Saving Design Technology

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If Design Technology is to survive in an EBacc world, should technology teachers reconsider their curriculum?

It is my belief, that design and technology teachers across the land need to seriously rethink their approach to key stage 3 design technology (11-14 years) in secondary schools. Allow me to explain why …

I have been a head of design technology in three schools and had the privilege of building one from the ground up. I’ve defended the ‘subject’s corner in schools’, local authorities and have also had national recognition with DATA (Design and Technology Association) for student work and department innovation. As a middle leader, I experimented  with the carousel and option blocks, specialised and non-specialised teachers, length of projects, mixed ability and grouped – you name it. I want to take a moment to write about some longer-term alternatives for the subject, but first allow me to share some of the problems associated with DT.

Problems:

  • It’s expensive for schools to fund all that the curriculum area has to offer
  • Budgets are dwindling and DT departments cannot maintain machinery that becomes quickly outdated
  • The key stage 3 experience often requires specific timetabling and class size thresholds
  • Small class size guidance for health and safety reasons is exactly that – it is not law – but often becomes a battle between department and school leadership
  • Traditional projects and stereotypes remain associated with the subject – from colleagues and parents
  • Recruiting teachers to the subject is in serious decline – particularly in food technology and electronics
  • The subject is out of favour with the current government, therefore steering public attitudes and popularity away from the complex and demanding opportunities the subject has to offer. This in turn impacts on option choices at GCSE and parental influence on students, thus the subject’s demand.
Provocation 1: Curriculum

For years I believed that various ‘material experiences’ across the design technology curriculum was the way for all schools to achieve a broad curriculum offer for their students, and do this on a rotation basis every 8-12 weeks throughout the academic year. However, I no longer believe this is a valid reason for any DT department to continue to offer this model for teaching and learning, a) as a curriculum offer for 11-14 year olds b) the subject’s long-term future and c) as an evidence-informed methodology.

I’ve taught all areas of the subject my entire teaching career, from primary to A-level and every material area – every one! For those of you who are unfamiliar with the curriculum, this includes a broad range of subjects:

  • Resistant materials – some may remember this as woodwork, metalwork
  • Graphic communication
  • Textiles
  • Food technology – some may remember this as home economics or cookery
  • Electronics
  • Product Design
  • Computer Aided Design / Manufacture (CAD/CAM)
  • Engineering.

The initial problem with all of this, what to offer and what not to teach children. Any school cannot offer all of the above. A department of teachers can only offer so much and with any subject, the deeper you dig, the more complex the matter and the expertise required.

For DT departments, we should consider what subjects to offer students, particularly as the national curriculum does not prescribe that students experience every material listed above. Secondly, some schools / teachers are expected to have the knowledge and skills to be able to teach each of the material areas on rotation – or at least that is still the perception. Schools, particularly at key stage 3, are limited by number of teachers, students, rooms and ‘timetable blocks’ they can offer so that a) the teacher is knowledgeable with the subject b) that students thrive in the subject area and c) the school offers students an experience in the material.

Either way, these factors impact on timetabling decisions. I suspect other areas of school life have the same difficulties. For example, in humanities or PE there is often a carousel system and those teachers are also expected to teach areas outside of their expertise. For example, a gymnast specialist may find themselves teaching students how to play basketball, or a historian having to teach Geography. This also happens in some science departments, but it is less prevalent because of the ‘core’ nature within the curriculum. Therefore, rooming, number of teachers and expertise – or perhaps what the teacher wants to offer children – limits what a school can / cannot do and what the students can experience. This often drives curriculum decisions rather than what the core values of the subject has to offer.

Provocation 2: Costs

It is becoming even more challenging for heads of design technology to have the right materials and equipment in front of their students. My issue with the design technology curriculum, is that it is a costly subject for schools and head teachers to sustain. With the current cuts to school funding, this becomes a difficult challenge for schools to keep the subject alive – particularly if outcomes are not strong and the costs of various goods and services increase. With dwindling budgets, this makes it an easy area of the school for head teachers to spend less on and with good reason.

