Introduction to

The Commission Model:

The Hexham Hospital Garden

“I have a dream that has not yet been realized; I would like students, not to learn what their teachers teach them, but to be people who solve problems in the outside world that their teachers bring to them. The job of school principals should be to go out into the real world and find tasks. I dream of schools working with real tasks, rather than learning about things in class ... This is actually a radical way of learning, I want students to be citizens of the world. The Commission Model brings Mantle of the Expert to the real world.”  - Dorothy Heathcote

(Source: Özen / Adıgüzel)

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In the Commission Model, a real commission from a client - like the designing of a hospital garden -  forms the basis for a programme of teaching. It brings together two things: learning together; and effective participation in society.

 

The system was devised by Dorothy Heathcote. In this introduction, we describe Dorothy's work on a "Commission"; and also outline her two "categories" of commissions.

This Guide to the Commission Model was produced as part of an Erasmus Plus project with partners across the EU.

In 2003, Dorothy wrote:

A year ago Mr Forsey, representing Northumbria Health Authority, who are currently building a new NHS hospital in Hexham, approached Diane Harris, deputy head of the Queen Elizabeth High School. He enquired whether students from the school would be responsible for designing the hospital garden to be used by patients, staff and visitors when all is completed in 2004. Thus I was given the opportunity to try out a system of teaching I have called “The Commission Model”.

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This commission model provides a sense of authenticity and responsibility for students, for there are clients to be consulted and their precise needs to be taken into account. The final outcome must then be “published” in whatever form the commissioners decide. [Source: Vision]

 

The “commission” in question involved a team of nine teachers. They brought different skills and offered different kinds of input; they were from Psychology, Drama and Theatre, English, Biology, Classics, Geography and Physical Education. There were 34 student volunteers of mixed ability from Year 9.

The “curriculum” emerged from the commission itself – as the team considered what they would need to know, to research, to define, in order to fulfil the “brief.” This included the biology of plant growth, creating a scale model, reading hospital plans and evaluations, etc. 

This is how Dorothy describes the way the commission team operated when they met:

 

We worked in the drama room using moveable tables and chairs and wall blackboards. Our equipment was the usual paper, pens, card and students’ pencil cases with access to the biology lab and computer room, when there was space, plus the rostra, costume box and lights. These, then, were the conditions. [Vision]

 

(To find out about how Dorothy integrated drama into this “real-life” commission, see here.)

Finally, the team shared their garden plans with a hospital committee made up of senior medical staff and site engineers.

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The Landscape Architect for the garden, John Goodfellow, stated that the final design concept drew heavily on the work carried out by the children. Gibby Raine worked with Dorothy Heathcote on the project. This is what she says about the experience:

I was part of DH's research project for the Commission Model and saw for myself how transformative the work was in shifting the role of the child in the classroom and the positive impact it had on their learning and their social skills. Our project involved designing a garden for the new hospital that was being built in our community. DH led the work and Gavin Bolton recorded it.

It felt as if she had shown me how to support the students to plough a furrow; hard going at first, time-consuming, but ultimately liberating for them and for me as a teacher. Once they were off, there was no holding them back. I observed children who saw themselves as "slow learners" grow in confidence, and some who were used to cruising begin to practice different ways of thinking which excited them. Best of all, the ones who tended not to be noticeable were offered structures and roles which allowed them re-position themselves in the group to everyone's benefit.

I was a fairly new out of the box teacher who felt frustrated by her methods initially. It seemed she was re-inventing the wheel. Then the penny dropped. That's exactly what she was doing. I soon realised that what I had been teaching was a subject, and that she was showing me was how to teach people - the teaching network was just as important as physical resources. The teacher has to be prepared to become a learner/colleague. There lies the opportunity to offer an integrated learning experience that feels like part of the world the students need to operate in when they leave school.

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Maths, science, art, music, languages; all the domains can made available to everyone and a context is offered which makes everyone feel that they have integrity, and are a tiny but invaluable part of the big picture.

 

Gibby has given us a booklet produced for the project which includes handwritten notes from Dorothy, and examples of students’ work. The cover states:

… out of the old garden, a growing future … begun in Queen Elizabeth High School, Hexham, to serve all who may use it …

Types of Commission

 

"There are literally thousands of commissions waiting to be taken up so that schools and community become more and more and interdependent." (Dorothy Heathcote)

Dorothy envisages two types of commission that schools could undertake: commissions within school; and from the community.

​​1. COMMISSIONS WITHIN SCHOOL

These are commissions invented by teaching staff to serve specific purposes related to the curriculum; this need not involve working with outside agencies. This is Dorothy’s example:

 

A simple commission may be a request for a clippy mat, or collage, to be used by a nursery class. This would have to be introduced in a realistic believable way to a group of children who need measuring, designing vocabulary skills as well as opportunity to share and collaborate. ... You don't need a lot of imagination to see how this commission will yield curriculum work in number, measuring accurately, designing textures, designing ... [etc.] [Source: Contexts]

2. COMMISSIONS FROM THE COMMUNITY

 

Groups and organisations in the community act as “commissioners.” These might include: museums; charities; libraries; businesses, etc. Here is an example:

 

… a piece of derelict land was transformed when a head teacher out in her car … saw the site as a possible play area where none existed. … This area is now a children's playground, and some low maintenance gardens with benches made with local gifts and contributions from gardeners plus a dog walking area and dog bins. … There are many such examples about where someone sees a need and facilitates change based upon local ideas and energy. [Source: Contexts]

For Dorothy, a hot air balloon best illustrates the Commission Model: 

"The basket supports the human energy which produce the power to sustain and guide the enterprise. It contains and limits but clearly defines the parameters of the enterprise. The strings supporting the basket to the canopy are the skills and knowledge and conviction which drive the process towards its conclusion. These will be many and various strands which are carried upwards and collected in the canopy driving the work forward to its destination." [Source: Contexts]

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​Sources of quotes: “A Vision Possible” by Dorothy Heathcote. In: Drama Vol. 11 No.1. 

“Contexts for Active Learning." In: Dorothy Heathcote on Education and Drama: Essential Writings, ed. Cecily O'Neill. (Routledge 2014). 

Özen / Adıgüzel: "Dorothy Heathcote’s Creative Drama Approaches" by Zeki Özen and Ömer Adıgüzel. In: Creative Drama Journal, 2010, Vol. 5, Issue 9/10.