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Arguing over the Ridiculous: Brain Gym and Mantle of the Expert

November 16, 2013

One thing that came out of the ResearchED conference, perhaps inevitably with Ben Goldacre among the speakers, was the general acceptance that Brain Gym was pretty much the gold standard for nonsense in education. Both Robert Coe and Tom Bennett raised the question of what might be the next Brain Gym. If you aren’t familiar with it, it was a branded series of strange exercises that were meant to improve learning. Take a look at this or this for more information or watch this:

Why it has become so infamous is, in my view, due to the sheer implausibility of the claims. Instead of becoming incredibly fashionable and being endorsed by people in the highest levels of the education establishment, it should have just been laughed at for being utterly ridiculous from the start. The teaching profession was undermined by its willingness to engage with such obvious nonsense. However, it is for this reason, that I have tended to be sceptical about talk of “the next Brain Gym”. While baseless, bad ideas are pretty common in education they are not necessarily ridiculous. Ideas like SOLO taxonomy or Kagan Structures at least have a surface level of plausibility about them and can only really be objected to from a position of knowing how we actually learn. Things which are widespread but can safely be dismissed immediately as absurd are far rarer. The learning bicycle certainly qualifies as absurd but is far too obscure.

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Building Learning Power is not obscure and is almost there on the absurdity front, but the only really obvious example I can think of something popular, that is as ridiculous as Brain Gym is “Thinking Hats”. David Didau wrote about it here and quickly discovered that few things get more of an angry reaction than pointing out the obvious. Those who have been suckered are going to read anything that says “this is obvious nonsense” as “you are an idiot”. If something is absurd, but people haven’t noticed, then they don’t take well to having it pointed out. Moreover, they can complain that by pointing out absurdity then you are not actually engaging with constructive criticism of the ideas. In fact they can even claim that you haven’t understood the idea. After all, you probably won’t have become deeply engaged in studying something if it is obviously crazy. Even Ben Goldacre, who is probably the most high profile advocate of greater use of RCTs in education has, to my knowledge, never once suggested that we need any RCTs on whether rubbing brain buttons actually works.

So there’s the dilemma. I want teachers to be able to say “Are you having a laugh?” when confronted with the very silly, but I also know that those who are unashamedly doing those very silly things will get very angry and accuse those teachers of not engaging in proper debate. After all, what is the rational evidence that something is very silly? Everyone pointing and laughing is a pretty good indicator, and sometimes it is enough to point something out and wait for the audience reaction in order to establish that, yes, what looked absurd to you also looks absurd to others. However, true believers are as likely to claim they are being misrepresented or bullied than realising that they have behaved in a way which provoked the reaction. So where do we go with ideas at the extreme ends of implausibility?

Well, the key thing has to be the strength of the argument. There are some things which seem to be implausible which hold up when you look at the evidence. For instance, have a look at this post by Laura McInerney which mentions that negative emotions appear to be better than a happy state for certain types of thinking (particularly deep analytical thought). I know from experience that saying this on Twitter without evidence will cause a storm of derision but this hasn’t happened here. Laura phrased it in such a way as to make it clear that this is what the evidence says, and followed up with links to research when people challenged her about it on Twitter. If something is apparently ridiculous but backed up by a solid argument there isn’t a problem. And it is very easy to forgive someone who ridiculed you if they come back and say, having looked at the evidence (or the argument) I realise you are right. While the existence (or not) of evidence or sound argument does not determine whether something is ridiculous – something can be wrong but seem plausible – it is an unlikely claim with nothing solid behind it that deserves to be considered ludicrous.

Of course people will still argue. They will say:

  • It works for me.
  • It’s insulting to criticise it.
  • You have to see it to understand it.
  • You just don’t understand it/haven’t researched it enough.
  • Kids like it.
  • The idea is only X (where X is a related but far less extreme idea, e.g. in the case of Brain Gym: “The idea is only that kids should take breaks between learning”).

