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.
- 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- Budgets are dwindling and DT departments cannot maintain machinery that becomes quickly outdated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
- Food technology – some may remember this as home economics or cookery
- Product Design
- Computer Aided Design / Manufacture (CAD/CAM)
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.
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.
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.
- 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.