Why Design and Technology should be at the heart of any curriculum..

Student desk by one of our 16 year old pupils.

This post is dedicated to A R Wilton, teacher, thinker, maker, friend and father who sent me the Times article along with some pictures of his most recent design and make project shortly before his death at 87. 

It seems that whenever I meet someone for the first time they want to know what I do and as soon as they know that I teach they want to tell me what the problem is with education today.  At the moment in the UK our education policy is being driven by this kind of conversation, not necessarily well informed but enthusiastic for change.  The subject I teach has undergone the most extraordinary transformation in the last twenty years;  understanding what it looks like today and the importance that it has for our children is difficult for those who have not experienced it.

To quote from a letter written by Sir James Dyson, “Design and Technology is unique, challenging both hands and minds.  It embeds…research, independence, technology, communications, leadership, teamwork and problem solving.   …..Design Technology is not today’s woodwork.  It breeds new products and new business.  It is academic and practical”.  (Times 8th March 11)

These are bold words and they started me thinking about why I believe that Design Technology should be a part of everyone’s education.  My experience is that in teaching this subject I can challenge and extend every single pupil.  I can teach vital skills and open understanding for children who are fiercely bright and for those for whom school has been a trial to be endured rather than an experience to relish.  I can  take the unexplored ability that each child has and show them a way to make progress.  I can give them something to take with them into the rest of their lives.  These experiences are shared by my colleagues, I know that because I watch them teach, I see the expressions on the faces of children as they leave our classrooms knowing that they have really learned something, that they have got better at something, and I see it in their faces when they come through grinning to show me something that they have just done and are proud of.  I see this in schools all round the country.

I see it again when as adults some come back to tell me that they have a job using the skills and enthusiasm that they caught from us, others admit that they have moved in a different direction but the ways of thinking we have taught them are still important to them.  I see it when they still use and talk about the projects they made with us, when an ex pupil contacts us to tell us about the rag pumps she is making in India to provide clean water for isolated villages.

It is no bad thing when children enjoy their learning, take pride in their achievements and find pleasure in their adult working lives because of what we have done.  But more than this Design Technology teachers are routinely teaching and expecting children to think in very sophisticated ways, not just to memorise information.  We actively teach metacognitive skills, thinking methods that will stay with our pupils throughout their lives.  A lot of the time we don’t even recognise that what we are doing is out of the normal.  Let me give you an example, sat with a group of colleagues from other subject communities and faced with a problem I automatically started brainstorming.  A large sheet of paper and  a marker pen in hand I started to generate ideas for solutions.  Twenty ideas later it dawned on me that I was the only one doing anything.  My colleagues were all intelligent people but they were not accustomed to freewheeling with ideas in that way. We teach that to our children.

At another meeting we were asked to give examples of when in our teaching we used high order questioning.  (Check it out at this link  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom’s_Taxonomy)  The higher order questioning identified by Bloom is when we expect pupils to analyse, evaluate and create.  These are fundamental strategies for Design Technology and ones which we teach so my response was that we used these questioning techniques in every lesson, some of my colleagues found this exercise much harder to do.  Sir Ken Robinson is adamant that there are no academic subjects, only academic ways of thinking about subjects, if this is the case and I think it is, then Design Technology has adopted the right approach to learning.

A pupil who has not found school an easy experience proudly told an important visitor that he spent a whole day in Design Technology and that it was the best bit of the week.  From this day he has gained some very marketable practical abilities that he will probably take into work with him.  He has gained far more than that, as he has learned to succede he has recognised that there are some things where he has abilities, he has grown in self confidence and is very happy to communicate all this to anyone who will listen.  Others who are the brightest and best, talented people ,have learned to use the cognitive skills as well as the practical skills that we teach and, perhaps without realsing it have gone on to utilise those skills in their careers.  What we teach and demand of our pupils is not just the ability to learn and retain information, we demand that they mange the information and use it to generate elegant solutions, to solve design problems, to manage their work and to evaluate it.

In the seach for growth, a preoccuaption of governments around the world, what employers are looking for are not just qualified people but individuals who can handle themselves and solve problems, who can create and innovate, who can generate wealth.  The signifiance of the knowledge economy is not the ability to store information, it is the ability to do things with that information, to synthesise and to evaluate.  These are the cognitive skills that Design Technology is uniquely able to teach by engaging mind and body.  Any curriculum devoid of this experience is barren indeed.