The only real response is to ask the following question: Which of these arguments cannot also be applied, with equal validity, to Brain Gym? This won’t work on everyone. Some people will simply claim “but this is different” as if a bad argument is only bad when applied to particular claims. Some, and this was a shock to see, will even deny that anyone ever defended Brain Gym. However, if an idea is immediately implausible, and these are the best sort of arguments we have for it, then I do think we can safely dismiss it as nonsense.

With all that in mind, I would like to suggest, as I did a couple of days ago, that The Mantle of The Expert is just such a ridiculous idea. It is an attempt to teach a significant proportion of the curriculum through role-play, which is something I find absurd. The claims made for it add to the absurdity. Have a look at Wikipedia or The Mantle of the Expert website. My favourites are “Mantle of the expert has very strong elements of naturalism, as well as Brechtian theatre”; “Mantle of the expert has roots in sociology and anthropology”; and “Through activities and tasks, the children gradually take on some of the same kinds of responsibilities, problems and challenges that real archaeologists, scientists and librarians might do in the real world”. It is easy to find many other claims that are, on the face of it, laughable.

Of course, there might be a serious case behind it. It may just be a coincidence that nobody has really been able to defend it with anything that goes beyond the arguments listed above (with the X in the last one being “the idea is only that role play be used occasionally in lessons”). Perhaps there are answers to the obvious objections. Perhaps someone will care to answer some of these:

  1. Why should students, particularly those who don’t like it, have to do lots of extra drama?
  2. How do you respond to the general discrediting of inquiry/discovery learning from empirical and psychological evidence in the last few years?
  3. Is the role-playing not likely to be a distraction from the learning?
  4. Where is the evidence for effectiveness which should have been accumulated in the last 30 years?

Further Reading

http://themodernmiss.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/the-mantle-of-the-expert/

http://thenferblog.org/2013/11/15/it-worked-for-me/

http://heymisssmith.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/you-cant-use-all-colours.html

http://outstandingtogood.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/i-think-it-is-what-i-call.html (Added 17/11/2013)

27 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Thank you for your questions Andrew.

    In reference to your argument on Twitter, I asked you three times if you would like to discuss the matter. On each occasion you ignored me. I would happily have discussed mantle of the expert with you and why it is not the new Brain Gym, however, you decided to stonewall me instead. That is unfortunate.

    I’m sorry you don’t like the sound of mantle of the expert and find the claims laughable. We can’t do anything about that. If you had provided reasons other than “It is easy to find many other claims that are, on the face of it, laughable.” Then we could make a start.

    I must remind you that we are not trying to convert anyone, we do not make exaggerated claims and respect teachers professional choice to use or ignore any strategy or approach they do find effective in their own classrooms. We would never press any teacher to use mantle of the expert, I hope that is clear. We have invited you repeatedly to come and share your practice with ours in a spirit of mutual professional dialogue, you have refused each time. This is also unfortunate. The offer is still there.

    In answer your four questions:

    “Why should students, particularly those who don’t like it, have to do lots of extra drama?” This is a little odd for you. Since when did you start arguing that students’ enjoyment of a strategy was a reliable measure of its efficacy? Have you had a change of heart? I would argue that no student should have to do a lot of extra drama if they don’t like it. My experience over twenty years, however, is that students do like exploring imaginary contexts, so long as they are adequately ‘protected’ into the experience. This is a very tricky part of the approach and something that is easy to get wrong. Many people have had bad experiences of drama at school (and on INSET days) and hate it as a consequence. I considered myself one of those when I first started teaching and needed a lot of convincing and ‘protecting’ before I was persuaded it was something worthwhile. Therefore, I understand your personal reservations and concerns for children’s enjoyment. All I can say is, we never force anyone to join in and it is not a teaching strategy that everyone would want to use.

    “How do you respond to the general discrediting of inquiry/discovery learning from empirical and psychological evidence in the last few years?” Two things to say about this. One, mantle of the expert is not ‘discovery’ learning. Heathcote was very critical of that approach. Two, I’m not aware of the ‘general discrediting’ of inquiry learning, could you please provide more information. I’d be happy to discuss it, but I fear we would end up arguing over ontology again and you seem reluctant to engage in that discussion.