As a result, you will find some departments being closed down; departing teachers not replaced as schools rethink their curriculum offer (with less hours in the week) and worse, equipment being sold off or binned as classrooms are remodelled for other areas of the curriculum. It is vital heads of department are innovative, are forward thinking and look to save costs internally rather than seek funding from their headteacher.

Provocation 3: Knowledge and Skills

For decades, design technology departments have worked on a carousel process where key stage three students would rotate around the department to experience various materials / teachers. In various settings, there will be some refinement in places, longer hours, extended projects or rotation from project to project with not much thought.

In some progressive approaches, a teacher would move with their students into a different material area – even if the teacher is not a subject expert – for the benefit of the teacher knowing their students better. Another alternative is a more traditional approach, where the teacher stays in their subject area and the students rotate every 7-12 weeks to garner an experience – each teacher sharing assessment information with another teacher in order to streamline workload for an overall assessment of a child’s knowledge and skills. This allows the teacher to remain the expert whilst the student gains enough time to be exposed to a subject / material area- to have a go at designing and making something – and then move onto another subject.

Do we really believe a student can develop various subject knowledge, skills and design process expertise simply by moving from material to material? Worse, to be able to make an accumulative, accurate and reliable assessment of that child from 3 or 4 teachers teaching them for just 8 weeks?

There are many benefits to a carousel model, but over the last decade, I’ve started to unpick some serious problems with this methodology – as a design technology first and as a senior teacher second  – which has significant flaws (in the current assessment and evidence-informed landscape). Within one department, assessment can vary wildly between teacher to teacher simply because each subject requires a different understanding. The student or teacher may be [insert evaluation grade term here] at. I’ve taught food technology to GCSE level, but I’m not a chef. I have no scientific understanding of food and I would seriously become unstuck teaching the subject at A level. This is something I could learn throughout my career, but if there was never any intention on my part to develop this aspect of my subject knowledge, I could be teaching children at key stage 3 the wrong knowledge. Maybe this was the reason I and thousands of other DT teachers choose one area to specialise in to degree level. Exactly like a biologist or a chemist teaching A level students. They may have to teach 11 years olds another area of ‘science’, but would become unstuck teaching another area to a more demanding level.

Evidence-Informed?

So, regardless of subject, do carousel models work within schools? Not just from a logistical perspective, but from an evidence-informed principle that supports better outcomes? My evaluation: I suspect not.

Secondly, as a group students move on to another area of the curriculum, it is unlikely a teacher will teach those students again until the next academic year – and again, for only 8-12 weeks. So, why do we expect these children to retain for example, any ‘food technology’ knowledge or remember any skills for theory and practical application in [insert subject] discipline? How often have you heard teachers in design technology say, ‘my students cannot remember any [subject] knowledge from last year’? It is simply counter-productive.

Conclusion:

If design technology teachers wish to save their subject area from being squeezed out of the curriculum altogether, particularly in the current climate of an EBacc (English Baccalaureate) – in which the Department for Education anticipate, 90% of all students will study by 2025, design technologists must redesign DT from the ground-up to secure its long-term position within the curriculum – not only to save jobs, but to save the subject as we know it from being culled altogether.

Simple solutions:

  • Rethink your key stage 3 curriculum – try offering students the opportunity to stay with a subject, all year.
  • Offer solutions to headteachers to make materials, class sizes and costs easier to justify
  • Steer well-away from projects ‘you did at school’. We’ve all moved on from 20 years ago!
  • Ask yourself: what do you really think students can design and make in 8 weeks?! And assess accurately?
  • Use every opportunity to involve colleagues and parents in workshops after school hours to help steer attitudes
  • Celebrate the complex knowledge of the subject with cross curricular displays and exhibitions
  • Develop projects that recycle school materials and create visible displays around the school
  • Seek to develop projects within the subject with other areas of the school, particular with business and core subjects
  • Invite external specialists in regularly to support students’ experience of the curriculum – challenge their bias too.

Design technology teachers must have at their disposal, what is to be taught within the curriculum versus subject expertise, rooms and resources. Then strip back ‘experiences’ and look more towards long-term gains in one or two materials so that students can develop deep and meaningful knowledge.

