What to do about D&T? - RSA

What to do about D&T?

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  • Design

David Barlex FRSA argues more needs to be done to bring designerly skills to the classroom following a recent RSA event on the challenges facing design and technology teaching in schools.

At the recent RSA event Art, Design and Bad Science John Miller asked what is wrong with Design and Technology (D&T) teaching in schools. In an accompanying paper he argued that practice does not live up to the good intentions of the original National Curriculum Orders or the considerable rhetoric that has followed.

There has in fact been no shortage of good ideas concerning practice, many from the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) community. But as most of these have not had much in the way of influence on practice, their absence from John’s paper should be forgiven. The rationale for D&T as a subject in the school curriculum is important. I am really impressed by the rationale that sees design and technological activity as a unique feature of human behaviour.

This was eloquently expressed by Jacob Bronowski in the TV series and book The Ascent of Man: "Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts, which make him unique among animals; so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape - he is a shaper of the landscape… The hand is the cutting edge of the mind. Civilization is not a collection of finished artefacts; it is an elaboration of processes. In the end the march of man is the refinement of the hand in action."

I see the role of D&T as providing pupils with the experience of their hands being the cutting edge of their minds and a sense of what it means to be a shaper of the landscape. This is D&T‘s unique contribution to education. But it is quite clear that for many teachers the subject has lost its way for a number of reasons.

First, the ‘race to the bottom’ caused by the way examining bodies have reduced assessment demand. Second, the limiting nature of the examining body set controlled tasks that have replaced projects based on pupil choice. And third, the pressure to achieve ever improving A* – C grades at GCSE preventing teachers encouraging pupils to take the risks required for creativity.

Add to the above that most teachers have had minimal experience in service training and that new entrants to the profession, despite the best efforts of the ITE community, make little impression on prevailing practice. So we have a situation in which the nature and legitimate aspirations of D&T soon evaporate.

So what is to be done? Whilst it is important to acknowledge the weaknesses in prevailing practice the discussion should move into the territory of identifying ways to improve the situation and the means to put these into effect. A start to this process would be for the RSA to host a subsequent event: What to do about D&T? A key focus should be on how we develop models of designerly behaviour that can be adopted by pupils in school in their D&T lessons. Where might such models be found? Clearly professional practice is one important source; consideration of how professional designers do what they do is essential to inform D&T practice. The work of the ITE community could also make a significant contribution alongside the views and practices of teachers. The role of the Design & Technology Association in developing and supporting good practice is important. What do others think?

David taught in comprehensive schools for 15 years achieving head of faculty positions in science and design and technology before taking university positions in teacher education. He directed the Nuffield Design & Technology Project and was Educational Manager for Young Foresight. You can find out more about David on LinkedIn or email him directly at [email protected]

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    With the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review having
    cast a warning shot across the bows of D&T as a future compulsory National Curriculum
    subject the time has now come for those who believe in the importance of the
    subject to refine and distil its essence into a coherent ‘powerful knowledge’
    curriculum proposal.

    John Miller clearly points out key underlying reasons for
    the subject hiatus, which have been further exemplified by the blog
    comments.  David Barlex gives weight to the rationale that sees design and technological
    activity as a unique feature of human behaviour.  But we need to move on from painting
    grandiose philosophical statements to defining hard edged detail of curriculum
    experiences and meaningful assessment procedures, which will realise the vision.

    We have a subject which clings
    to the traditions of the 60s and we need to embrace new technologies which will
    drive our engineering and scientific endeavour for the future.  It should be possible to define subject
    knowledge related to materials, structures and control systems and to link this to designerly
    learning processes to achieve the ‘powerful knowledge’ expectations of
    the Expert Panel.

    Tim Lewis gives reference to the excellent work of the
    D&T Association which has included promoting new initiatives through its
    Digital Design and Technology and STEM Teacher Education programmes. Raising
    the profile of D&T through the ‘We Believe in D&T’ campaign has been a crucial step.

    Now is the time for all believers, industrialists and
    educators, to put flesh onto the D&T curriculum bones before the subject is
    consigned to a Basic Curriculum graveyard plot.