    “Is the role-playing not likely to be a distraction from the learning?” That’s a leading question. Firstly, you would have to define role play. I don’t consider mantle of the expert to be role play. And anything that distracts from learning is a very bad teaching strategy.

    “Where is the evidence for effectiveness which should have been accumulated in the last 30 years?” This is a great question. We would very much welcome more research into mantle of the expert. Unfortunately research is expensive and time consuming. We are involved in an MA course on mantle of the expert organised by Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln and a number of teachers have written dissertations on the approach, there is an archive at Manchester Met of Prof Heathcotes work, including several MPhil and PhD thesis, and there is a growing amount of ofsted related evidence (which is, as you know, problematic). I would be very happy to send you more details if you are interested. What we really need is a university researcher who would be prepared to study mantle of the expert in detail, over time.

    I hope this will be the start of an ongoing conversation between us. I think some of your concerns, particularly over the term ‘expert’, can be easily put to rest, this chapter by Viv Aitken is an excellent introduction http://www.mantleoftheexpert.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/MOTE-Chapter-3_Aitken_Pages-from-Connecting-Curriculum-Fraser-v3-220213.pdf
    Some of your other misapprehensions are understandable, perhaps you would like to come to the weekend course we are running in March, I can send you details if you are interested. Teachers who come seem to find the course useful.

    In the meantime, can I reiterate that mantle of the expert is an approach, it is not ’the’ answer, still less a magic bullet, but it is a strategy for teaching that some teachers, who have studied it sufficiently, find useful and effective as part of a range of approaches they use in the classroom. We are not trying to convince anyone who does not want convincing and we are not trying to make it ‘trendy’. Perhaps what you are picking up is some excitement among those who find it works. I’m sure this is something you would welcome and enjoy. No one is trying to make you use it.


    • Thank you for your questions Andrew. In reference to your argument on Twitter, I asked you three times if you would like to discuss the matter.

      I wouldn’t have seen it because I have blocked you on Twitter because of your habit of “cheerleading”, i.e. waiting until I’m debating with somebody and joining in to back up the other person without actually adding anything to the argument. Twitter should have made it clear you were blocked and stopped you from aiming questions at me.

      On each occasion you ignored me. I would happily have discussed mantle of the expert with you and why it is not the new Brain Gym, however, you decided to stonewall me instead. That is unfortunate.

      Well, comments here should be fine. I’m not going to feel bad about blocking you, though. It’s a long time since you added anything to the debate other than accusations and complaints.

      I’m sorry you don’t like the sound of mantle of the expert and find the claims laughable. We can’t do anything about that. If you had provided reasons other than “It is easy to find many other claims that are, on the face of it, laughable.” Then we could make a start.

      I have attempted to make a start here. But I really don’t want to gloss over the absurdity of it. A willingness to have an earnest debate over absurd propositions made by people with no coherent arguments just makes the teaching profession look silly. We looked stupid over Brain Gym and we should avoid a repeat performance.

      I must remind you that we are not trying to convert anyone, we do not make exaggerated claims and respect teachers professional choice to use or ignore any strategy or approach they do find effective in their own classrooms.

      Not sure why you are saying this. Obviously some Mantle of The Expert people do make exaggerated claims. Not sure how you can deny that.

      We would never press any teacher to use mantle of the expert,

      As I understand it, it has been made part of the curriculum in at least one school.

      But that’s beside the point. This is an argument which could also be made to argue for Brain Gym.

      I hope that is clear. We have invited you repeatedly to come and share your practice with ours in a spirit of mutual professional dialogue, you have refused each time. This is also unfortunate. The offer is still there.

      I think you may have missed the point of the blogpost. The challenge is to differentiate the case for MoE from the case for Brain Gym. Anything you bring up that doesn’t do that kind of reinforces the point.

      For what it’s worth, I absolutely hate being observed teaching. I am not promoting anything that looks fun or inspiring or makes for a good performance. At times I’ve even advocated continuing an unpleasant war of attrition with a difficult class. I’m not pushing something that looks good, only discussing what works. If I have to justify my ability to teach I’d talk about results, not what my teaching looks like.

