Teaching children to design; what not to do…..and the “Ah-ha!” moment.

In schools across the country teachers of Design Technology are doing last minute revision sessions for their pupils who are about to sit the last part of their GCSE exam.  The agonising business of leading, cajoling, driving, encouraging, persuading teen agers to complete a rigorous design and make project is over.  What they have not done now they will never do, the marks have been awarded with much deliberation as for almost everyone the exam is a new one this year.  Working through the mark scheme with colleagues I started wondering all over again whether this is a sensible way of assessing a pupil’s ability in the subject.

I have to confess that I don’t yet have a better idea but I do have some observations about what we find ourselves doing at the moment and why this is counter productive if we want to produce independent and creative thinkers.  Nothing that I am going to say is anything other than public discussion with my classes, I am quite blunt in telling them that I am going to teach them two, quite separate skills; the first is how to think like a designer and the second is how to pass the exam.  Here is the problem:  In order to conform to the criteria for standardised assessment across all schools in the country the examining bodies need to produce an itemised list of what good design looks like.  Not only that but they need to describe what different levels of performance look like for each item on that list.  Go on then, how would you start to describe the design process?  All you have to come up with is a series of stages that are essential to the business of design, apply to all design situations, can be described in such a way that there can be no misunderstanding about what they should look like and can be assessed easily.

To make this slightly possible we have recourse to a great deal of observational studies about the way in which designers work.  The theory is that if you observe designers in action you might be able to record what they do and the sequence in which they do things so that you could arrive at a description of the business of designing.  The catch is that designers tend to be creative and individualistic, they rarely conform to a set process and even if they do the action which forms the evidence for our study may only suggest a small part of the cognitive processes that are going on at the same time.  Starting points, stages, sequence, techniques are hugely varied.  What chance an effective model that encompasses all that?  I can still remember reacting very strongly to an interview where a designer claimed that the only starting point for any design activity was to research materials.  At the time I was convinced that the idea was wrong headed, on reflection perhaps I would say that where a designer does not already know their materials it may be the case.  For me, starting from a craft disciplined background it certainly was not, my familiarity with the materials I worked with was a given.  Some designers really need to model to think, some sketch, by hand or on screen, some work well in teams and some really don’t.

It should be obvious that any attempt to provide a single design narrative that accommodates the vast range of process evident in design practice is doomed to failure.  We are in grave danger of providing a checklist for the stages and what should be in them, indeed this is what most teachers do for their pupils. Remember we are teaching them to pass the exam……..  What the best teachers do is that and more.  By being explicit about design skills, the mental tricks and processes that designers use to shape their thinking and to inform their work teachers provide pupils with skills which go far beyond design work.  Let me give you an example, is problem solving as a skill identical with design?  I hope your answer is negative; problem solving is a skill set that operates in an infinite variety of human situations and while some of the attributes that are necessary to problem solving are useful in design others are significant as well.  So if I teach the use of De Bono’s hats as a design technique I am laying a foundation which will serve for a variety of life experiences for my students, not just a design skill.  If I use project management methods to steer my students through a design and make exercise those skills will have application across the board.  When I give children in my class the tools and skills lto be critical analysts of design they will apply those techniques in other situations.  (By the way, just think about the range of intellectual skills we teach on a daily basis, makes you wonder why the subject is not compulsory for all.)

Now about the “Ah-ah” moment.  Borrowing from Arthur Koestler the creative act and humour share a great deal.  If you have ever done any public speaking and ventured a humourous anecdote you will recall that the laughter, if there was any, usually starts with one bright spark who gets the punch line before you deliver it followed by the rest who catch up as you deliver it and often one other who has a sort of delayed reaction.  For one project that I do I tell my class that I am going to give them a headache followed by the  “ah-ha” moment as they get it.  What follows is some teaching about mechanisms leading to a design project.  Understanding mechanical designs is tricky and I can look around at a sea of troubled expressions, furrowed brows, frowns ,general facial contortions.  Then like magic, ringing across the workshop will be the, Oh! I’ve got it!”   If you have time at this point you can explain that they have just experienced a surge of dopamine which is going to make them feel happy and coincidentally make the preceding twenty minute memorable. (This lead to one of my class asking me if he could have some of that dopium, I dread to think what he tells his parents.)

I hope that any designers reading this will empathise, you tackle a problem, you work away at it and suddenly you get what we call a flash of inspiration, the idea came to me, I cracked the problem.  It is a hugely rewarding experience and it is ultimately what leads us to do design, well one of the things at least.  Can you give that to your students?  I think I’ll save some of the ideas for the next post.


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