Virgin on the ridiculous?

3256981828_0eed8d225d_oHeadteacher Branson launches the new Virgin Academy teachers’ uniforms.

The other day at a disrupted conference he had sponsored (also supported by the rather difficult to imagine anything less disruptive Pearson), with his head as high in the clouds as one of his planes, no richer a person than Sir Richard Branson himself spoke forth about his views on education. And some of the things he said were things that All Change Please! has been saying for quite a while now.

First that all children should have a gap year at the age of 16. Not perhaps to travel the world as Branson suggested, but to get some proper experience of the real world of work and the community before deciding which further courses to follow. Yes. Big Tick.

Next that schools should stop teaching French and teach other languages such as Spanish, which are actually used in a substantial part of the world. And that instead of being taught using a formal academic approach the methods using in TEFL and on-line learning apps should be adopted. Yes. Yes. Another Big Tick.

And last, or should that be first, that History should be taught backwards, i.e., from the present day, which will be of far more interest and relevance to children. Yes. Yes. Yes. Hooray! Big ticks all the way.

But wait. Who invited Toby Dung on to the discussion panel? No. No. No…

So while we eagerly await the launch of Virgin Academies, Virgin Teachers and maybe even manage to find some Virgin students, it raises some interesting questions. Namely what would happen if a significant 20th Century ‘Old School’ capitalist were to take over education provision? Would they be capable of delivering an experience of appropriate 21st Century teaching, learning and a curriculum to match, or would it just descend into a ‘bums on seat’, increase the profits by maximising academic exam results sort of affair, which is after all what the academy chains seem intent on doing?

A big business approach to education is far from ideal, and while it might help prepare our future workforce more effectively and appropriately, would it pay enough attention to the broader personal and social aspects of education and the local community?  Schools currently do little enough to prepare children for the future world of work, but that’s not all they are there to do. Of course it is arguable that in the late 19th Century Victorian philanthropists were willing to fund local libraries, museums and other community facilities for little more than a name-check. Are there any genuine early 21st Century philanthropists in the audience tonight?

And if accepting the patronage of big business is the only way forward, which currently is seems it is, should it be supported as at least one step towards moving away from our 19th Century academically-based approach?

But if it’s the really ridiculous we’re on the look out for then look no further than this Headteacher from a distant planet who is seriously suggesting that the teacher shortage problem can be solved through the use of Skype by unqualified teachers while each simultaneously training a new teacher.

Not to mention Head of OffQual’s Glenys In Wonderland Stacey’s belief that the low standards of examiners’ marking problem won’t really be a problem because experienced, able teachers love marking examination scripts so much that they don’t need to be paid more, and anyway if they were then Pearson wouldn’t make as make as much profit out of them, and we wouldn’t want that to happen now would we?

Meanwhile, All Change Please!‘s local supermarket has finally got round to putting its Christmas stock out, so the festive season can now begin properly. Merry October everyone!

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

New A level D&T: Dull & Tedious?

Screenshot 2015-08-18 19.15.35There are a lot more things in A level Design and Technology than are dreamt of in the current DfE proposals

Just when you were sharpening your pencils ready for the start of the new term and feeling pleased with yourself for getting your DfE GCSE D&T Holiday Homework (see Fixated by Design) out of the way at the start of the holidays instead of leaving it until it’s too late like everyone else, along comes another assignment…  This time it’s the draft specification for AS and A level Design & Technology, published in late July and which needs to be responded to by the 24th September – holiday dates doubtless chosen by the DfE and Ofqual to be as inconspicuous as possible in the hope that no-one will actually notice them. You can download the documents on content here and assessment here.

But after the encouraging noises of the proposed GCSE D&T spec., these documents, to put it bluntly, are far from being at the cutting edge and are utterly unimaginative and unenlightened. They read more like a narrow description of 3D design and technology as it was in the latter half of the 20th Century, still rooted in the demands of 1960s industrial, mass-production engineering and management methodologies. For example, references to Critical Path Analysis (1950s), Six Sigma and Scrum (1980s), which are about making large product volumes efficiently according to plan, are now widely disregarded as they conflict with the current movement towards agile processes that focus on an ability to change to meet rapidly evolving needs and demands.

Further thought also needs to be given to the specialist areas of knowledge. Today, the disciplines of product design, engineering and textiles are increasingly intertwined, not separated out. And why is it fashion design and development, and don’t they have to meet needs and wants in the same way that product designers do? And anyway the content is not about fashion, it’s about textiles. Who writes this nonsense?

Meanwhile there’s only brief passing reference to iterative design, marketing, sustainability, smart materials and 3D printing – aspects that should now be taking centre stage – along with the critical need for designers to have a rigorous grasp of the psychology of visual and tactile aesthetics and user experience interfaces that drive customer purchase and satisfaction. Another major, almost unbelievable omission, is an emphasis on the importance of developing a designer’s ability to communicate effectively with a variety of clients, users, manufacturers, public bodies, manufacturers, venture capitalists, etc., using a wide range of traditional and digital technologies, appropriate to their intended audience. It’s one thing to come up with a creative, innovative idea, and quite another to persuade others of its potential.