      In answer your four questions:

      “Why should students, particularly those who don’t like it, have to do lots of extra drama?” This is a little odd for you. Since when did you start arguing that students’ enjoyment of a strategy was a reliable measure of its efficacy?

      I’ll skip this straw man.

      Have you had a change of heart? I would argue that no student should have to do a lot of extra drama if they don’t like it. My experience over twenty years, however, is that students do like exploring imaginary contexts, so long as they are adequately ‘protected’ into the experience. This is a very tricky part of the approach and something that is easy to get wrong. Many people have had bad experiences of drama at school (and on INSET days) and hate it as a consequence. I considered myself one of those when I first started teaching and needed a lot of convincing and ‘protecting’ before I was persuaded it was something worthwhile. Therefore, I understand your personal reservations and concerns for children’s enjoyment. All I can say is, we never force anyone to join in and it is not a teaching strategy that everyone would want to use.

      So how do kids “opt out” of MoE?

      And this doesn’t seem to have addressed the point.

      “How do you respond to the general discrediting of inquiry/discovery learning from empirical and psychological evidence in the last few
      years?” Two things to say about this. One, mantle of the expert is not ‘discovery’ learning. Heathcote was very critical of that approach. Two, I’m not aware of the ‘general discrediting’ of inquiry learning, could you please provide more information. I’d be happy to discuss it, but I fear we would end up arguing over ontology again and you seem reluctant to engage in that discussion.

      Perhaps you would like to clarify which of the problems with discovery learning and problem-solving don’t apply to “inquiry” learning.

      “Is the role-playing not likely to be a distraction from the learning?” That’s a leading question.

      How should I have phrased it? It seems to fit what I’m asking.

      Firstly, you would have to define role play. I don’t consider mantle of the expert to be role play. And anything that distracts from learning is a very bad teaching strategy.

      Seriously? Almost everything I have read on it describes a process of role-playing. Please elaborate.

      “Where is the evidence for effectiveness which should have been accumulated in the last 30 years?” This is a great question. We would very much welcome more research into mantle of the expert. Unfortunately research is expensive and time consuming. We are involved in an MA course on mantle of the expert organised by Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln and a number of teachers have written dissertations on the approach, there is an archive at Manchester Met of Prof Heathcotes work, including several MPhil and PhD thesis, and there is a growing amount of ofsted related evidence (which is, as you know, problematic). I would be very happy to send you more details if you are interested. What we really need is a university researcher who would be prepared to study mantle of the expert in detail, over time.

      I hope this will be the start of an ongoing conversation between us. I think some of your concerns, particularly over the term ‘expert’, can be easily put to rest, this chapter by Viv Aitken is an excellent introduction http://www.mantleoftheexpert.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/MOTE-Chapter-3_Aitken_Pages-from-Connecting-Curriculum-Fraser-v3-220213.pdf
      Some of your other misapprehensions are understandable, perhaps you would like to come to the weekend course we are running in March, I can send you details if you are interested. Teachers who come seem to find the course useful.

      So far, so Brain Gym.

      In the meantime, can I reiterate that mantle of the expert is an approach, it is not ’the’ answer, still less a magic bullet, but it is a strategy for teaching that some teachers, who have studied it sufficiently, find useful and effective as part of a range of approaches they use in the classroom. We are not trying to convince anyone who does not want convincing and we are not trying to make it ‘trendy’. Perhaps what you are picking up is some excitement among those who find it works. I’m sure this is something you would welcome and enjoy. No one is trying to make you use it.

      This appears to be the “the idea is only X” argument which I mentioned in the blogpost. If all it means is the occasional bit of role-play in primary classes I really don’t mind. When people are describing it as a rebalancing of power in the classroom, saying it’s dangerous and radical, building it into the curriculum for a school, claiming that large parts of school time be spent on it, then it becomes more of a concern. One video promoting MoE even had young children saying how much they preferred to do it instead of reading, as if reading was not a more important part of what primary school children should be doing. As with Brain Gym, how seriously it is taken is what makes it the issue. If the naswer is “not very seriously at all” then fair enough, but that is not what I have found when looking into it and the reaction to my criticisms doesn’t exactly confirm that I’ve read too much into it either.


