“What’s wrong with DT?………….Now there’s a question.

Degree show work by Hannah Casey, an ex pupil who has gone on to great things.

Degree show work by Hannah Casey, an ex pupil who has gone on to great things.


I can’t recall what I was looking for but I came across this report on the RSA blog, “What’s wrong with DT?”   Written by John Miller it provides a thought provoking analysis of Design Technology, you should certainly read it here.   Miller is an advocate and supporter of the subject but has the advantage of viewing it from outside as a design lecturer and design professional.  Reading the report as someone who has been in the business of delivering the National Curriculum since it’s inception almost all of what John writes I can empathise with.  There are on or two surprises in his analysis of what the intentions behind the framing of the NC were supposed to lead to in schools.  Apparently the subject was intended to be lead by a member of the senior leadership in each school who had no particular subject affiliation, who knew?  This and some other aspects of what was intended inevitably got lost in translation as the subject was rolled out to schools, all of who were wrestling with an entire National Curriculum for the very first time and most of whom simply parceled out the sections to what they deemed the relevant departments at the time.  CDT, (craft, design and technology if you are young enough not to know the term), departments were already struggling with the relatively new idea that they should somehow be teaching children to design but none the less were expected to deliver the new subject with little or no training.  Add to this mix the usual school infighting around esteem, budget and your place in the options system and the ground was set for a trying future.

Miller identifies gulf between the visionary ideas behind the new subject and the training of the workforce expected to deliver it as a significant problem.  He also suggests that the huge range of content inevitably made the subject a continuous scramble for time with the higher order thinking about design being the inevitable victim.  He describes formulaic design work that gallops through a limited and controlled design process, effectively stamping out creativity on the way, reflecting that as an admissions tutor he struggled to find any individuality in the design portfolios of applicants; hardly a surprise given that some exam boards prescribe the sheet layout and number of sheets as well as the content.  The picture Miller  paints is of a subject community that has driven itself into a canyon whose sides seem to be ever higher and whose floor seems ever narrower, so that the only course of action is to thunder on regardless.  Lest your hackles should rise I must point out that Miller is fundamentally supportive of the work done in schools, recognising the challenges; “The context that the DT teacher operates in looks something like this: a group of 20 children for one hour a week for 10 weeks; a design and make project that addresses the specialist subject content,…….the eight-phrase DT process and 4-point design process; and finally an overwhelming pressure for all to pass driven by the school’s published attainment statistics.”  

Perhaps the most interesting observation is that the lack of any relationship between Art and Design and Design Technology departments in schools is extraordinary and a significant weakness.  Now if you are on the design wing of the party you might be nodding in agreement at this point, whereas if you are well over towards the STEM wing you might be shaking yours sadly at the thought of trying to work with that disorganised bunch in the other block.  And therein lies one of the tensions;  it seems to me valid to tailor your curriculum to suit your circumstances.  You might feel that a bias towards engineering is appropriate for your location and your pupils, you might see design as the way forward for you.  What seems to be overarching is that design as a way of engaging with the world is spreading far beyond the confines that existed even ten years ago.  In schools  it is also the critical point where high order thinking becomes the focus of what we do.  The great joy of Design Technology is that it has the potential to allow pupils to explore this thinking in a wider variety of ways than any other subject.

And here we come back to iterative design and the new national curriculum.   If we don not recognise that thinking can be done in a variety of ways, including modelling, sketching, making and experimenting then why are we designer makers?  It is rare for subjects to allow children to work in that range of ways, which ones do in schools?  Well the answer should be Design Technology and Art and Design.  The problem for most DT teachers is that they find it hard to see design thinking evidenced in the work they see in the art department, that’s assuming they ever bother to look at the work.  I hope that we can all agree that we see a lot of creativity in the art rooms of our schools and I would like to think that we are looking for the same thing in the design work we see in DT.  The new NC reduces the amount of prescription and should free us up to explore the more creative aspects of our subject with our students.  We shall see.

One of the challenges we face is how to assess the work our children do.  All round the country the insecurity of assessment is worrying teachers and school leaders now that there are no levels set for us to work to.  Well teaching art briefly under a very perceptive colleague’s guidance I found something interesting.  Looking at the work of a whole class I found it easy to see what was good work and what was not, to see learning progress.  I was delighted to find that my colleague and mentor agreed with my assessment.  In other words this is a chance to take back the professional responsibility for judging the quality of what you and your children do.  Risky given the need to show progress to all and sundry but if we are to make the difference for ourselves and our children now’s the time.


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