Teaching design………..Making sense of research.

Art Deco design research by year 9 pupils.

Art Deco design research by year 9 pupils.

The politics of design technology education in the UK has been at the forefront of my thinking for some time now but I started this blog with the aim of sharing ideas and debating with other teachers of design so I feel that it is time for some ideas about the classroom.   One of the cool things about blogging is that you get to see what search engines are bringing visitors to your site and what these people were looking for when they started to search.  Usually these are predictable, sometimes surprising and sometimes depressing.  One that brought a visitor to me recently was, “children bad art deco”.  I confess, I bristled at that; was someone looking for bad design and did they think they had found it on this blog?  Well. if nothing else at least it got me thinking.

The snag with showing images of children’s work is that they sometimes say so little about what has gone into the teaching and learning mix that lead to the outcome in the image, I always tend to assume that for anyone interested in reading this those kind of issues will be obvious but I am realising that this is not the case.  For those who are not teachers of design the gap in understanding is even wider, almost everyone can recognise when a piece of pupil work looks good, is of marketable quality, not everyone can read into the object.  So here goes, what does good style research look like in the classroom?  How can you teach your pupils to read an object?  Why do I use Art Deco as a topic and what do my pupils learn from it?

Perhaps a starting point would be to observe that designers do not really work with a blank canvas.  I am sure you know the old joke which defines a psychologist as the one who looks at everyone else when a stunning woman walks into the room, well I suppose the designer will be checking out the decor.  Seriously, designers look at things in a different way.  Step one; share this insight with your pupils, tell them that they are going to learn how to see things differently.  Picture an Antiques Roadshow expert looking at a piece.  It seems like magic because with a single glance they take in a vast array of detail which they then proceed to share with the audience.  Break this down and it is a combination of history, sometimes very specific, craft knowledge, aesthetics, empathy and of course market knowledge for the valuation. ( The ones who are the most successful are also adept at engaging with the owners and the audience, useful message there for your keyskills lesson.)  So in order to be able to read an object, to understand it fully, you need more than just technical knowledge of production process and materials.  So how can you go about teaching this to children?

One of the early things that I do is to use a wonderful resource about the visual language of design, it was originally produced by The Design Make Centre down here in Cornwall under the inspiration of David Prest, you might still be able to find the PDF on line.   Starting children using the specialist vocabulary of design allows them to think about things in a different way and be able to explain their perceptions more easily.  Of course it also gives them access to using these concepts constructively in their own work.  If they understand what a clean line looks like then they are much more likely to be generating them in their own work.

Before I start looking at Art Deco I work with a group to compile a 20th century time line.  So many things impact on the development of the style or styles; technical advances driven by WW1 not to mention the social consequences of that cataclysmic event, the optimistic nature of Modernism and the shock to that view engendered by WW11, emancipation of women and so on.  No criticism of History colleagues but I find that very few pupils have any significant grasp of the major features of the 20th century.  A lot of pupils respond very positively to this, usually those who, like me, like to pin ideas to a larger picture of the world.  Plenty of opportunity here for you to explore your own passions but I warn you that if you get both world wars and one world cup you should consider this a success, the rest you may need to fill in.  Is this Design Technology?  Yes, I think so.  Both design and technology devoid of moral and social context are dangerous.  Just as a bonus with the new OFSTED focus on moral, social and cultural themes across the curriculum you have a great case to argue. I follow this up with a DVD on the history of Art Deco which gives them a lot of names to start researching and sometimes focuses them on a topic; transport, poster design, fashion, jewellery for example.

If you have anything to do with children you will know about their on line habits.  Lazy search on Google, if possible on an image setting and whatever comes up must be right.  An opportunity here to do some teaching about validating and assessing web information, just because it says “Art Deco” on the webpage doesn’t mean it ‘s Art Deco on the webpage.  One way around this is to get pupils to save a selection of images with their url and then peer share to see if they can spot genuine or fake.  My final challenge to them is this, “Can you describe to me in detail what makes a design Art Deco?”  I am looking for the design details rather than a date of manufacture and as you can imagine in order to answer that question you need to really look at the designs you are studying, use design vocabulary to shape your thinking and your response.  Just a thought, one of my most productive resources is second hand bookshops, you can provide a very healthy liibrary for a modest outlay and it is much more fun than online shopping.

Part 2 still to come.

2 Responses to “Teaching design………..Making sense of research.”
  1. tristramshepard says:

    I think the history of design should be an essential part of any D&T course. Not done in a dry academic way of course, but as part of developing an awareness that design occurs through a mixture of social, economic and technological change. However, it is always important to stress that very few people lived in, for example, the Art Deco worlds portrayed in the images of the time – mainly just the very wealthy!

    I also agree about the importance introducing and making reference to the ‘visual language’, which is sadly rarely covered these days in Art&Design or D&T lessons.

    • Hi Tristram, thanks for the feedback. As you might assume any referrence to the period must encompass the Great Depression and the availability of Deco style goods at both the top end of the market and the more prosaic emerging brand identities. As you will know well some exam boards are now encouraging this approach but \I suspect that as always some teachers are doing it because they must and some with considerable enthusiasm. The same is true of visual language. I am still getting over the experience of being assured by an OFSTED inspector that my degree in History of Modern Art and Design was of no relevance to my subject teaching.

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