      • “I wouldn’t have seen it because I have blocked you on Twitter”

        Perhaps you should have waited until we’d discussed moe. Very odd decision. Block me, then make an incendiary remark about something I know a lot about. Sounds strategic.

        “Well, comments here should be fine. I’m not going to feel bad about blocking you, though. It’s a long time since you added anything to the debate other than accusations and complaints.”

        And questions you don’t like answering.

        “I have attempted to make a start here. But I really don’t want to gloss over the absurdity of it. A willingness to have an earnest debate over absurd propositions made by people with no coherent arguments just makes the teaching profession look silly. We looked stupid over Brain Gym and we should avoid a repeat performance.”

        I’ll await you answer then.

        “Not sure why you are saying this. Obviously some Mantle of The Expert people do make exaggerated claims. Not sure how you can deny that.”

        Could you give some examples?

        “For what it’s worth, I absolutely hate being observed teaching. I am not promoting anything that looks fun or inspiring or makes for a good performance. At times I’ve even advocated continuing an unpleasant war of attrition with a difficult class. I’m not pushing something that looks good, only discussing what works. If I have to justify my ability to teach I’d talk about results, not what my teaching looks like.”

        You sound very defensive.

        “So how do kids “opt out” of MoE?”

        I’ve not had any ‘opt out’ once they feel save. But it is a good question. I could spend some time discussing it with you. Are you interested in how the approach works?

        And this doesn’t seem to have addressed the point.

        “Perhaps you would like to clarify which of the problems with discovery learning and problem-solving don’t apply to “inquiry” learning.”

        I’m not making the claim in the blog that they are the same. You first.

        “Seriously? Almost everything I have read on it describes a process of role-playing. Please elaborate.”

        Yes, I’m serious. I could recommend some reading if you’re interested.

        “So far, so Brain Gym.”

        You know that’s not actually an argument, just name calling?

        “This appears to be the “the idea is only X” argument which I mentioned in the blogpost. If all it means is the occasional bit of role-play in primary classes I really don’t mind. When people are describing it as a rebalancing of power in the classroom, saying it’s dangerous and radical, building it into the curriculum for a school, claiming that large parts of school time be spent on it, then it becomes more of a concern. One video promoting MoE even had young children saying how much they preferred to do it instead of reading, as if reading was not a more important part of what primary school children should be doing. As with Brain Gym, how seriously it is taken is what makes it the issue. If the naswer is “not very seriously at all” then fair enough, but that is not what I have found when looking into it and the reaction to my criticisms doesn’t exactly confirm that I’ve read too much into it either.”

        I understand your concerns, but really I think they could be alleviated. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing when you are making such sweeping attacks on people’s work.


        • “I wouldn’t have seen it because I have blocked you on Twitter”

          Perhaps you should have waited until we’d discussed moe. Very odd decision. Block me, then make an incendiary remark about something I know a lot about. Sounds strategic.

          You know, it’s not always about you. Besides, as far as I can tell blocking hasn’t stopped you previously.

          “Well, comments here should be fine. I’m not going to feel bad about blocking you, though. It’s a long time since you added anything to the debate other than accusations and complaints.”

          And questions you don’t like answering.

          Such as? I do try to answer all questions. The problem we seemed to be having is your unwillingness to accept my answers.

          “I have attempted to make a start here. But I really don’t want to gloss over the absurdity of it. A willingness to have an earnest debate over absurd propositions made by people with no coherent arguments just makes the teaching profession look silly. We looked stupid over Brain Gym and we should avoid a repeat performance.”

          I’ll await you answer then.

          To what?

          “Not sure why you are saying this. Obviously some Mantle of The Expert people do make exaggerated claims. Not sure how you can deny that.”

          Could you give some examples?