4 Responses to “Why Design and Technology should be at the heart of any curriculum..”
  1. Ray Cilia says:

    I read your comments and wondered carefully where I would be as an individual had it not been for the only topic I really enjoyed at school, Design Technology. Try as I might to be successful in Art, English etc. It was only this subject that worked for me. This was back in 1982 to 1988 and the transition year to National Curriculum and a pull away from woodwork, metal work and needle work. I like Physics, I like many other subjects but it only came together in DT. I left school with the accolade of a DT award for my efforts on making a Theodolite for measuring the height of a model airplane once airbourne.

    At college DT came to the resuce when I found myself struggling at Physics and Pure Maths. I like the subjects and was told I was not bright enough to do well in either. This was not the case in DT as I was told I had a flair for subject. I felt I had something to offer at last. Through Art and Design College and University I worked hard and tried to learn all the complex skills to manufacture and create innovative ideas. Eight years in Industrial plastic packaging design taught me volumes about processes and commercial enterprise. Modelling in 3D surface and using these 3D drawings to create tooling was incredible.

    After the eight years of hard work, I became more and more restless with office work. I embarked on being a DT – Teacher. I could not think of anything better than being an inspirational DT teachers like the ones from school and college who pushed me through my barriers. I was accepted at Cambridge University for my PGCE and was awarded a scholarship for their Masters program. I was taught, yet again by an inpsirational DT teacher who opened my eyes to the reasons why this subject is incredibly complex, fragile and creative.

    I learned after attempting my Masters in Educational research that my whole Educational career was handicapped by Dsylexia – please forgive spelling or grammatical mistakes.

    DT did not punish my development because I had dsylexia like so many other teachers did refering to my ability as slow or not sharp. In DT you was always encouraged to try something and have fun in exploration.

    I understand that DT does not have the epistemology or Theoria that goes with Science or Mathematics. Its not a weaker subject it is the practical application of such subjects to get working in the physical world we resign in. Its is both using theoria and praxis uniquely and draws on many levels of abilities. There is nothing more empowering than making your own artefact that is your own design. Its a part of you that lives on in another form.

    This leads me to my conclusion which frustrates me. DT as a subject is placed in school as a subject for those who cannot academically acheive. When are the Educational Experts ever going to make the connection that this is simply not truth. Intelligence is not a fixed point or resides on a single plane. An individual is intelligent because they can consume facts and recal these on demand, but so is an individual who solves a pracitcal problem by developing a technique. Intelligence is allocated to specific subjects and then comes the hiearchy of importance attached to these.

    The real issue is not what DT is and what it does really well. It is how its being perceived by academic institutes who have their own agendas. Just because I am not very good at music does not mean I do not have a great appreciation for Mozart. The Academia community that resides in their beautifully created Architectural wonders, using Ipads and Kindles just cannot justify why Design Technology is not important to a education? The irony is clearly plain to see.

    Its a great shame that Britain’s innovate, imaginative, historical heritage of making things is being squandered and as a nation we are rapidly developing a “can’t do that” culture of youngsters.

    • Ray, thank you for sharing your experiences and my apologies for not replying to you earlier. It is always great to hear from someone who found lifelong value in some of the teaching they received at school. I agree that the perception is all important as far as the debate goes, decisions are made all too often by those who don’t grasp the reality of what they are deciding about. All the more reason for us to take every opportunity to communicate with colleagues, school leaders, parents, governors and politicians. Keep up the good work.

  2. Daniel Wakefield says:

    I too read with much interest and agreement about the role that design and technology plays within a childs eduction. However, as much as this seems insignificant in the article, the first thing I see is a very well designed, well made and different product in the picture at the top that is a table…now I am sure the pupil has gone through many more creative process than say in the 50-70s when school pupils would make such items..but alas it is still a table.

    The image of the subject which fashions much of the debate around its position, purpose and need is forged by what they (decision makers and policy wirters) experienced themselves at school and what they see in schools today. To put it simply far to many schools have not and do not teach a modern curriculum through design and technology, not enough modelling, not enough challenge, not enough problem solving and creating solutions, not enough electronics, robotics and CAD/CAM…and far to much coloring and making nice little things.

    Although the NC review has placed some uncertainty around the subject, it for me has sent a well needed ‘shot across the bows’. Get with it or risk losing it.

    An interesting read Sir, good to see such passion.


    • Touche. I am in agreement with the thoughts you articulate though I should add that our curriculum is in my opinion exactly what you describe by implication. We teach a graphic design, electronic products, food technology, product design and catering at GCSE. Our courses include a great deal of CAD and CAM for all ages, considerable problem solving and a high degree of challenge in all our modules. Though I confess we do little in the way of robotics we do teach electronics across all key stages and are one of relatively few schools that offer it at GCSE. We are very much a design based department rather than an engineering one, a choice we feel is the right one for our area. Have a look at some of the other posts and see if your thinking is a mile away from mine and if so, pleas share.

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