We may be living in more modern times, but at present all is not well in the world of Design & Technology – it seems there is a spanner in the coursework….
Teachers are working through the new GCSEs in D&T and the ‘contexts’ for the so-called non examination coursework have just been announced by the Awarding Bodies. This part of the course is worth 50% of the final marks. Students are expected to make a study of the given broadly-defined, usually somewhat middle-class context – eg ‘Going to the Seaside’ (Perhaps a title such as ‘Going to the Food Bank’ might be more familiar to some children and promote more designing for need than designing for consumerism?), and in doing so identify a suitable opportunity for design that they then proceed to resolve between now and the end of next March. Previously a number of more specific design tasks had been supplied by the Awarding Body, from which teachers often selected the one they considered most appropriate for their own students and their own expertise.
The other major change in the new exam specifications has been the welcome shift from the provision of material-specific courses (e.g., Textiles, Electronics) to a multi-material approach in which students are able to select the most appropriate to realise their designs.
So what’s the problem then?
Well in many schools there isn’t one, and everything is going according to plan. However, rather like the recent introduction of the new Northern rail timetables, a lot of the drivers, or rather teachers, have not been sufficiently trained to run the new courses. And at the same time the arrangements for the way in which teachers operate during the nearly year-long coursework Is the same as the way in which much shorter projects in more academic subjects are expected to be run.
As far as the student’s identification of a suitable problem is concerned, this is a process that they need to be well prepared for during the early stages of the course. While they might spot a suitable opportunity for design, what they are more likely to lack is the knowledge and awareness of their own capability needed to solve it within the time available. If they choose something too simple, too complicated and/or involves skills they do not have, and/or resources that are not easily available to them, then they are unlikely to achieve good marks on the subsequent aspects of their work throughout the rest of the course. Previously, choosing their own extended project was an expectation of A level students, supported by the advice of their teacher drawing on their previous experience in guiding others through similar tasks and their personal knowledge of the student’s capabilities.
Unfortunately some teachers are only just discovering that their students are relatively unprepared for this exercise, and have only experienced working on short-term projects with a prescribed and limited range of materials and components. There are also reports that in some schools, SMT’s have instructed D&T teachers to set a single identical task for all their students, even though they will lose marks as a result.
But it is the delivery of the coursework project that appears to be causing the most concern at this particular moment. The official rules indicate that from now until the end of the course next March, teachers are not allowed to teach, at least in terms of offering any specific personal guidance to candidates on their on-going work. Any such advice must be recorded on their work, and must be taken into account in the final assessment. While this might be appropriate for a much shorter project that carries less overall marks, it is absurd for an eleven-month project. It also puts teachers in a difficult position in deciding whether to offer and record advice, or indeed to invent ways of offering guidance non-specifically, and/or indeed not recording it.
At the same time, of course, there is nothing to stop candidates discussing their work with each other, or with other adults – just not their own teacher. And, while in school children may only work on their projects under strict supervision, they are then allowed to take them home to continue to develop their paper-work freely – although again there does appear to be some confusion over this.
There have also been suggestions that teachers are not allowed to share or discuss their pupils’ work or progress, or to share any ideas with each other. Thus while teachers may not produce or guide students towards specific resources to help guide them, there is nothing to stop non-teachers providing such resources for the students to discover for themselves as part of their investigation. And it hasn’t helped that the Awarding Bodies have each published slightly different rules, although teachers are encouraged to contact them for clarification.
To put it another way, students are being denied some 40 hours of teaching over the year, a substantial proportion of the whole two year course. Coursework should be a learning opportunity and experience – not just an extended assessment session.
So why isn’t everyone complaining about all this? Because at the same time teachers are being warned that if they do so it might be officially decided that the coursework project will be cancelled, which has already been the case with Information Technology. This would turn the assessment of an essentially practical subject into just another final written theoretical examination.
In many respects the new D&T GCSE is a great improvement on the previous one, but the problem of reliably assessing project work remains. It’s too late to resolve the situation regarding candidates entering the examination next summer, but clearly the situation regarding the coursework project needs urgent review.
D&T is currently the only established subject that teaches children creative open-ended problem-solving skills, and as such makes a major contribution to STEM. It is exactly these skills that are needed to help reinvigorate our ability to produce innovative manufactured products and systems that we can sell to the rest of the world. Yet entries to the examination of this once popular and thriving subject are currently in serious decline and an increasing number of schools are not even offering it at all to GCSE or A level. In some schools students are instead being entered for graphic or 3D options in GCSE in Art & Design, or for purely vocational courses.
As with all the new ‘more rigorous’ GCSEs, academically able D&T students will thrive, while the rest become even more alienated from an educational system that has little to offer them. That’s living in modern times for you…