  • My experience suggests that there are a host of issues that mean D&T has a huge hill to climb. From what I have seen in schools, we have outstanding teachers and we have teachers who rely on the projects of yesteryear. As a HoD, I find it hard to keep up with the cost of better provision, which more often than not is the first excuse given for not moving forward, right behind the lack of in service training. Whole boroughs of teachers used to meet and share best practice, today its hard for D&T staff to place a finger on what we truly have intellectual ownership of in the national curriculum. Speaking to a science teacher about a D&T lesson was a revelation recently for myself. Just how much is duplicated is amazing. But we can't be the subject for sticking wood together, we have excellent CAD/CAM, concept development, research and user focused skills sets that are unique to the subject, and some of the best teachers are matching the needs of universities and providing talented designers and engineers for their courses. The link with industry is blurred, and perhaps we have lost our way as a collective group, but there is clearly a need for a uniformed move forward. So many of us are reinventing the wheel week in week out, yet other departments in my school have the leisure of being creative and dynamic in their curriculum, because what they deliver week in week out is so solid. I hope that collectively, the best of the best in our subject get together, shape our curriculum, and give D&T the position to demand the respect we appear to have lost along the way.

  • I am alarmed at the level of ignorance over who really teaches what and when. The reviewers clearly do not understand the subject of D&T or its content. As a senior manager of a large technology department I rejoice in the return each year of students after their first year at university studying design and engineering related subjects. They recount how well they are coping with workshops, the design challenges and CAD situations set and how well their KS3, 4 and A levels prepared them.
    Science has kept its head down by not owning up to not teaching electronics and systems control and the level to which they now teach mechanisms.
    The exam boards have a lot to answer for, their dumbing down and attempts to homogenise the coursework element through ‘easy to mark’ controlled assessment and exam questions has begun to stifle creativity. Thank goodness they have not done so (yet?) at A level where students are still able to be creative. The impact of controlled assessment is starting to show though with students lacking confidence to make mistakes and extend their capabilities beyond the ‘comfort zone’ of GCSE assessment, hoops and all!
    As Tim says there are some outstanding examples of good practice in D&T and yes some poor ones too, show me a subject where this is not the case! The raising of standards through sharing best practice and training is the way forward, not the side lining of a subject so critical for a thriving and diverse economy. We must ensure that a gap in the experience of policy makers does not become a chasm in education of all. The challenge is there, lets step up to it as a subject community!

  • Having read John Miller’s recent RSA pamphlet 'What's Wrong With DT?' I agree with David Barlex that the RSA could balance the equation with an event  ‘What to do about D&T?’ thus  giving the D&T teaching profession and associates the opportunity demonstrate that there has been considerable change both in subject development and pedagogical practice during the last 20 years. Much of this has been done with help and guidance of both the D&T Initial Teacher Education (ITE) profession and particularly the Design and Technology Association. In my view we need a more balanced picture of  D&T in our schools. My experience of visiting schools as a D&T teacher educator is that variation in practice is considerable. However, I have seen many examples of excellent practice as well as teachers working in impoverished conditions trying to implement a curriculum constantly under review, and subject to many external pressures. An example of these pressures is that during this year of the 14 schools visited 9 have taken on BTEC courses in subjects such as  child care and engineering in addition to their work in D&T. In most cases this has been the result of pressure from senior management in schools.
    During the last 10 years I have also observed both science and mathematics lessons and, while not an expert in these subjects, I can say that there is a similar variation in practice. However it is clear these subjects are what could be referred to as part of the ‘protected curriculum’. Periodically they endure critisism but usually the result is massive amounts of funding to provide development in an effort to bring about change. Because these subjects are ‘protected’ they seem to escape the pressures exerted on D&T. As John Miller recognises  D&T is a relatively new subject within the curriculum yet it exists in a world of change associated with any subject involving materials, technology and manufacturing. Sadly, I have watched physics lessons that were similar to those I experienced at school. No change in subject or pedagogy. The D&T lessons I observe are very different to woodwork lessons that were part of my education.
    Rightly John Miller recognises the ‘demanding semi-industrial environment’ of D&T and ‘ the difficulties of keeping 20 students on task ‘. Two weeks ago I observed a lesson with twenty seven 12/13 year old pupils   - yes -  they were all kept ‘on task’. All were engaged on demanding designing and making activities.     
    Finally, my recent experience of working alongside industrialists and business people implementing new education initiatives is that they are knowledgeable about D&T and appreciate the value it has in the education of young people. So we know there are weaknesses in D&T and, understand that we need to address these, but we need to do it in the supportive environment enjoyed by ‘protected subjects’   

  • Absolutely agree that the Controlled Assessments need to be changed to allow for creative design activity, rather than jumping through the hoops of assessment criteria.

    The D&T community as a whole need to share good practice, update and upskill to ensure our true value it witnessed.... I'm up for the challenge. 

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