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The Teaching Cycle

Dorothy Heathcote saw her teaching as a cycle that was always moving from freewheeling play, through a phase of focusing, to rigorous study, to reflection – and back again to play. (See chart.)


In this video, she explains how the process works.

At a teacher training event for the Mantle Network in 2007, she gave this explanation  (below), based on her work with a class of 6/7-year olds on the book Mamo on the Mountain by Jane Kurtz.

Now normally when we start teaching, we try to begin here [in phase 3: rigorous study]. … We begin with arrivals but we’ve had no departures. So they do teacher-driven tasks. And we think they understand. But we need to go back to: what do they think they understand? Before we tell them what we want them to understand.

The Mamo class were in the frame of tapestry designers. They started by looking at colours. The first task was sorting coloured pens and pencils into different boxes. This was phase one: “play.” They then sorted coloured wool. “The talk I’m doing is, ‘If we’re going to try to make some kind of picture on the wall, we’re going to need to know what colours we want.’” There was now a focus, however, on shades of colour:

But the language now is, ‘That looks a bit paler. Would you say that is more a daffodil yellow?’ … And they’re producing vocabulary. They’re still playing with wool… 

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We then get a bit over here [phase 2: focusing]. ‘I tell you what, let’s put all the “spring” colours into one corner, and let’s put all the summer colours in another, the autumn colours and the winter colours.’ Now I’m focusing. Colours can be made to mean.


So you’re always moving from: what socially can they do, and what is interesting them enough to do it, and what result do they get from doing it.

The children then wrote sentences describing the feelings which the seasons bring to mind (or these were scribed by the teachers for them). Next, they produced word lists which were transferred to cards; and they arranged the cards to form a hanging dictionary, for the classroom wall (phase 3).


The series of tasks culminated in the form of a final “publication” which would help the children realise what they have learned (phase 4).

If you want children to understand something and recognise they understand it, which is what they should, if you can make it … you need to be in the number 4 stage of progression.

At the end of a week of working with Dorothy, the children presented a Chamber Theatre version of the Mamo story: "… one of the ways they understand is to perform something. Not by performing a play, but by demonstrating the meaning of something.”


After the performance, parents who were watching were invited to ask questions: “… things like, ‘I don’t understand why Mamo had to go to the king.’ And of course they said, because his sister worked there, and he knew she could feed him. They knew this. I didn’t tell them this. The story that they demonstrated helped them understand it.” [From an unpublished transcript.]

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