Building Blocks

Dorothy Heathcote stated that building blocks “are discrete units of the teacher’s methodology which will always be present no matter what is actually happening in the lesson”. Identifying and defining the building blocks is essential in working in Mantle, and other drama systems.

In this section we look at some of the building blocks, including “the two concepts central to all drama praxis, the deliberate harnessing of sign to create significance , and the establishing of frame". Click here to go to the relevant pages:




We will add more "building blocks" shortly

In 1996, an Interactive Research Conference was held at the University of Central England (now BCU), to look at Dorothy’s approach to drama education. The conference itself was given a fictional context: the idea was that delegates were preparing a bid for a Millennium grant, to found a new school based on Dorothy’s work. At one point, Dorothy spoke to delegates – not as herself, but in role, as a kind of “Head Teacher in waiting” for the proposed school. She introduced “today’s exercise” for delegates - to define the “basic building blocks” of this approach to education.


(In her role as “Head,” Dorothy could refer to “Mrs. Heathcote” in the third person, as if she was a partner in the “project” who could not, alas, be with us in person at the conference. This also meant she could make a few jokes at her own expense...)

… I asked Mrs. Heathcote if she would give me a few building blocks that she felt would be rather relevant to this Millennium proposal; and of course, in her usual ham-fisted way, she sends them in scribbled. However, she has offered a few. I would simply flash them before your eyes for moment, she won't mind; just to give you a hint of this. For example, she believes in planning in detail. If you do good to someone, you must do it in minute particulars, she said - a particularisation of what is required at any moment, she said.

She believes very much in entering the students into the work through a “corridor” which at once limits and deepens the possibility; a frame of reference from which they will discover the learning they are about to undertake.

Take away the pupil dependency, she said. I don't quite understand it, but that's what she said. She said, there are many kinds of talk that vary “time”: the “now” time, the “contemplative” time (“Supposing…”, I wonder…”), and so on.

And I only offer these, as you know.

This is a strange one: the concept of “banking.” I didn't understand that she ever did anything about money. However, it seems to be to do with what a teacher keeps in their “bank,” and she actually said it could be reference notes, papers, resources, all their realisations that they must constantly deal with. The notion of banking rather appeals to us, of course.

And then she started on about publishing. Students must publish. Constantly, their material must be available to others - I don't say polished up, but considered more deeply, and presented in all kinds of ways. They are just a few…

As the “Head Teacher,” Dorothy then asked Gavin Bolton if he could suggest any possible “building blocks.”

I'm a drama specialist, so I only know about drama; and one of the things I'm interested in, in drama teaching, is those moments when the teacher who's moved the children into the “now” time, deftly moves out of it into teacher narration. Those kind of things where you want to create an atmosphere that perhaps has been absent from their “now” time; and build it by your own narration as a teacher. And you’ll find yourself saying , “And as they waited outside the castle, they stood there petrified. Who might come from that castle door?” It seems to me an essential building block is this moving from drama into narration. And it may be not to create atmosphere, but it may be to upgrade something you've already seen them doing. And by mentioning it in your subsequent narration, you make what they have done suddenly important. Now, I'm interested in understanding how you can get a teacher to know the ways of effectively making what children do important. 

Still in role, Dorothy commented:

Mr. Bolton's “narrative time” would be an addition Mrs Heathcote doesn't understand very well. She didn't put it on her list before; so along with “now” time, “contemplative” time and so on, “narrative time” would very, very well fit there, when we come to consider teachers learning their skills.

Interrogating the World

Groups at the conference presented their ideas for “building blocks.” This was Dorothy’s response to one group’s work:

It seems to me what you're exemplifying there is the notion that children should interrogate the world; and that possibly the teacher then has a new view of how to present material, what material to present, in what way to present it, so that they shall interrogate constantly the world.

The trouble is, when you work with children in that way, they become very difficult for teachers who want them not to ask any questions. And one of your problems then - your colleagues, then: “These kids are worse for working with you!” - and you're supposed to be the one that's taming them and, you know, whipping them in.

And this will be a basic difference in our school. Instead of information given, there will be puzzles of all kinds, carefully presented so that interrogation is not a game only, but a fruitful exploration that builds better, more detailed, more understood and comprehended interrogations. ‘Cos it seems to me I live my life that way. I'm constantly interrogating things, whether it's a novel I'm reading, a painting I'm looking at, material I’m choosing, or children I’m teaching. And maybe interrogation is really one of the important building blocks …

The keys are given, but we don’t know which door. In working with children, we give them the keys to start to cope, but we don't know what will be behind the door they find, in that sense, of their understanding.

[From an unpublished transcript of the Interactive Research Conference. Photos from the 1996 event.] 


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