Iterative design……………….the shape of the future of Design Technology

Designs for a table.

Designs for a table.

Just over twelve months ago the proposed new National Curriculum for Design Technology had thrown most of us into disbelief and despair.  It seemed that all the work developing the subject over the last twenty or thirty years was simply to be discarded and a model rooted in the 1920’s was to be the way forward.   The most productive thing to emerge from this was a rising tide of advocacy from all quarters insisting that this was inadequate as a model for 21st century education and suggesting changes.    What quickly emerged was a diverse range of ideas about just what Design Technology is.   The business community argued that if the government’s determination to re balance the economy was to be achieved then we needed a generation of technologically literate and technically capable young people.  Strong arguments were made by James Dyson and others for the subject to specifically include engineering as a component.  Growing concerns, (pardon the pun), about the sources and production of food lead to strong representation from those who wanted to see cooking feature strongly while a variety of designers argued for a stronger emphasis on creativity.

DATA, the body representing Design Technology teachers, lead a vigorous campaign which resulted in them being one of the major players in the revision of the curriculum.  While they were not able to achieve all that they wanted the orders now in place reflect, to a considerable degree, their intentions. The word that may cause most difficulty for teachers in schools is the notion of iterative design.  Now as you may know a great deal has been written about the nature of design and, like any complex human activity, the danger is that in describing what it is you risk losing something essential.   Most schools have had to wrestle with their understanding of design but inevitably, given that the majority of teachers in post when design first became part of the curriculum had been trained in an era when the subject was called Domestic Science and Craft, they looked to a linear model of the design process.  Indeed calling it a process implies this linearity.

To simplify the case, what we did was to look at what designers did and began to note similarities in their methods, we then assigned names to the clusters of activity and plotted them into a process.  My mental picture of this exercise is an enormous scatter graph, each cross marking a design activity by an individual,  with a plotted line of best fit; significantly it is close to almost all of the activity but didn’t quite fit any one designers approach.  (Of course most designers will adapt their techniques and method depending on the task in hand, making the issue still more complex).  Then comes the problem of how you examine a curriculum which is base don this linear model.  The answer is that you break a design activity down into stages and assign marks to each stage, the marks varying according to how much is expected to be in each stage.  Given the pressure on schools to achieve results then the inevitable happens; teachers teach pupils exactly what needs to be in each stage to get the maximum marks.  At it’s best this might mean a teacher being explicit about teaching children how to be designers and also how to pass the exam, they might have a conversation which reflects on the quality of the design work and then spells out what is required to get a good mark, sadly the two are not always the same and sadly in many classrooms this conversation never happens, the teaching is solely directed at the mark.  This of course exerts a downward pressure on the learning that happens in the early years of the school, how many planning meetings have revolved around the question; “What do they need to know for GCSE?”

And this is where we arrive at iterative design, a model that recognises the consistent trend for designers to go back and back, reworking elements of their designs in pursuit of the ideal solution.  (Apparently this is well understood in industrial design where this tendency causes production engineers endless headaches until they can wrest the design out of the designers hands).  In a bold move, which observers of the current education debate in the UK will find surprising, DATA managed to  write in iterative designing as part of the National Curriculum, creating a demand for greater creativity in design education and putting pressure for change on schools and exam boards around the country.  Now any progress towards more creative designing in schools has to be a good idea but if we are to do this justice then there are some issues for us all to face.

The first challenge is that it really will require teams to plan new schemes of work around the new curriculum.  There has been some safety in some parts of the current curriculum, focused practical tasks for example allowed for some very specific teaching of technique and process.  I am sure that many schools will argue that these should be retained and will take advantage of the reduced content to include them at key stage 3.  They will need to demonstrate that this contributes to the high order designing that the new curriculum envisages.  Another issue is that many staff will need to thrash out exactly what design activity should look like under the new curriculum, the degree to which this will be necessary will hinge on the expertise of the team but some schools will have some serious staff development to undertake.  The third headache will be devising credible assessment methods that reflect the quality of the design thinking going on in classrooms and studios rather than just the quality of the product.  One significant barrier to creativity in the current exam system is that it places a very high weighting on complete, well finished projects.  All too often this has lead to an aversion to risks with designing and making, after all it is not just the grade for the student that hangs in the balance these days.  A risk with a grade has repercussions for the individual teacher and the school as a whole; is it any wonder that teachers have been going for the straight line approach to designing.

One Response to “Iterative design……………….the shape of the future of Design Technology”
  1. Tim Brotherhood says:

    Iteration could be applied to any stage of developing a new product including; sketching, model making, exploring different materials and trying out manufacturing processes. Historically much of this would have involved physical prototypes but increasingly design development is done digitally and the same software used by industry is available free to schools and pupils at home.

    The curriculum we develop should prepare the children for the future and not cling to the ways of the past. In industry the main tool used to test analyse and simulate designs and to ‘engineer’ incremental improvement in their designs is 3D modelling software.

    Teachers need to embrace new technologies and not be afraid of using analysis and simulation tools to quantify the performance and behaviour of designs and inform improvements.

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