Mind the design gap……………What it takes to teach Design Technology

Designs thinking in action

Designs thinking in action

A recent conversation prompted me to re think a conventional piece of wisdom about the qualities that a Design Technology teacher needs to have.  Of course these are all additional qualities to those that any teacher needs to do their job, well maybe, see what you think.  A long time ago I came across this quote which struck me with sufficient force to make me hang on to it:

“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 to all those who wish to gain professional advancement.”  

The style of the language probably gives away the age of the quote, suffice it to say that it comes from a document produced in the 70’s. If you are old enough to go slightly misty eyed at this thought then you are probably thinking  back to a training that expected you to become at least competent, if not expert in a wide range of what were still called craft disciplines; among them cabinetmaking, silversmithing, engineering, jewellery making, foundry work and what was still called technical drawing.  Among other things you will note that there is not even a hint of gender equality and that the subject is still Craft, which now sounds increasingly like Joyce Grenfell’s, “Mrs Joyful prize for raffia work.”   Well many things have changed since then, the subject first became CDT, Craft, Design and Technology, before arriving at its present designation, gender balances shifted and every child now works in food, textiles, resistant materials and rather less often in electronics.

So much for the ancient history, (Topical though, given Mr Gove’s fondness for the subject.)  The point of the reminiscence was that craft teachers were skilled makers with a severely limited background in design.  For the last twenty years one of the most often heard issues for developing Design Technology departments has been that they were burdened with ‘old fashioned’ technology teachers who were a bit dyed in the wool as far as craft skills were concerned and reluctant to abandon these skills in favour of what was often seen as a glue gun and card approach with no discipline and shoddy outcomes.  Of course much of this is true, those who had spent some considerable time learning these skills rightly saw them as significant, more than that they became a part of who you were as a person.  Such things are not easy to surrender.   However things were changing and that in itself was to become the hall mark of the future for design education; constant change.

Well now the shoe is firmly on the other foot.  The Design Technology teachers of today have more often than not come from a design background.  Their training is in the process and skills of design, much less so in the making.  Hence the conversation with a time served engineer now working as a school technician who asked me which way hacksaw teeth pointed.  Some young teachers had made him doubt himself so much that he felt he had to check when they assured him that they had read in a book that the teeth pointed towards the handle when all his training told him that they pointed the other way.  A clash of cultures.  Arguable design education has followed to some extent the prevailing view in the art world that skills are something you read up on when you need them, not something you spend time on mastering.  Now of course the real point is not that everyone should know about hacksaws, the key issue is that as teachers we can never stop learning.  It might well be the case that the deeply entrenched craftsman needs to learn about design skills but it is certainly the case that they have a lot to teach colleagues about making.  What we need is a recognition that both strands are essential if we are to do our children justice.

Almost all teachers are doing the job because they enjoyed learning at some time, sadly for some it seems to have been something that happened to them in the past.  Real learners go on all their lives and this is the key message for the Design Technology community.  It is not about what you and your staff are good at right now, it is about what they need to be developing themselves to be good at in the future.  This is not simply a matter of learning the latest software or finding out how a new piece of equipment works. Learning is an exciting process and being confident enough to model that for your pupils, to tell them about something exciting that you have just learned is a powerful thing in education.  As we learn we start to recognise the skills and processes that are of long term value for all our pupils and accepting that some of the skills we cherish are of inestimable value to a few.  It is about forging a vital and purposeful curriculum that will serve our children well in their futures.

It is a matter of great pleasure and  pride that I can point to some of my pupils who have gone on the be lifelong cabinetmakers, but they are few indeed. It is a delight to receive an invitation to an ex students degree show in textiles design, not that I taught her textiles but that some of the design thinking we did during her product design course have stood her in good stead.  I am very sure that the broader skills and abilities that I have taught all my pupils will serve them well in the vast range of careers they have gone on to pursue, not to mention in their daily lives as consumers and voters.


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