          Did you read the post? It included: “Through activities and tasks, the children gradually take on some of the same kinds of responsibilities, problems and challenges that real archaeologists, scientists and librarians might do in the real world”

          “For what it’s worth, I absolutely hate being observed teaching. I am not promoting anything that looks fun or inspiring or makes for a good performance. At times I’ve even advocated continuing an unpleasant war of attrition with a difficult class. I’m not pushing something that looks good, only discussing what works. If I have to justify my ability to teach I’d talk about results, not what my teaching looks like.”

          You sound very defensive.

          Thank you for your comments on my tone. You shouldn’t have.

          “So how do kids “opt out” of MoE?”

          I’ve not had any ‘opt out’ once they feel save. But it is a good question. I could spend some time discussing it with you. Are you interested in how the approach works?

          I’m genuinely interested. For instance, in the schools adopting this stuff, is there a classroom where introverts can go and read?

          And this doesn’t seem to have addressed the point.

          “Perhaps you would like to clarify which of the problems with discovery learning and problem-solving don’t apply to “inquiry” learning.”

          I’m not making the claim in the blog that they are the same. You first.

          I’m not making the claim that they are same, just starting from a position where no relevant distinction has been made.

          “Seriously? Almost everything I have read on it describes a process of role-playing. Please elaborate.”

          Yes, I’m serious. I could recommend some reading if you’re interested.

          Is there not a quick explanation as to why you are contradicting everything I’ve read?

          “So far, so Brain Gym.”

          You know that’s not actually an argument, just name calling?

          Eh? It’s a reference to the main point of the blogpost.

          I understand your concerns, but really I think they could be alleviated. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing when you are making such sweeping attacks on people’s work.

          Then why aren’t you alleviating them?


          • I’ve offered Andrew. But I’m not prepared to spend my weekend doing it. I can send you a reading list and you are more than welcome to visit a school close by and/or come on the weekend.

            No one will judge your practice, we’re just interested and you seem certain we’ve got it all wrong despite all our hard work and dedication.

            BTW I can help with the settings for your website so that conversations like this don’t get narrower and narrower, disappearing down the metaphorical rabbit hole.

            Have a good day, I’m off to the Sainsbury’s Centre with my kids :)


  3. It is curious how a lot of these educational theories (I cannot comment on the efficacy of Mantle of the Expert as I have never tried it nor have I heard of any school that has) seem to have, to a certain degree, elements of the “noble savage” about them.

    That the children will become agents of their own learning, finding directions in which their learning will evolve, and thus fulfilling their potential. That the learning that will emerge from such a co-constructivist methodology will be purer, more intrinsic, better understood, etc. etc.

    Hmmm.

    So, tell me, how effective is such an approach in teaching abstract algebra?


    • You would never use it to teach algebra, or phonics or anything else requiring a more direct approach. However, for English, Humanities and Arts learning it’s great. I know of five schools who used it and reported significant improvements in tests, so it can work, but it is highly skilled work and not for the novice.


      • When you say “English, Humanities and Arts” are we including, say, the learning of dates in history, capitals in geography and grammar in English?

        Or are we talking, within this, just a limited subsection of even those subjects?

        It’s not hard to see where role-play might be useful – in drama, say – or why some might have an exaggerated opinion of its importance, but it is far harder to justify making it a massive part of the curriculum which seems to be what is being advocated.


      • Interesting, although one would need to see if the change in attainment was due to the usage of MoE or due to greater attention being paid to attainment, per se. It could very well be that by concentrating on any deficencies that students may have had in itself was the impetus that was needed to raise attainment.

        The idea that it is highly skilled work is, I feel, somewhat subjective. It opens up to the idea that if it does not work, that the fault in its success lies with its implementation, rather than with any intrinsic failings in the methodology itself.


        • And let’s not forget, the test here is not “does it work?” but “can the argument here also be used to justify Brain Gym?”


  4. “I’ve offered Andrew. But I’m not prepared to spend my weekend doing it. I can send you a reading list and you are more than welcome to visit a school close by and/or come on the weekend.”

    Have you read the post? The whole question is whether advocates of MoE can come up with any justification for their claims that Brain Gym advocates couldn’t also use.