And nowhere is there a mention of the early 21st century methodologies behind Design Thinking, User-centered design, Service design, Architectural and Communication design, Branding and marketing in the social media age, participation and collaboration, cross-disciplinary digital making, the possibilities and impact of the ‘internet of things’, interaction design, and the necessity for understanding potential sources of funding, or indeed the ways in which the very notion – let alone employment opportunities – of the professional designer will change substantially over the next ten or so years. And what about some coverage of the history of design & technology and material culture as a source of understanding and inspiration? Or a knowledge of contemporary designers and design practices? As such – and surely the most important comment to make in any response – the proposed specification fails to provide a suitable progression from the proposed GCSE D&T and towards meeting the emerging requirements of working in the design and creative industries.

We need Designers and Technologists to initiate future change, not to have an academic knowledge of the manufacturing processes of the past. Somehow the Df-ingE have managed to take the most amazing, exciting and compelling subject on the curriculum and rendered it a grey, flabby and lifeless list of random bits of content with all the good bits squeezed out. Do they honestly think that Vivienne Westwood, or Johnny Ive or Zahid Habib would have blossomed after being subjected to all this dreariness at the age of 17? If All Change Please! were a bright young teacher or prospective A level student today it would never ever want to teach or study or go anywhere near this course. If this specification remains as far behind the curve as it is, it will never catch up.

And finally, while D&T A level might be the next step on the pathway for a small number of future professional designers and engineers, All Change Please! can’t help wondering if it currently offers enough as a component of the more general education of all those students who take the exam but decide to go off in other directions?

Is the A83 the way to go?

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No, not that A83..

Most of the proposed new specification for D&T could easily have been written forty years ago. Which, by an amazing co-incidence, is exactly around the time in the 1970s and 80s when we already had a highly regarded, forward-looking world-class D&T A level examination. It was offered by the Oxford Board of Local Examinations (long ago absorbed into OCR), and widely recognised as a demanding, rigorous and exciting course.  Sadly it’s unlikely that anyone currently working at the DfE will be aware it ever existed.

You can download a .pdf copy of the Oxford A83 / 9883 examination syllabus here and as far as All Change Please! can tell, this is the first time it has ever been made available on this new-fangled interweb thingy which as we all know will probably never catch on…

The first thing you’ll notice is how short it was, as most exam syllabi were in those days when less was clearly more. But it’s all there, because a lot more was left up to the school to build into their courses. Then there’s the wonderfully open ‘definition’ of a designer  – ‘anyone who consciously seeks to determine some part of man’s environment in a way most suitable to man’s purpose‘ – provided of course one now substitutes the word ‘human-being’ for ‘man’ – and of the broad intention that the syllabus is concerned with the ‘physical, rational and emotional nature of man, as well as with the shaping of materials and the production of well-designed goods within the total environment‘.

And then the breadth of the examined content – no long tick-box lists of detailed requirements or endorsement sections, and in essence covering much the same – needs and wants, ergonomics and anthropometrics, design methodologies, production methods and the properties and characteristics of a range of materials. A particular feature of the written paper was the requirement to include extensive specific references to existing and contemporary products and designers.

Not to mention the entirely open-ended coursework requirements, which, although not detailed in the main syllabus document, required a major project and a number of supporting short coursework activities which included a dissertation in which candidates were required to analyse their growth of understanding and application of design and designing with reference to their practical work. And the assessment for coursework – completed by the teacher and externally moderated – was holistic in approach, not involving the awarding of a series of micro-marks, but involving placing a tick on a line against half-a dozen descriptive criteria.

The range and quality of work produced by candidates was often extraordinary, and certainly equivalent to the first year of a degree course. Many students were readily accepted onto University courses in schools of 2D and 3D design, architecture and engineering, and indeed, having kept in contact with them, some of All Change Please!’s own have since gone on to become highly successful professionals, now often running their own UK design companies. Perhaps one day we’ll finally get back to something as good?

But of course, the Oxford syllabus must be placed in context. In those days there were only something like 300 to 600 candidates, and it was only offered where there was a good teacher who knew what they were doing, i.e., able to develop their own course based more on a philosophy than a tick-box checklist. And today, sadly, there are probably not enough teachers with the necessary confidence and experience to do that.

Mind you, with D&T candidate and teacher numbers dropping the way they currently are, maybe it won’t be long before they fall to the levels of the 1980s again..?

In the meanwhile, it’s absolutely essential that you tell the DfE and Ofqual exactly what you think of the current proposals.

With thanks to Tony and Jane.

Image credits: Top, Dan Pledger, Head of Design, Simon Langton Boys’ School Canterbury.

Middle:  Flickr: Stephen Mackenzie

 

Fixated by Design

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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