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Dorothy Heathcote saw “keying” as a “most important, high skill” for teachers. This is an explanation she gave at a teacher training event in 1992:

I don’t know how familiar you are with [Erving] Goffman’s theory about keying, that in the real world, we key ourselves in when we meet a circumstance. I mean if somebody came in now, they would immediately run through their past experience and key themselves in to what is going on here.


And they’d say, from their past experience, probably – "Well, it’s some sort of consultative situation, and there’s some sort of person holding the floor. They then might have to run through a secondary list which is to do with mood. Is she really telling them off? … Is she giving instruction?" … 

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Now when you set up a drama, you are creating an other circumstance, totally artificially, yet based upon natural behaviours of the people in the room …

So keying is necessary to set up or introduce the situation, and “get into the action”. She used the following example of what she called “direct keying”. At one point at the event, it happened by chance that she walked into a room, followed by a cat.

She considered how she might use this if it occurred when she was working with a group on a drama, to key them into a situation. The cat could not be ignored, because it was now “a feature of the signing in the room”.  If, for example, she was working on a drama set in WWII, she might say to the group, “They do say that the Germans have been using transmitters…”

… and the actual gift of it: he’s got a collar on, and it’s got a bloody bell on. … That’s an example of very direct keying. But you see, “They do say” is ambiguous; “the Germans are using transmitters” doesn’t say anything about cats.


It’s your eyes, the secondary sign that does it. And that is what drama is, all the time.  The Gestalt element: there’s a gap left, that other people fill, all the time. (1)

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(Source: unpublished transcript of training event for teachers - Video series D2, Birmingham City University archive)


“The hole in the pocket” – “keying” as a way into a new topic

Keying may be used to key a group into a drama - but Dorothy also saw it as a way to introduce a topic, without the usual "teacher talk" and "teacher telling." She gave the following example:

This was used when I had to begin … I'd got to do the Gresford disaster, the coal disaster. And I'm thinking, “I don't know - these children are the sons and daughters of miners, and I am not. How can I get to the very beginning of it?” 

She used an image – with four captions: “The hole in the belly, the hole in the castle wall, the hole in the pocket, the hole in the ground.”

So I drew these [images], only I didn't do them on a blackboard. You've to imagine a very long piece of paper … with lots of pens.

And the statement I'm making, which is the key - and I want to say it exactly as I said it: “I don't know which of these have most affected people round here.”


Now, this keying has to go with that [image]. That is a long scroll. I am walking past it, paying a lot of attention to it, demonstrating a kind of casualness, but I'm drawing people passed it, to want to see what's at the other side. My tone has to do that.

And I had no idea what they would do. The pens are there, and I mustn't decide in advance what I want them to do. My second statement, you see, is a further keying: “I expect we'll all think of examples, for good or ill, where ‘holes’ have altered things.”

Now, those are two quite subtle statements. The first is: “I don't know which of these” - “Notice all four,” is what I'm saying - “have most affected people round here.” “You’re the experts.” “Round here” is a local way of saying things, isn't it – “round here.” I'm an outsider, I don't know. So I thought that one up quite carefully, but intuitively of course, and when I hear it in my head I know if it’s right …

And then; “I expect we'll all think” – not, “You will all think.” It's not an order. “I expect we'll all think of examples, good or ill.” “Ill” is definitely chosen - not “good or bad”. Because “bad” is about naughtiness, but “ill” has dimension to it. “Good or ill, where holes have altered things” – “altered things” is one of those homely things again: “round here,” “altered things.”

 [Musingly] “The hole in the belly, the hole in the castle wall, the hole in the pocket, the hole in the ground. You do just wonder which has most altered things round here.” They went straight for “the hole in the ground.” They wrote more events about holes in grounds that had altered things - mining disasters, and so on.

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Holes in pockets they knew went with holes in the ground, because often there’s been terrible poverty and strife; so holes they put together: holes in the ground lead to holes in the pockets; holes in the belly go with holes in pockets - because they interpreted it as a hunger. And I knew it could be either: the hole in the belly through going through the castle war to fight, or the hole in the belly ‘cos there’s a hole in the pocket ‘cos there's a hole in the ground you’re not dealing with at the moment, you see.

Now that is an elaborate keying, because it gives time, but it's full of dimension possibilities. And it seems simpler to say [in a usual teacher way]: “Of all these four things, which do you think has most affected Ashington?* The hole in the belly, the hole in the” - nobody can retain that. It doesn't reverberate, it doesn't resonate; and it doesn't invite modification, because you can't put a pen on a mouth [as you can on paper]. So much of our dimension learning comes when the mouth, the image, the icon, and the symbol, come together. And this is your craft. This is the craft of teaching.

[* She means Gresford.] Source: “Rolling Role and the National Curriculum” video series (1993), Tape 3 (University of Newcastle)

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