Pass Notes: Design & Technology

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Above: from Apple Store talk by Jason Schwartz of Bright Bright Great [BBG] on the love story between design and technology in the real world

So, what do you make of the new version of the requirements for Design & Technology in the National Curriculum now they are just about set in stone – well wood, metal and plastics anyway?

Well, robotics, electronics and 3D printing all sounds very exciting and good for the future of British engineering and manufacturing? Everyone seems to be very pleased about the new D&T curriculum, and it has been backed by the design industry. And none of that horticultural nonsense? Surely you’re not going to be the only one to say it’s not good news?

I’m afraid I am – it’s not good news. It continues to offer a very narrow view of design and designing based on 3D industrial design and engineering. While it is true that a minority of children might, as a result of their school experience, end up working in these fields, the vast majority won’t, especially girls, and for that matter many boys. As with most subjects, it’s a ‘just in case’ approach should you end up wanting to be an engineer. As such it fails to offer the majority a broader educational experience that in the future can be transferred into other areas of life.

Although the latest version is in some respects better than the one published in February, it’s not really much of a change from the existing one, except for the inclusion of robotics and 3D printing. Meanwhile the ‘design industry’ have absolutely no idea of what actually goes on in schools, and seem to think that simply changing the curriculum a bit is going to suddenly improve the quality of teaching and learning. Perhaps if they actually got more directly involved it might start to make more of a difference.

I thought somehow you might say something like that. Now I believe in these circumstances it’s traditional to begin by endlessly discussing what design and technology actually is all about. You first…

Well, everything, apart from nature itself, has at some point been consciously designed by someone. So that includes 3D industrial and domestic products, but also spaces and places, such as interiors and buildings, and information, such as sales brochures, signs, computer user-interfaces, etc. So Design and Technology is about creating products, environments, information and systems that work well, and are easy and satisfying to use. And when you do that, as for example Apple does, you can make a real profit, so it’s central to business success too. These days sustainability has become really important too. Meanwhile to design something you need to find out what people need and want and the materials and technologies available to satisfy them. And you need some design skills too.

So what exactly are these design skills of which you speak?

Designing involves complex high-level, creative, open-ended, real-world problem-solving, collaborative team work, developing instructions and specifications, matching objective and subjective data, communication and thinking about and planning the future. Not to mention understanding how business and marketing work.

OK, so that’s what professional designers do. What happens in primary and secondary education?

Well, it’s not just professional designers, but really anyone trying to solve a difficult practical problem that works and people value needs design skills. So it’s something everyone will find useful, throughout life, and therefore worth learning about when you are young. And it’s also good to be able to identify examples of good and bad design when making choices about which products, places and communications to commission or select.

So what’s, err, the problem?

For mainly historical reasons, the very narrow view of design that schools have taken and applied mainly to engineering and 3d industrial design has meant that they teach very little about understanding and meeting people’s physical and psychological needs and wants, and even lower levels of skills of designing and creativity. It’s actually much easier to teach and develop design skills through communication and spatial design activities, mainly because ideas can be generated, explored and developed much more quickly when you are not trying to work with expensive and highly resistant materials.

And then there’s the other important issue that no-one seems to be mentioning which is that most existing D&T teachers – not to mention Primary teachers – don’t come from an engineering design background, so there’s going to need to be an awful lot of professional development work needed, not to mention a considerable investment in hardware in schools.

Then there is the stated NC Purpose of Study and Aims, which are themselves quite acceptable – it’s just a pity that the Key Stage specifications that follow do not match up and deliver them. As such the document has simply become yet another example of spinning a classic ‘technological fix’ to what is the real and more difficult problem of recruiting, training and retaining creative, enlightened, inspiring teachers. Like this one:

So what’s to be done?

Hmm. Sadly not a lot. Unless we start to pay proper attention to the development of design skills, all localised 3d manufacturing will do is enable us to produce a load of novelty electronic gizmos that no-one really needs and that are frustrating to use. Rather than persisting with the glorified DIY approach of most D&T departments, it might be better to focus on developing a Design Thinking approach across other areas of the curriculum, such as Art and Design, Drama, English, Business and Enterprise and IT, where open-ended creative problem-solving and extended project work is accepted as part of the learning experience.

But I would have thought that after more than 20 years of D&T being in the National Curriculum and the chance to improve things even further in the latest revised orders, all this would have been sorted out by now?

Yes, you might indeed think that, but it’s not. Oh, and by the way, horticulture hasn’t gone away – it’s still there, but just at the end.

Do say: “Design and technology is an inspiring, rigorous and practical subject. Using creativity and imagination, pupils design and make products that solve real and relevant problems within a variety of contexts, considering their own and others’ needs, wants and values.”  (from the D&T Purpose statement)

Don’t say:  “Pupils will use mechanisms such as levers, sliders, wheels and axles in their products. From the age of seven, pupils will use mechanical and electrical systems, such as series circuits incorporating switches, bulbs and motors. At secondary school, pupils will use advanced design techniques such as mathematical modelling and biomimicry. They will learn to use specialist tools, such as 3-D printers, laser cutters and robotics. Pupils will be taught to incorporate and program microprocessor chips into products they have designed and made.  (from the D&T Programmes of Study).

And finally:

with the days of the book-end, the pipe rack and the key fob well and truly behind us, All Change Please! is proud to announce the next generation of classic Year 7 D&T projects to deliver the new requirements for the National Curriculum, soon to be appearing in a school near you…

The Brief: A cereal manufacturer want to include a free gift inside every box of cereal it sells. They have asked you to come up with ideas for an imaginative toy or gift.

The toy or gift can be made in any size, material and colour you like provided it is no bigger than 8 cms in any direction (the maximum size our 3D printer can manage) and is made of bright green plastic (which is the only type of ‘ink’ we can afford to obtain).

© Tristram Shepard/Ruth Wright 2013

Image credit: Alexis Finch  http://www.flickr.com/photos/agentfin/8205912475

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