Deskilling society………

A brilliant response to a simple design brief by one of our Y9 pupils.

A brilliant response to a simple design brief by one of our Y9 pupils.

A long drive and a lengthy conversation about skill with someone who knows how to ask the right questions got me thinking about the current issues facing Design Technology education.  Well, alright, I have to admit that it usually doesn’t take very much to get me thinking about this but we did cover some new ground.  Another conversation this evening with a group of trainee teachers put a different spin on some of the same ideas.  I asked them what the rewards of the job were and amidst generous helpings of derision one of them said that she loved marking.  Now it is not often that you will hear a teacher admit to that.  It emerged that what she meant was that she loved to see her pupils really get hold of an idea that she had taught them.  If you are involved in education you will surely recognise that thrill, it is a very special moment when you understand that you have made a difference to another life.  I am fortunate to work in a school where it is not uncommon to discover that feeling, not necessarily through marking but in lesson conversations and in the general interchange of teaching and learning when a pupil will let you know that they really understand something now because you have taught them.   Is it something hard wired into us, the desire to teach?  Or do I just feel that because I am a teacher?

Back to skill.   Ahh!  So much to say but not enough time, simplest to quote from the excellent “The Art of the Maker” by Peter Dormer, a book that I recommend if you have any interest in making.  Dormer writes, “A common assumption is that craft skills are mechanically learned and exercised: and that they are thus obviously unthinking and uncreative.  This modern prejudice goes hand in hand with an attitude, perhaps peculiar to the latter half of the twentieth century in Western culture, that one can learn skills as and when one thinks one needs them.  I think we have lost an understanding of what the learning of skills involves, especially in the plastic arts.”  As you might expect Dormer goes on to flesh out his ideas and to redress the lack in our understanding but for our purposes the idea stands.  Now perhaps I should admit to speaking for myself at the outset but I do not think that most teachers think enough about what they teach or indeed why they teach it.  I was fortunate or unfortunate enough to have started teaching before any national curriculum.  This meant that I could construct my own curriculum according to what I believed at the time was of value.  You will not be surprised to learn that what I valued was what I was very good at, a particular branch of making whose skills  I had devoted a large part of my short life to acquiring.   With all the evangelical zeal of the newly learned I set about teaching my charges the value of these skills.

I was fortunate enough to work in a very gifted team who encouraged me and valued what I offered.  For at least some of the children I taught the value of the making became a significant part of their lives.  When I left the school a colleague was at pains to bring a deputy head down to see something I had made, “I want him to know what he is losing” was the flattering phrase he used.  The thing is that showing him only confirmed his understanding of what our subject was all about because what he saw was not the same as what my colleague and I saw.  The deputy head saw a nice box.  Nothing more than that.  Because he had no experience of skill or making he understood nothing of the quality, the complexity or the skill evident in the work.  You might think that I should have explained it to him, and I certainly would in any school I worked in today, I would explain it loud and long and as often as I saw the man.  We need to explain our subject because people do not understand what it is all about.  At the time I said nothing because I thought that any intelligent person would understand, I thought that my journey to knowledge was the same as everybody else’s but of course it wasn’t.

During the conversation that started this train of thought my co debater announced that of course nobody had to be skilled anymore.  That is true in terms of the making skills that I am discussing.    Of course almost everyone has acquired some sort of skill, like riding a bike.  You can be sure that they are dismissive of it, not very conscious of how they mastered it and not very reflective about how the process of learning a skill operates though.  Throw into the mix a generic view in society that skilled work is of lesser worth than other forms of work, add a dash of the idea that you can always pick up a skill if you need it and we have the outlines of a picture that  might explain how it is that our educated political leaders have so misunderstood the value of the subject.  Pick your politician of choice and trace their journey to knowledge.  At school they were taught by enthusiasts who believed that  the selected brand of learning they were teaching was important.  Our budding politician starts to succeed at this learning, becomes an enthusiast in their own right, goes off to university to deepen their knowledge in a now rather narrow field, leaves university and starts to work in politics.  Few if any will have a deep experience of what it is to learn a significant making skill, let alone a designing skill.  How can we expect them to know what we are talking about?

Time to explain!

One Response to “Deskilling society………”
  1. tristramshepard says:

    A few brief thoughts! First I entirely agree that it is good to learn a ‘practical skill’ or two in depth, although of course it may not necessarily be the one your teacher happens to be good at. One problem though is that, in terms of future employment, we don’t know which skills are going to have value, and so as today’s children go through life they will need be flexible in their thinking and realise that at some point they are likely to have to learn new skills. The reality in most D&T departments meanwhile is that the teaching of high-level craft skills has been replaced by the teaching of low-level design skills.

    But the main debate has always been whether design thinking and activity is only possible after a thorough grounding of practical skill and knowledge has been acquired. At present this is the approach adopted in the revision National Curriculum in all subjects, and it is one I profoundly disagree with. Children learn more effectively when they understand the relevance and application of the skills they are acquiring – so what is needed is the parallel development of both. And there is of course plenty of evidence of very young children being able to make both logical and creative design decisions.

    At the same time, we do indeed need to explain what design education is actually all about as their are very few who have the faintest idea. The idea that design is no more than superficially making things look nice is still prevalent in society.

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