In today’s climate, we can no-longer accept “experiences” as the ‘ordre du jour’. Instead, consider long-term teaching in replace of shorter material experiences so that students achieve better outcomes. And by this I don’t mean grades, I mean ‘true subject knowledge and expertise’. This is the only way I see a short-term gain – to develop a rigorous and more accurate assessment of the child – can achieve the long-term security of the subject at national curriculum level and attract the very best of teachers to move the subject forwards.

 

@TeacherToolkit

In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is slowly building an online community of teachers ... In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

12 thoughts on “Saving Design Technology

  • 14th January 2018 at 7:02 pm
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    I quite agree that the subject needs to change and evolve. However over time I think it perhaps needs to go even further than you suggest, given the costs of running craft-based workshops, funding expensive resistant materials, recruiting staff and giving the subject a revitalised image.

    One way of doing this would be to adopt an approach that draws more on the Design Thinking and Digital Maker movements that are emerging in various countries, where students spend more time solving complex open-ended problems through a wide range of modelling and prototyping techniques and less about learning the theory and practice of traditional ways of working in wood, metal and plastics. An understanding of the concept of quality of thought and action can be acquired in many ways, not just in the use of resistant materials.

    At the same time the D&T community needs to make a much stronger claim as a subject for inclusion in STEM where it is ideally placed as a discipline that brings the other STEM subjects together in a meaningful way.

    Reply
    • 15th January 2018 at 10:54 am
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      I’ve recently been sent a copy of Makerspaces by Laura Fleming. It certainly looks like a useful alternative…

      Reply
  • 15th January 2018 at 8:48 am
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    The subject is Design AND Technology, not Design Technology. Let’s at least get that right. Beyond semantics, the two are entirely different. In the past 5 decades many teachers and policy makers have failed to understand what is meant by either Design OR Technology as two distinctive fields of study. Putting them together was an educational construct, in 1989, and not one of the ‘real’ world. As a consequence, the contrived curriculum subject of Design and Technology stood little chance of success. The evidence is that, nationally, we now have a situation where design education is weak, because it has disconnected from Art (and design). Similarly, technology education is weak, and misnamed because of tentative links to science and maths, and disconnection from engineering or technical competence for making. Ironically this was posited, with authority, in 1974, in the Department of Education and Science funded RCA Design in General Education (1979). It is a shame that neither educators or policy makers heeded the reports findings. The new GCSEs, in Design AND Technology do not resolve the problem. They either deliberately, or erroneously, remove links between Art and Design and Technology and Engineering. A better and more accurate title would have been Product Design. The subject has been devalued even further.

    Reply
    • 15th January 2018 at 10:55 am
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      You make a valid point. Would you be happy to submit a guest post? Have taught Product Design and can testify that students I have taught in London prefer this approach over others.

      Reply
  • 30th January 2018 at 8:24 pm
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    I have taught many different courses in design and technology and we cover CAD/CAM , design to construction . I teach students who cannot even use scissors , model basic ideas in card , to using basic hand tools. The CBI reported that vast areas the construction industry especially in the South East rely on foreign labour . 50% of all wood joiners come from abroad. I have recently completed a STEM project with a major international car manufacturer and I was talking to one of their trainers who said that their have apprentices cannot even handle basic spanner’s and ratchets. I have know idea where to go with it but the ebacc is turning a whole generation of kids off education who do not have the skills that industry requires .

    Reply
    • 30th January 2018 at 9:37 pm
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      I think the EBacc is a dangerous bias that will blight the chances of 1,000s of kids. School leaders – if they are brave enough – must ignore it with the hope that it will be quashed before 2025.

      Reply
  • 18th May 2018 at 9:13 am
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    What is wrong with teaching design in the context of the required outcome (product/system/service) and using a range of technology to realise ideas and as a proof of concept? I have thought for some time that the term ‘technology’ is a tacked on title to differentiate us from Art and Design but ironically that subject now offers more ‘design’ based routes than D&T while many schools cant afford (or have the technical expertise) to run courses that are more engineering based.
    Every subject uses technology, we are more likely to use tools and machinery in realising ideas and solving problems. I think the subject needs a PR makeover and possibly a new name.

