some of these keys to my keyring and using them to unlock learning and engagement in my classroom, and doing so with the confidence that my practice will be inclusive. What more could a primary school teacher ask for?