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"The Crisis Around the Corner"

Dorothy Heathcote stated that, in Mantle of the Expert, there is always a “crisis around the corner”. Arguably, this is a key element that is missing in our understanding of Mantle.

She argued:

What you must not think, is that Mantle of the Expert doesn't get exciting; because as soon as people are fulfilling the task role and their occupations - you see them walking tall, and they’re busying about things … Well, once they get there, that's when you want the adventures of the first kind of drama [i.e. “process” drama] .

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The difference is this:

The drama of the storyline or the drama of the episode without the Mantle of the Expert commitment actually bases itself on the ability of children to express feeling. Mantle of the Expert bases itself in the expression of responsibility that breed[s] feeling. So all you're doing is just going one stage back. The responsibility breeds feeling/ That's why a child will say: “I'm sorry, I haven't time. Don’t you realise I'm operating?” And here I am, properly told off. “Sorry, sir, but there is a water problem. There will be no more water in the theatre.” “Well, get some!” And the person is operating from a feeling base - which is our gift of life, of course. So we always go through b to a.

She used the example of a Mantle about a safari park – and a “crisis” about a rogue elephant. Once the “responsible team” has been established,


that's when you introduce your crises. And the crises are going to be the most exciting in terms of: each crisis is going to challenge the children at a different level, according to what you want them to learn. So you're not losing what you want them to learn. You're saying: if they deserve a rogue elephant, how may I structure the way the thing is inducted, so that they stumble upon these skills, or understand them?

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Now, the rogue elephant is a beautiful example of helping children learn to wait. They can't dash in there and just go careering all over the jungle, because their stature of responsibility tells them it's not on. Learning to stalk. Learning to pass verbal messages out of sight of people through an intercom system of one sort or another. Learning to report back to headquarters precisely what they're seeing. Learning to be quiet when somebody else is trying to report back. These are all the skills possible to be experienced, and therefore developed, because the rogue elephant insists that you care.


That's why it has to be big. It's no good looking for a little white rat. Because the rogue elephant produces formality. You can't argue with a rogue elephant; so you’d better do something else.

Choosing and letting yourself be led up to the precise moment that is earned out of waiting, when the dart can be fired to tranquillise the rogue elephant. Nobody knows whose responsibility that will turn out to be. You can hold time back into experience, because of the massive problem of the rogue elephant.

Source: video recording, H.D.T.A. 24.5.85.

We may identify (broadly) two types of ‘crisis’ in MoE:


  1. A challenge to the team's own values and practices (e.g., a company of leather-makers, producing quality hand-made goods, faces the problem of changing to mass production)

  2. Dealing with a challenge or crisis affecting others (e.g., passengers in a plane crash)


In 1981, the BBC produced the TV series Teacher, showing Dorothy working with a group of primary school pupils. The context which she chose was a firm of leather-makers. The group chose a name for the enterprise: Blackley and Broadene: Makers of Fine Leather — a name which suggests an old-established business, with a reputation for quality.


Early in the project, Heathcote established the daily routine for the ‘firm,’ stressing the need to maintain ‘standards’ (‘... because we are quality workers, aren't we?'). At the same time, she began sowing seeds for later developments (the ‘crisis around the corner’); for example, on Day Two, she asked them if they thought the development of the microchip would affect leather-making; they insisted that it wouldn’t. Heathcote responded: 'The thing is, lads and lasses, are you prepared to change with the times, is what I say?'

Interviewed for the programme, she noted that the children had quickly developed a strong affiliation with the company; and she wanted, then, ‘to test this sense of how workers can feel quite broken up, when they've felt they belong to a firm they've understood, and suddenly the firm seems to have new ideas'. She assumed a new role, as the company accountant, who announced that she had been brought in to put the company on a sound financial footing, which would require mechanisation of the production process.  She assured the ‘staff’ that they would still be ‘in total charge of the button pressing operation’, and would use their ‘craftsman’s eye’ to monitor the quality of work produced.


The pupils’ shocked reaction to this new development was visible in their faces. The ‘crisis’ was a direct threat to the values of the enterprise that had been so carefully bred into the group. One boy said to the ‘accountant’: ‘Why does there have to be change?’


What Dorothy did next was designed to lead towards reflection. On the final day of the project, the group were confronted by a number of questions that Heathcote had written on the blackboard, under the heading, 'Work, a thinking room' – for example:


Why do we work? Do people have to work?

Why do conditions change?

What is work?

Can we learn from the past?

The children each chose a question, and copied it onto a piece of paper; then, the papers were pinned to their backs. As they worked again at sewing their leather goods, Dorothy assumed the role of an anxious mother, concerned about the future employment prospects for herself and her son, and seeking advice. She went round to different children as they worked, to talk to them, basing her questions on the lines written on their backs.

You can watch all 4 episodes of the Teacher series here.

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