    Reply
  • 4th June 2018 at 7:52 am
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    Well said Nigel, as always! We are losing Design AND Technology, we could as many schools appear to be doing switch to 3D Art, but that would be a great shame as the essence of teaching Design and Technology to me is as important to me as it was in 1995/6 as a student on a well respected PGCE Design and Technology Course. Product Design even when taught well and in it’s broadest sense has its flaws and has not done the overall subject many favours and the EBacc is hugely misguided as so many pupils are already missing out on the education that Design AND Technology provided and the important link it made to so many FurtherEducation Courses and Future Careers.

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  • 1st July 2018 at 10:11 pm
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    Out of all the students who rake our course beyond gcse, not just a level, but apprenticeships and employment. The current DT Model seems intent on developing a course that supports what is possibly only 20% that go on to study it at degree level. With focuses on design and the iterative process. Yet the other 80% of students who go further than gcse are being squeezed out further. What makes it worse is that the new gcse looks to close the door on the lowest 20% of the gcse cohort who just can’t access fully the new system. There should be a system in place that supports both routes both those who want a more design focus academic route and those that want to develop practical skills with some design elements. As above the new system reflects more of a product design route. But we seem intent on compartmentalizing students, that they must have a specific skill set. Yet industry is crying out for practical skills as well as creative designers. With an ever increasing shortfall of engineers each year growing I don’t believe we are really set up to help fill that gap.

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  • 3rd November 2018 at 7:05 pm
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    I have just become a Head of Design and Technology department and my background is in Art and design. Obviously new to the subject area however one constant is Design. I want to be radical and embed the Art approach to learning in technology. My desire would be design-led projects that promote individual students choose the materials they select in order to realise their outcomes. This is my vision, however, no doubt constructed by the exam criteria. But I passionately want to base the emphasis in process and development t of the idea they apply the technical aspect to the generation of it much in the same way the industry would approach and concept design and manufacture process.

    Reply
    • 5th November 2018 at 12:52 pm
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      Justin, you might find the 3D Art (AQA) approach at GCSE and A level, works well for you as the portfolio approach encourages a degree of experimentation and development through using and understanding materials and requires very good quality made outcomes. This still gives opportunities for some good quality CAD and even 3D printing and CNC work which can be incorporated. The hard bit is ensuring the students use good quality original source materia, we took them to the Museums in London as a starting point. To keep their momentum going for the longer portfolio work a number of process based workshops helped where they could use a range of materials they were interested in, we facilitated work in glass blowing and forming, fine metalwork – jewelry and woodwork and even using textiles! At KS3 we developed drawing and CAD skills as well as mini design units focusing on a wide range of materials skils and knowledge. Getting specialists in and students out to visit specialsist is also key. The hardest part was working with a very limited budget so much of our materials were recycled from furniture bought cheaply at auction and donated. Even harder was keeping a range of equipment and machinery going without a technician but we managed. Our students went on to a range of art and design courses as well as architecture and surveying and a good few into practical careers from Thatching to Silversmithing. It was hard work, but enjoyable and utilised the many skills as DT teachers that we had built up over 30 years. I think the DT Curriculumn will change again in time to reflect Industry demand but not until we have lost too many good teachers and workshops. Give it a go and good luck.

      Reply
  • 7th November 2018 at 6:53 pm
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    We need to create an environment where divergent, creative, analytical and exploratory thought and process are nurtured and encouraged and that in order to develop these into real world outcomes, students are exposed to a wide range of tools and possibilities, not just those typically associated with the classrooms of DT. In the real world, solutions arise out of an exploration and understanding of the challenges and problems, commonality and alignment between subjects (or what makes up life) rather than separation and compartmentalisation. Education needs a revolution in order for it to prepare students who approach the world with eyes, minds and hearts wide open, who are responsive, excited, able to make connections and see innovative solutions. We are quickly moving from autumn into winter for the traditional education model and the world of work it once strove to prepare students for. We need agile, divergent thinkers who can adapt, move and see opportunities for positive change in the world around them. Building a DT department is a great achievement but can we nurture students who are curious, can make connections; who stay inquisitive, flexible, adaptable, thoughtful, thirsty for knowledge; a generation that can start to sow the seeds of change we so desperately need, not least in the way we approach and think about learning and the way in which we treat and nurture our children and young people.

    Reply

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