    Anything that just demands I investigate apparently absurd claims more closely, is firmly in the same category as Brain Gym advocacy.

    “No one will judge your practice, we’re just interested and you seem certain we’ve got it all wrong despite all our hard work and dedication.”

    The issue is about whether there is any more reason to think you are right than, say, Brain Gym advocates.

    “BTW I can help with the settings for your website so that conversations like this don’t get narrower and narrower, disappearing down the metaphorical rabbit hole.”

    If there’s a setting I can change, please let me know.


  5. In medicine, if patients showed significant rates of recovery after a experiencing a novel, complex treatment and doctors wanted to know exactly which component(s) of the intervention caused the recovery and why, each of the components would need to be tested independently.

    I suspect that there are components of Brain Gym and of MoE that have real, positive effects on some aspects of children’s learning. It doesn’t follow that Brain Gym or MoE as whole approaches are what’s effective, nor that they improve all types of learning, nor that the explanations for their efficacy given by advocates are valid.

    Brain Gym exercises, for example, involve students taking a break from whatever they are studying and doing something that requires physical movement, some concentration but little mental effort. Exactly what most people do, and feel better for, if engaged in long sedentary tasks. The type of movements and Brain Gym’s explanation for them could well be irrelevant.

    I can see how MoE could enhance a student’s ability to see a situation from another perspective – a useful skill. But the way the term ‘expert’ is employed flies in the face of what we know about expertise, and no one appears to have carried out a rigorous evaluation of the efficacy, or the theory underpinning this technique.


    • You are right on all three counts Sue. moe is not a whole curriculum approach, but part of a range of different strategies.

      Any research claiming efficacy would be subject to critical interpretation, this is always the case in the social sciences.

      And if the term was ‘expert’ in regards to the students’ expert knowledge you would be absolutely right. However, Heathcote chose the term ‘mantle of the expert’ with the emphasis on ‘mantle’ rather than expert knowledge. The ‘mantle’ part of the term is in regards to the students adopting the responsibility of experts (within the fiction), the responsibility to learn appropriate information, the responsibility to deal with people with understanding, and respect, and the responsibility to do their work with due regard and diligence.

      The purpose of the ‘mantle’ is not to pretend students know what they don’t (this would be a cargo cult) but to create contexts in which their curriculum learning is purposeful and meaningful, and to engender intrinsic motivation to learn more. It draws heavily on the idea (discussed by Willingham & Hirsch) that stories can help students develop language, knowledge and skills.


    • Interestingly, some medical hospitals use MoE in training doctors.


  6. Thanks for responding, Tim. Although I can see some value in moe, I think Heathcote’s choice of the word ‘expert’ is unfortunate. Moe undoubtedly encourages students to think about situations ‘as if’ they were experts, reveals some misconceptions, and challenges them to extend their mental models of experts’ behaviour – all good things, in my view.

    But that’s not how expertise is acquired. It’s acquired via accumulating and understanding relevant information – usually vast quantities of information, by long periods of watching experts at work, and by applying expertise to a wide range of tasks in the real world. The problem with the imaginative world is that although it can provide valuable insights, it doesn’t have quite the same constraints as the reality that’s out there.

    I’d add that a major problem with research into the efficacy of educational interventions has been that they have been subject to ‘critical interpretation’ rather than rigorous evaluation – the two are very different.

    I attended a ‘progressive’ (and very effective) primary school in the 1960s. The head teacher would have been comfortable with moe – it’s quite possible that she knew Dorothy Heathcote. But there was a clear, explicit, robust rationale underlying the HT’s educational approach – one which I have yet to see set out for moe. The nearest I’ve found is a comment in ‘Pieces of Dorothy’ http://vimeo.com/14360472 that elements of her approach can be seen in ideas such as transactional analysis, neurolinguistic programming and gestalt. Well, of course they can, but those similarities between elements hardly constitute a coherent rationale.


    • Thank you again Sue for your thoughtful comments, I’ll do my best to answer.

      “I think Heathcote’s choice of the word ‘expert’ is unfortunate.”

