Teaching Design Technology………….the oldest profession?

One of Alan Tugwell's exquisite sculptures, have a look at his work on alantugwell.wordpress.com

One of Alan Tugwell’s exquisite sculptures, have a look at his work on alantugwell.wordpress.com

(It is of course scurrilous of me to use an image of one of Alan Tugwell’s stunning works and in the same breath even hint at what is usually deemed to be the oldest profession.  If you are taken with his work then you can check out his blog which, though out of date will give you a small sample.  For more you may have to visit him at his studio in Morvah.)

A friend recently sent me a quote which prompted some thinking about all manner of things but chiefly the challenge facing Design Technology teachers in the coming year.  In the UK we have seen a significant move in the right direction from the government in response to a tide of comment from concerned people in all walks of life about the curriculum proposals and their effects on Design Technology, more especially their effects on children in our schools.   The predictable furore surrounding this years exam results has thrown up some interesting things; some schools are making much of their success in the English Baccalaureate, a qualification that most of you will know does not exist, some have ignored it altogether which would seem to be the best course of action.  For a more detailed perspective have a look at, http://www.baccforthefuture.com/

But back to the quote!  Here it is:

“Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel  son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship.  And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.  He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers – all of them master craftsmen and designers. “

Now without getting too deeply into the theology, (or even taking note of the fact that food is significantly missed in this context), this is an early and pretty comprehensive reference to what we would recognise as Design Technology.   It is also a delight to note that not only are these two identified as gifted artist designer craftsmen but they are able teachers.  Some readers will see at once that both characters are also identified as functioning across a huge range of crafts, a skill viewed as necessary for the modern Design Technologist in schools.  But perhaps most significantly what it also illustrates is a society which sees a relationship between the spiritual and physical aspects of existence, a view which is perhaps at odds with our own.  The battle that has been fought over the value of Design Technology in the curriculum illustrates this only too well.  Those of us who read the report of the expert panel advising the government were deeply shocked that they could find insufficient evidence that our subject was a coherent discipline.  That seemed such a bizarre statement that most of us were taken by surprise.

Here is the meat of the issue which that quote reminded me of so strongly.  Trace this with me; most of our policy makers, indeed most of our politicians are the product of a private education system whose underlying tenet is derived from the liberal education curriculum developed in what were clearly elite and elitist schools.  The influences on this curriculum included a reverence for the classics, including classical philosophy, by which we mean Greek philosophy.  Greek philosophy was fundamentally a philosophy of the aristocracy, an aristocracy in a slave owning society which was able to define itself in opposition to the material world.  Of course this is a huge simplification but the point remains;  the contrast is between a view which accepts our physical relationship with the world and therefore values our interaction with it and one which esteems the abstract and consequently cannot properly value expressions of our  physical engagement with the world.

Well, so what?  As a teacher or someone who values the creative and physical aspects of our existence you might need to be able to articulate the value of what we do.  You might need to be able to do this to children, parents, employers and not least to leaders in your school.  I have often joked that if our school leaders understood what Design Technology was all about then they would be teaching it.  Of course that’s not true, each subject has its own appeals, its own elegance and its own fascination but the underlying truth is that most people think very little about designing and making things, school leaders least of all.  You may well know the leader who refutes my argument,  I certainly can think of someone who is always prepared to learn and to recognise just what good design teaching adds to a child’s experience of life, but these people are exceptions to the general rule.

Now the truth is that the same criticism could be leveled at most of us who teach the subject.  As children we probably experienced that mixture of success at some aspect of the subject, interest leading to application which in turn produced more success and carried us over the difficult times until we started to define ourselves as designers or makers or both.  For a host of different reasons we ended up teaching the subject and are convinced of the value of it to all children.  But we are not so good at defining that value, expressing it and presenting it with clarity to those who need to know.  I remain convinced that this is why we have had to wrestle with learning objectives as a community, we know that by doing something children will learn something but defining just what it is that they will learn has proved to be elusive to some.

Perhaps the most useful outcome of the national debate on the importance of Design Technology has been that it has forced many of us to articulate our case.  Now that it seems we have achieved something through this process lets keep presenting the case so that we can ensure that what we do for children will not find itself under threat again.

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