Pass Notes: What is GCSE Irritative Design?

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Up, down, in, out and all around the country, Design & Technology teachers are attending training meetings and busily checking out the new GCSE specifications for their subject, due to commence in September 2017. The new requirements expect students to follow what’s known as an ‘iterative’ design process. Here’s All Change Please!’s handy cut-out and weep guide…

So what’s with this new requirement for GCSE D&T students to follow an irritative design process?

I think you’ll find it’s called an ‘iterative’ design process.

It may be iterative to you but it’s irritating to me. What was wrong with doing things the way we always did in the past – I thought the Tories were trying to take us back to the 1950s?

So do you want to know what it is or not?

I suppose I better. Go on then.

Ah, well, I was afraid you might say that, because actually no-one really seems clear as to what it means. It might, or might not, prove helpful to see exactly how the various AO’s (Awarding Organisations, previously known as Awarding Bodies, previously known as Examination Boards) are explaining ‘the iterative design process of exploring, creating and evaluating in their recent D&T GCSE specifications..

For example, one awarding organisation describes interrelated iterative processes that ‘explore’ needs, ‘create’ solutions and ‘evaluate’ how well the needs have been met.’ These ‘occur repeatedly as iterations throughout any process of designing prototyped solutionsand that this ensuresconstantly evolving iterations that build clearer needs and better solutions for a concept’.

Meanwhile another requires students to ‘Use an iterative approach – employ a process of planning, experimenting, designing, modelling, testing and reviewing, including use of input from client/end user to inform decision making, make improvements and refine designs at each stage of development.’

And the assessment criteria for a third lists: ‘Investigating, Designing, Making, Analysing and Evaluating‘, while adding: ‘In the spirit of the iterative design process, the above should be awarded holistically where they take place and not in a linear manner.’ It continues ‘…so that students can engage in an iterative process of designing, making, testing, improving and evaluating.’

I’m still feeling somewhat irritated and even more confused now. I think I’m certainly going to need quite a lot of that spirit to cope with this…

Elsewhere Iterative Design has been described as ‘a continuous process of to-ing and fro-ing between cognitive and physical models that move from a hazy notion of a solution towards a working prototype’.

Well, no problem there then – my kids are always going to-ing the stockroom and fro-ing bits of wood around. And they certainly only have a very hazy notion of what they are supposed to be doing.

To be fair, the awarding organisations will be providing teacher support materials that will aim to make the whole thing clearer.

But surely investigating, designing and making are exactly what my students were doing before? And anyway most of the investigating needs to be done at the start of the project, then the designing takes places and finally they make a prototype and evaluate it. So what’s the big change then?

Well… err… students need to be encouraged to continue investigating while they are designing and making, and to be evaluating their own work and the work of others throughout. The activities of exploring, creating and evaluating are all closely linked. It’s difficult to do one without the other. Exploring a situation involves evaluating the quantity and quality of information discovered and leads to new ideas for further enquiries and research methodologies. Generating design ideas involves deciding which to pursue or reject and identifying further information that will be needed. Evaluating designs involves referring back to the identified requirements and coming up with new ideas or refinements in response to unresolved problems. Of course this makes separating them out for purposes of examination assessment of exploring, creating and evaluating next to impossible.

So, what you seem to be saying is, actually it doesn’t really change anything much at all, except it’s going to make assessment a lot more difficult?

Err, yes. Irritating, isn’t it?

That Jony Ive bloke keeps talking about iterative design doesn’t he? I thought he meant that each new iPhone model is a development of the previous one – some features stay the same, others are removed and new ones are added. But that’s just design, isn’t it? Surely all design is iterative by nature?

Yes, I think you may be on to something there. I know, let’s see what Wikipedia has to say:

‘Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process.’

Ah, so we’re back to the good old Design Cycle then?

No, No, this is quite different… At least I think it is. Wikipedia goes on to say something very interesting:  ‘Iterative design is a way of confronting the reality of unpredictable user needs and behaviors that can lead to sweeping and fundamental changes in a design.’

In other words it’s not just enough to make a final prototype to test out with a potential user and other stakeholders – what’s important are the refinements that are made as a result of the testing of a series of models.

What’s all this about holding steaks? I thought Food wasn’t part of D&T any more?

That’s stakeholders – other people who might have a interest in the design – other users or maybe managers or retailers or clients.

Wikipedia goes on to say:

‘There is a parallel between iterative and the theory of Natural Selection. Both involve a trial and error process in which the most suitable design advances to the next generation, while less suitable designs perish by the wayside. Subsequent versions of a product should also get progressively better as its producers learn what works and what doesn’t in a process of refinement and continuous improvement.’

So design iteration involves coming up with and developing more than just one idea and a single development of it. If a student only came up with one solution and made that without being willing to consider changing and improving it – so-called ‘design fixation’- then it wouldn’t be iterative.

Ah! As well as the continuous interaction between exploring, creating and evaluating, iterative design also means continuous improvement? How clear and easy do the awarding bodies make that to identify in their mark schemes? Or do I just continue to naturally select which portfolios I think are the best ones?

