So what makes a great design teacher?

Last week I started to explore  the range of qualities, knowledge and attributes that go to make up a great teacher.  This week lets focus on subject specific skills.  If you are a regular reader  you will by now have started to pick up some of the underlying ideas that shape my thinking.  One of the most dearly held that I have come to believe from long experience is that good teachers care more about the teaching than they do about the subject.  Now there are some problems in that statement and given the arguments that I have been making about the importance of Design Technology as a key element of the education of every child you might find it odd that I should suggest it.  Let me share some of the ideas that underly such a remark.

In the UK education tends to funnel children into narrow specialisms as they get older, at 13 we ask children to opt for subjects they will take at GCSE, at 16 we ask them to narrow the choices down a little further for A level and finally we reduce the field of inquiry to just one subject for most people at degree level.   There may be nothing wrong with this and for most people it results in a degree (sorry!) of excitement about their chosen specialism.  Few people would disagree with the idea that it takes more than a detailed knowledge of a single subject  to produce the kind of well rounded education that we would wish to see in our citizens.  However what also happens along the way is that just as young adults are starting to fix their personality and character in their early twenties we offer them a convenient moment of self definition, an “I am” moment where the subject they have immersed themselves in  becomes a part of their self identity.  The battles that rage in staff rooms around the country about the primacy of subjects often have more to do with the personal status of the participants than with any genuine educational validity.  (It should go without saying that this observation does not apply to any of the posts in this blog which are all based on rational and disinterested arguments.)  If you want to follow up this idea then two sources spring to mind; the first is the ever fresh “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, T S Kuhn, an analysis that demonstrates the ways in which the idea that knowledge is power is worked out in academic contexts, the second is work on the theory of personal constructs by Kelly.  Put these two together and see what you get.

For the current argument what you are in danger of ending up with is teachers who are defensive about their subject expertise and whose primary concern is not really the education of the children in their charge.  Woops, have I upset anyone?  Make no mistake I am thrilled when one of my pupils follows a design based career and enjoys it.  I am equally delighted when they choose some other path but I know that they have responded to what I have taught them.  At the heart of great teaching is the desire and the ability to communicate with another human being , to reach someone else and see a response in them.  There is a valued and quite just pride in seeing a pupil succeed in becoming an independent and thoughtful person.  This is not a possessive pride, quite the reverse.  I make great play with my classes of the moment when Mum or Dad teaches them to ride a bike.   Somehow that relatively simple piece of technology fixes for us a transition,  the moment when a parent releases the child for the first time and they cycle off on their own is iconic, so much so that it even features in television adverts.  The real thrill comes from knowing that you have influenced another human being for the better, reached them in a way that no one else could, offered them something that only you could give.

Whenever I get the chance I tell teachers to find things that excite them about their subject, to go on being learners and to share that learning and enthusiasm with their pupils.  I am convinced that we do not share enough  about the excitement that learning brings.  This kind of experience is one where you share the joy of learning; modelling the positives for young people.  It is not the kind of learning that is a prop to your professional status.   The best teachers are educators, not in the narrowest sense brought on us by a drive to match exam success measures but in the broadest sense.  The best design and technology teachers are fizzing with excitement about their subject,  not to demonstrate how good they are but to enrapture their pupils.

Now let me see if I can square the circle and match this point of view with a vital need for Design Technology in the curriculum.  It is quite simple really,  we teach children how to use their minds and bodies to deal with knowledge.  We teach them to draw on and use in combination a vast array of subject specific learning from many other disciplines.  We give them genuine opportunities to combine their learning to generate solutions in a creative way.  We teach them the rigour of persisting in the face of difficulty because the outcome justifies the expenditure of effort and the rewards of achieving are greater than the costs of working towards a gaol.

Let me finish with a quote which I wrote down in about 1976; “The new craft (sic) teacher needs to be a man of all-round culture with a sophisticated professional philosophy, a high degree of sensitivity to the needs of children and a capacity to form sound relationships not only with children but also with parents, social workers, colleagues and industrialists.  Qualities of intelligence, wide knowledge, resourcefulness, initiative and a high degree of personal creativity operating through a wide range of materials and right across the boundaries of art and technology are essential,..”  (Design in Craft Education, A.A.D.T.S)   Well the territory in which we operate has changed somewhat but the underlying message remains.


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