Arts: Drama for Learning – Mantle of the Expert makes its Mark

The refugees make their case to the Minister of Immigration.
The refugees make their case to the Minister of Immigration.

By Susan Battye

Against the odds, a drama for learning symposium recently held in the Waikato attracted more than seventy participants on what was the first weekend back into a busy fourth term. Te Aho Tapu-The Precious Threads, was held at the newly built open-plan, Rototuna Junior High School. What made this event unique was not only the fact that the participants came from across the educational spectrum but also that they were all highly enthusiastic about the use of a particular drama based teaching methodology known as Mantle of the Expert.

Dorothy Heathcote in New Zealand


Teachers were keen to share their experiences of working with MOTE or a ‘Mantle’ drama as it is colloquially referred to by teachers and learners alike.  The late, internationally renowned University of Newcastle upon Tyne teacher, Professor Dorothy Heathcote first shared her expertise in the methodology with New Zealand teachers during her visits to New Zealand in 1977 and 1984.  She introduced the notion of drama as a method of learning across the curriculum to hundreds of teachers. She also had a very significant part to play in the development of Drama in the New Zealand Curriculum.

Mounting MOTEs in Schools – An Overview

Dr Viv Aitken

Thanks to the instigator of the symposium, Dr Viv Aitken, the methodology is today alive and well in New Zealand. Whole schools have adopted MOTE and a dedicated group of teachers elected to study with Dr Viv at Waikato University and formed support clusters. What is significant about this work is that whole schools have decided to realign their structures to encourage the use of MOTE.

One such school, Otaika Valley in Northland, recently secured funding from the Teacher Led Innovation Fund (TLIF) to conduct an inquiry into improvements in student achievement, particularly writing, since the introduction of Mantle. The project will be led by Renee Downey, who presented at the symposium

Associate Principal of Omokoroa Point School, Stephen Hall is a case in point. He recalls attending a Curriculum Integration meeting in 2013 where he heard Dr Aitken speak about Mantle of the Expert. Armed with and enthused by a one page handout, Hall returned to school to share his idea with Principal, Vicki Knell how the methodology could be the approach to inquiry learning the school was looking for.

Vicki Knell also praises the methodology. ‘The introduction of Mantle of the Expert across the school has been a journey of discovery. It has provided us with the hook on which to hang inquiry learning.’

During the symposium Knell shared with the group her ideas about what had ‘worked well’ in the school during the implementation of MOTE across the board. First and foremost, the investment from the school’s leaders, accompanied by dedicated paid positions of responsibility, gave the methodology credibility and provoked commitment among the staff.

Rebekah Whyte from Tahatai Coast School, began her ‘Mantle’ journey when she attended a 2012 University of Waikato summer school, run by Dr Aitken.  Whyte subsequently developed a Mantle for a class of five year olds based on and unlikely topic; what has been described as New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster, the Rena ship’s oil spill of October 5 2011 on the Astrolabe reef. No doubt many of the children’s families were personally affected by the disaster.

Whyte found that the MOTE methodology enabled them to come to grips with a topic that was very pertinent to their community. In her workshop she shared ideas about the use of ipads by learners. Whyte said, “I really didn’t know Mantle was mainly used with older children but found out it was great with the early years and is a valuable approach to the curriculum.”

Leslee Allen from Kaurihohore School, a small school of 200 pupils, explained how the whole school works through the Mantle approach.  They are four years into their journey with MOTE dramas which Allen says have transformed their school academic programmes. She described how Mantle has recently re-ignited Maths teaching in a New Entrant classroom.

Working on an extension project, Melissa Tierny, a year 7 Teacher from Mount Maunganui Intermediate School found a way to incorporate Mantle of the Expert into FPS (Future Problem Solving). She sees the methodology as being beneficial to the students’ understanding of the concept of ‘perspective’ and for growing their understanding of the topic.

Tierny said, ‘Although working around the Intermediate curriculum can, at times, prove tricky, it has been well worth the effort.’

Researching Mantle of the Expert in New Zealand

In terms of research in the field of Mantle of the Expert, Dr Viv Aitken pointed out in her keynote address that New Zealand researchers are responsible for almost a quarter of all publications in academic journals. Dr Aitken has personally done a great deal to encourage this development and, thankfully, continues to offer to lead summer schools in the methodology under the umbrella of Waikato University.

Researchers such as Dr Carrie Swanson, a Teaching Fellow at Waikato University, have been able to dig deeper into what makes MOTE work so well in New Zealand schools. Dr Swanson has conducted a mixed method action research study that explored whether Mantle of the Expert could support or constrain the learning of science. The research took place over one term in a Year 7/8 classroom with 29 students, and was co-taught with the classroom teacher. The students were positioned as ‘expert’ scientists re-investigating the science behind the sinking of the Wahine, a major maritime disaster in NZ in 1968. Dr Swanson discovered that the drama framing enabled learners to explore the science concepts of Buoyancy and Stability.

Walking the MOTE Talk at a Symposium

A symposium is not the sort of place where you would expect to find teachers being riveted by an event involving Year 8-10 students taking part in an unscripted drama. However, an exponent of Applied Theatre, Professor Peter O’Connor, had everyone on the edge of their seats as he ‘walked the talk’ in a practical MOTE demonstration with a group of drama students from Rototuna Junior High School. Undaunted by the seventy teachers who surrounded them, the students became willing participants as they explored the harrowing themes contained in an Australian picture book, ‘Home and Away’ by John Marsden and Matt Otley. Set in the future, the book tells the story of a typical Australian family who are forced to flee as refugees when war ravages their country. It is told in first person through 15 year old Toby’s diary entries, making it ideal material for a MOTE drama.

Professor O’Connor became a ‘stern Minister of Immigration’ against whom the ‘refugees’ (students in role) had to argue the case for their friend and family member, Toby. As the students were carefully led through a set of actions they increased their understanding and commitment to resolve the situation.  Practical tasks led to action and vocalisation of their growing courage to stand up to an imaginary system designed to punish defenceless people.

During the drama the students did exactly what Dorothy Heathcote would have called a necessary part of the work. They put themselves in other people’s shoes and as a result were able to reflect on their own learning when it was all over. The students were visibly moved as they expressed their opinions and showed an understanding of more universal themes – the current plight of refugees throughout the world.  There was no doubt that they would never forget what they had experienced that day in the theatre space at Rototuna Junior High School.

Susan Battye is the managing director of Drama Magic Ltd, a former student of Dorothy Heathcote (1978-1979) former Head of Drama at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School, and Programme Manager of the Bachelor of Maori Performing Arts at Te Wananga o Aotearoa. She gained a post graduate Diploma in Drama in Education in 1979, from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne following a year’s study with Professor Dorothy Heathcote. She attended the Te Aho Tapu-The Precious Threads Symposium in October 2016. For more information email or visit

Dr Viv Aitken delivers the next Mantle of the Expert summer school 9 – 13 January 2017 on the Hamilton campus of Waikato University, with enrolments open now. The Masters level paper is suitable for teachers from all sectors. For more information email or visit