Probably. But between you and me, the secret is that iterative design is essentially a mind-set in which students are encouraged to be continually dis-satisfied and always exploring new information and creating new ideas, and always evaluating what they are doing – from an early quick sketch to making a final presentation model – and even what they would change if they had more time. It’s the sense that a sense that a design is never really perfect of finished, and can always be improved.

So that’s Iterative Design then? Just go through it again for me will you and see if you can improve your explanation a bit more?

You mean you’d like me to reiterate what I’ve just said?

Now you’re talking…

Do say: When will the next iteration of the D&T GCSE be written?

Don’t say: I blame Sir James Dyson

Image adapted from: Flickr/Dave Gray and Fotolia


Fixated by Design


So as the academic year desperately drags to its inevitable conclusion and teachers’ thoughts turn to escaping for a long, hot summer somewhere nice, it’s kind of the DfE and Ofqual to set everyone some holiday homework. Yes, with typical impeccable timing, the latest draft GCSE D&T specifications have just been published for consultation, due for return by the 26th August.

Along with the consultation forms, the specifications can be downloaded from here and here.

Generally, for Product Design-fixated teachers everywhere, the draft looks very encouraging. There is a clear approach to the use of explore/create/evaluate iterative design processes and of multi-materials and technologies. And the slightly odd jumble of proposed contexts from the previous drafts has been replaced by a list of suggestions for ‘contextual challenges’ that essentially read as ‘anything that does not prompt the use of a specific material, technology or discipline’. As expected though, coursework, or NEA (Non Exam Assessment) as it is curiously now known, is reduced to 50%, with a 50% completely inappropriate written paper: if Art and Design can be 100% NEA, why can’t D&T?

All that really remains is for one or two important details to be sorted out and clarified, and for the Awarding Bodies to get busy over the summer starting to develop user-friendly final specifications and examinations. Oh, and of course over the next couple of years, an awful lot of CPD to help the more traditional single-material specialist teachers who will have to develop a somewhat broader approach to delivering coursework, and to work out what the word ‘iterative’ actually means.

Obviously it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves how they wish to respond to the consultation, but here is All Change Please!‘s list of things it thinks would be worth mentioning, which you may or may not agree with, but you are welcome to include in your response if you wish – though do make sure you suitably personalise your comments!

1. It’s important to send a positive message supporting the multi-material, iterative design approach, and the specification as a whole.

2. On page 3 the explanation of the word ‘prototype’ is generally helpful, but the understanding of ‘product’ less so. A prototype might not need further design development as such, but simply require the use of manufacturing technologies not available in a school workshop. The final ‘outcome’ of design practice is likely to be a ‘proposal‘ rather than an actual finished, saleable object, except perhaps where the item is a ‘one-off’.

3. On page 5, point 7, there is a requirement for ‘at least one prototype and at least one product… based on a brief they develop..’. This lacks clarity, and possibly confused thinking on the part of Ofqual. It needs to be replaced with ‘at least one prototype or one product’ (which is how it is expressed in 2. in the Introduction).

4. In the Technical knowledge and understanding section the content seems a bit muddled. Ideally there would be a clearer distinction between the general, broad core of knowledge of materials and tools and a more in-depth knowledge of certain areas or aspects, chosen by the student.

5. In Designing and making principles (9) again some clarification is required. Ideally it should read:… ‘one design brief and at least one design specification‘ (as distinct from a manufacturing specification). It would also be useful to add.. ‘even though the design requirements might change during the development of the design’.  And presumably they mean ‘from their own consideration of…, supported by those identified by others‘, rather than a separate brief and specification for a problem they have identified and a separate brief and specification for a problem someone else has identified? Are students expected to undertake one or two pieces of coursework?

6. On page 7, re. ‘use different design strategies’, the term ‘design fixation‘ is not currently in common usage in D&T. It does of course mean fixated by a single design idea, rather than with design and designing itself!

7. Then, still on page 7, ‘design and develop at least one product…’ Again this needs to read one prototype or product. The explanation of innovation, provided at the bottom of the page, needs improvement. It would be more appropriate to use the word ‘creative’ to cover something new or novel, and perhaps unusual or unique. The word ‘innovation‘ indicates a design that will potentially lead to the widespread adoption a new type or class of product as a solution to a problem.

8. And re. ‘appropriate materials and components…‘, again there is the confusion between ‘one prototype and one product.’

9. While it is good to see the links with Science and Maths at the end, thus helping establish the contribution of D&T to STEM, it’s a shame there are no links with Art & Design (the clue is in the name!). This would help identify the important aesthetic dimensions of design, which are not otherwise directly mentioned.

And last, but by no means least, while the specification potentially succeeds in encouraging a high quality, rigorous, intellectual and academic learning experience in design & technology, it does little for students who have traditionally sought the D&T department as a refuge where they can make potentially useful artefacts and develop valuable workshop skills. What’s also urgently needed are alternative specifications to meet their needs and wants.

Please forward this post to any D&T teachers you know!


Image credit: Flickr/ ji young Yoon