Pandora’s Box: cooperative learning in collaborative learning

Continuing our thread on good teaching in a perhaps less than good setting as well as our discussion on collaborative vs. cooperative learning; an engaged and engaging colleague from a local school has recently pointed me towards one of the more potent alternative forms of collaborative learning that may be snuck into the ordinary classroom without rocking the boat; the student-centered dramatic-inquiry-based approach to teaching Mantle of the Expert created by Professor Dorothy Heathcote’s back in the eighties.

A brief outline of Mantle of the Expert

It casts teacher and students in fictional roles in which students are “endowed” as experts in a specific field, inverting the typical teacher-to-student model of teaching by allowing the students to dictate their learning and educational process through creative drama. The students might be scientists in a laboratory or archaeologists excavating a tomb. Through activities and tasks, the children gradually take on some of the same kinds of responsibilities, problems and challenges that real archaeologists and scientists might do in the real world.

The following is a exemplary MoE lesson plan called Mountain Rescue Planning by Tim Taylor, taken from It presents a situation where the students run a mountain rescue operation and must save the life of a lone climber who has injured his leg traversing a steep peak high above the snow line. The MoE framework breaks into four basic stages:

  1. Background – establishing a context through questions such as “How do extreme environments affect humans and mammals?”
  2. Field of Expertise – including high-level communication skills such as talking to people who may be injured & distressed and ability to read & interpret maps & understand geographical features & their implications.
  3. Client(s): climbers, and hikers, skiers,who need rescuing, media wanting information, etc.
  4. Commision(s):  To plan, organise & execute a rescue, give advice & help preventing avalanches, advice on suitable climbing materials & equipment.

(The full lesson plan may be downloaded here: Mountain Rescue Planning)

Mantle & Cooperative Learning

In a previous post we defined Cooperative Learning as an “educational approach that emphasizes teacher involvement in setting goals and determining activities” vs. Collaborative Learning as “the passing of more control of learning to the students.” Clearly Mantle falls under the Collaborative Learning category, in the sense that it is based on roles rather than structured patterns to guide student interaction, and thus goals and activities are less controlled.

However, the structured approach to Cooperative Learning fits into the collaborative meta-frame of MoE just as well as it does in the “normal classroom,” and it adds no less value to the lesson; picking one of many examples, the discovery exercises lend themselves to such classics as Think-Pair-Share (group level) or Grab1Partner (class level – thoroughly discussed in-depth in July’s newsletter eCL#1.)

For a higher level thinking question such as “What can we learn from investigating these people & their work, which will help us to live successful lives?” Think-Pair-Share is an ideal way of reflecting on and discovering through discussion different takes on the objectives of learning, personal values and human qualities. The TPS shell is simple: In teams of four (two pairs), students are given a specified amount of time to first individually reflect and draw notes on the question, then discuss these reflections with their partner, together discovering new angles and aspects to them, and finally, as a pair, present their common findings to the other pair in a full-group discussion. Here the whole team works out one or more answers to the posed question that they wish to present to the class – possibly along including arguments for their choice and insights arrived at along the way. 

For simpler questions, such as How do extreme environments affect humans and mammals?” – which may be whittled down to simple lists depending on Key Stage – a shell such as Ping-Pong-Pair might be more suitable. In Ping-Pong-Pair two students, using only one pen and one piece of paper take turns noting down an answer as quickly as possible, pushing the paper back and forth between them (adding a 30 second time frame can make this quite entertaining for some learners!); “freeze to death – drown in waterfall – fall through ice – avalanche…”. Note that competition between partners, pairs, or teams may be used as an incentive, and that Ping-Pong-Pair may be integrated into the Pair-stage of Think-Pair-Share, where the Share stage in the group might weed out oddities (Sharks aren’t environment, Karen! – They are, too!” – Wait you two, environment is defined as…)

Pandora’s box

The point of thinking two layers of CL is simple: the very open framework of MoE potentially opens the door to what I call  “chaotic group work” where weak or disengaged students are let off the hook or pushed aside by the stronger students, or the whole team spins off-task ending up with meager or no results. By using shells such as Think-Pair-Share, the teacher is certain that all students are individually accountable while equally and simultaneously participating; Thinking alone, all students are busy preparing a presentation expected by their partner within the next few minutes; when discussing it in Pairing, they need each other to agree on common solutions they wish to bring the the other pair, and finally, in the Sharing, they work together to re-vet, re-frame and re-phrase their own and their partner pair’s reflections to create a synergistic solution.

An interesting theme for my next Newsletter would be a full Mantle of the Expert lesson plan with full Cooperative Learning integration, much akin to the CELTA Functional Language Lesson Plan in the eCL#2 article “The Teacher is a Ghost.”

*) described by the author of Cooperative, Collaborative and Group Work,



Filed under CL definitions and terminology, Cooperative Learning, get started with CL, integration, other teaching methods

5 responses to “Pandora’s Box: cooperative learning in collaborative learning

  1. Pingback: Collaboration is officially the future paradigm of education |

  2. Here are an MoE teacher’s thoughts …….
    The first section, where you describe MoE and give Tim’s Mountain Rescue example,is spot on.The next part, where you talk about the potential for chaotic learning, I find more difficult. I think that many people have this misconception about MoE – I know this through having done a lot of training with teachers across the country. It is very understandable, when you first start to get to grips with the system and is often the first pertinent question people ask. Your description of systems such as talking partners and pair / share might be one of many ways in which the freedom of ideas and co-construction are channelled. However, the dramatic conventions devised by Dorothy, also serve this purpose and MoE only works when you have the understanding to use these skillfully. Her conventions (which are genius!) serve to slow down or hold moments of deep significance in the drama and to channel what might potentially be open floodgates of ideas (dominated by more confident children) into an understanding that is carefully woven together by the teacher using every member (as much as possible) of the group. For me, the bringing in of those ‘children on the edge’ who might opt out or be lost in the ‘potential chaos’ is one of the key things that MoE is able to do through the conventions and the understanding of the teacher of how to truly co-constuct the learning with ALL the children.
    Therefore, although the use of systems you suggest is useful (as it would be in all good teaching), it is not crucial. There are lots of other ‘drama for learning’ strategies we also use e.g. thoughts behind a character, rituals, collective voice, collective drawing, still images etc etc. All these serve to slow the pace, dwell on significant moments, draw in all members of the learning community and, crucially to use all their skills. It is therefor a truly inclusive way of working which is actually carefully and skilfully constructed to avoid chaotic learning within which some children might become lost.

  3. northgate

    we had some teachers giving MOE a go in my previous school, but they found especially SEN difficult and certainly didnt find the narrative drama of the project could hold the attention of every kid all at once – some would always go aff on a tangent. Itd be great to get some vid links or such showing MOE work live. Good article – good blog, politics interesting but disappointing if ones looking fr resources. Just a note

  4. Pingback: Margin notes; a Cooperative Learning gloss on a MoE case study |

  5. Pingback: Pair-Sharing; Ping-Pong with Derek the Nazi |

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