      It certainly has become a much more loaded term in the last few years. Maybe if she were inventing the name now should use a different one. I prefer imaginative-inquiry, although that is a wider approach than moe.

      “expertise is acquired. It’s acquired via accumulating and understanding relevant information – usually vast quantities of information, by long periods of watching experts at work, and by applying expertise to a wide range of tasks in the real world”

      Agreed. The term is ‘mantle’ of the expert’ not ‘pretending to be experts’, there are no short cuts to expertise, it takes time, study and hard work.

      “The problem with the imaginative world is that although it can provide valuable insights, it doesn’t have quite the same constraints as the reality that’s out there.”

      I agree with this, but it doesn’t have the same dangers either. The imaginary context creates a ‘safe’ environment for students to explore ideas, scenarios and points of view. Similarly, although the ideal would be for students to work in ‘real world’ contexts this is very difficult, time-consuming and expensive to do in reality.

      “I’d add that a major problem with research into the efficacy of educational interventions has been that they have been subject to ‘critical interpretation’ rather than rigorous evaluation – the two are very different.”

      Again I agree. As I said to Andrew, we would welcome more empirical research. Although moe has ‘been around’ for thirty years, it is only very recently started to be used in schools – I would say the last six or seven years. Those schools that use it and invest in training and research have reported encouraging outcomes. I’ve certainly found it very effective. However, I understand that counts for little on Andrew’s Battleground.

      “there was a clear, explicit, robust rationale underlying the HT’s educational approach – one which I have yet to see set out for moe.”

      Heathcote was nothing if not robust about her rationale. However, she had little time for academic theory. during her life time she wrote little about the theoretical underpinning of her work, however, many of her PhD and MPhil students worked on these aspects, I can send you a list of their thesis’ from the Heathcote archive if you are interested. Also, Prof Edmiston (a former student) is writing a book about this and I can put you in touch with him if you want to follow it up.


  7. There is a great clip of Paxman demolishing Brain Gym on YouTube – I think it was Ed Balls who said schools had wasted millions on a load of nonsense – and Ed Balls was never the most insightful of Education Secretaries.
    Mantle – I know very little about – though I do remember somebody explaining it to me and all I could concentrate on was the immense cost of the course!
    That all said – I sort of come back to the range of strategies theme. Take anything to abstraction and it is ridiculous but a little – can be of benefit? ( Which I think may be one of the elephant traps set towards the end of your initial post)


  8. Thank you Tim for your considered and helpful response. I would be interested to know how researchers have approached the theory. You should be able to contact me via my blog.


    • I’ve written a comment on your website. I’d like to thank Andrew for helping us get in contact. That must have something to do with chaos and the process of unintended outcomes.


  9. Experts are also known to have made mistakes – things like saying, in the year 1900, that everything that could be invented was invented, for example. Or using X-rays to get rid of leg hairs – that was such a scientific approach. I don’t think we will be able to avoid such situations, and I think everybody should think for himself/herself a little,not just listen to an expert, regarding any issue.


  10. I think Andrew you are chasing the wrong fox here. When I left the classroom about fifteen years ago it was largely because I could see that technology was going to have a dramatic and haphazard impact on the teaching profession. I decided rather than be on the receiving end: I wanted to be on the production end. I don’t think any of the ideas you refer to would have seen the light of day before the internet made it possible to be an “expert” overnight.

    As I’ve written elsewhere: a…”characteristic of the techno-zealot is their impressive ability to exploit technology to self publicise. The internet especially, has enabled many millions of people to ‘publish’ their thoughts and images on a wide range of websites devoted to sharing or communicating with others. Techno-zealots use modern marketing techniques very adeptly to create an online presence which furthers their cause and publicises their services. Traditional standards of academic process are rarely met. While one would normally expect an educational expert to publish in print, peer reviewed, academic research, a typical guru’s website will point to online writing, video case studies or, at best, print journalism as ‘evidence’ to support their claims.”

    It’s taken almost two decades for professional, skilled teachers to start to challenge the techno-zealot’s huge impact on their work. I’m delighted that at last, I don’t feel like the only one.



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