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The Iconic, the Symbolic and the Expressive

Dorothy took the terms iconic, symbolic and expressive from the work of Jerome Bruner. She wrote:


“It was ages before I met and instantly recognised Bruner's particularisation of iconic (get the picture); symbolic (shape it in familiar ways of writing and talking it through) before you embark on the expressive (do it now).” (1)

Here is an example, in this video clip about a Mantle set in a horse stables. The “iconic” – for example, large horse-shoe shapes – work with the “expressive” (for example, the teacher “leading in” an imaginary horse), and the symbolic (for example, in a sign on the door: "We run a shire horse breeding establishment”) 

In an interview in 1997 (see second video), Heathcote offered a very clear account of the value of what she called the “iconic” and the “symbolic” in establishing the “world” of the drama. As she states on the video: “You've got to have certain ways of all the class agreeing on things.”


The “iconic system of a plan, a scheme, a map” she suggested, “makes agreement possible.” If you add words, you are adding symbols – for example, “18th century villa, made of brick, with … yew trees.” These elements “create the common knowledge” [in the drama]. She observed, “you've got to establish in the mind’s eye of the children - the drama eye of the children - what is there that is not negotiable.”


In a drama about a monastery, for example, there might be a well marked on a ground plan. This becomes a “non-negotiable” element: “To get from the dormitory to the chapel, look, you go past the well. We now agree, then.”

Dorothy observed:


So if I'm stopping somebody, and saying, “Where are you going, brother? Could you take this message to the Abbot?” [They might reply] “Well, I'm actually not going there. I'm going to the well” – and we all know it's a non-negotiable thing

Dorothy stated that she always knew which “mode” she was using – for example: “I just label it for myself: “Remember, Dorothy, this is going to be handled through symbols - the symbol for the object.”  [or through the iconic, etc.] (2)

You can hear a talk by David Allen on the Iconic, the Symbolic and the Expressive, in the third video.

(1) Dorothy Heathcote on Education and Drama, ed. Cecily O’Neill (Routledge, 2014), p.135.); (2) From the unpublished transcript of an interview with Dorothy, recorded for the What’s in Store Teacher’s Pack, Dudley LEA 1997.

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