“Not everything that counts can be counted….”

One of Zaha Hadid's  Liquid Glacial tables.

One of Zaha Hadid’s Liquid Glacial tables.


If you work in a school that invested heavily in delivering vocational courses then you will remember all too clearly the shock announcement by Mr Gove that all such courses were failing to make the grade and would be reduced in value at a stroke.  That, of course is not real value, just the way in which they were counted in school league tables.  For the many in both education and business who had worked hard to create and deliver these courses, who knew what it took to pass them and who knew the value of them this came a shattering blow.  Now, several years too late, the government have announced a revised tranche of vocational courses amid a flurry of statements designed to convince the unwary that the previous ones were without rigour, without value and a waste of time for all concerned.  The continuing irony of the education department acting in this way at the same time as the rest of government were proclaiming the need to re balance the economy towards manufacturing will not be lost on you if you had anything to do with education.  For more detail on this front have a look at, Hancock’s Half Hour.

On another front a consultation period is underway about revisions to the A level syllabus for Design Technology.  Oh joy!  What chance of this generating a relevant and dynamic result?  Well, almost none unless we do something about it so I urge you to contribute before it is too late.  Bearing in mind what we know about the way that education runs at the moment this does really matter.  In a results driven culture, where a great deal hangs on notional success measured by exam results, schools are going to respond by focusing on just that.    I came across the quote that forms the title on a classroom wall, attributed to Einstein.  It continues, “and not everything that can be counted counts.”  Well that rings true for education at the moment, doesn’t it?

However we are in the game, like it or not so let’s make the very best of it for the children we teach.  We know that exam results are going to be used a measure of success.  As a result we know that the whole curriculum is going to be geared toward preparing children for exam success.  While most people are optimistic about the impact of the new curriculum for Design Technology any chance of making it work in the way that most design teachers want is going to hang on what the exams end up looking like.  And therein lies the problem.  Design thinking is not easily susceptible to a structured syllabus; almost all exams in our subject are based in the first place on observation of designers at work, this is then formulated into what we tend to think of as the design process which is then translated into a mark scheme.  The twist is that the mark scheme is not the way that designers work, it is a summary of a variety of approaches.  However in order to allocate marks there are a series of statements about what will be in the student’s design folder to get the marks and so the mark scheme becomes prescriptive.  In effect it forces students through a mark scheme shaped nozzle which is rather the antithesis of the creative range and variety of design activity.

I couldn’t resist Zaha Hadid’s table when I saw it in a London gallery, (couldn’t resit taking a photograph that it, it was the kind of shop with no prices displayed but I am fairly sure that it would be well out of my range).  I am sure that somewhere there are some design sketches for it, I doubt very much that the design work it represents would pass GCSE simply because it doesn’t address the criteria.  It was designed using the skills and creativity that it needed, and it is beautiful.  It has no need to prove itself via a criteria referenced folder.

Now here is a real chance.  The dreaded levels are disappearing!  Well to be truthful they are probably not.  Each school has its’s data mangers and they need something to put in their spreadsheets.  Some will no doubt keep levels, some will change them for letters or numbers, some will use the new exam grading.  However in your department you have the opportunity to start to asses design work in the way you want to.  Many colleagues are trawling the new curriculum and writing lengthy level descriptors to match; the task becomes quite Herculean if you are not very careful.  And remember that the curriculum is not intended to take up all the time available so there are opportunities for you to tailor what you provide to suit your school.

How about refining these statement banks to some simple themes?  Then how about describing what really great work would look like in each of those themes, it should be fairly easy to then describe stages on the way to that level which would be open ended enough to allow for a much more flexible approach to designing and making.  Of course you will need to make teacher judgments when something great happens and you should build in something that recognises the way in which failure becomes part of the process.  Whatever you do devise a scheme which you can use with your children, don’t underestimate their capacity to grasp what you are looking for but do make it something that you can use with them in class on a daily basis.

Oh, and if you are still a little hazy about the whole design thing don’t worry, just remember that most poets read their own work very badly.  You might be a great designer but not all that clear about describing what you do.  Help is at hand in the form of a book called, “Design Thinking” by Nigel Cross, well worth a read if you don’t already know it.

5 Responses to ““Not everything that counts can be counted….””
  1. lucy says:

    Not everything that counts can be counted….. made me smile. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately it seems we must all be counted, boxed and graded. If only we could measure how proud my students are of their work and the value this gives them, and how proud I am of them and extra proud they manage to jump through the hoops to get there!

  2. July 2014

    D&T exams for the future- my thoughts!

    Design & Technology is such a wide field that it cannot be squeezed into one examination topic, but all the areas are united in the main philosophy of the subject – that pupils design their own product or system in response to a real context and they then make that product.

    I have divided up the special areas of focus into sections that each make a unique area of study that will be able to be tested via a written examination. We need to do this so that pupils will have an deeper understanding of one ‘subject’ and will enable them to put theory into practice within their coursework project.

    The sections are:

    Food and nutrition
    Textiles, fabrics, production and fashion
    Solid products – product design, incorporating woods, metals and plastics
    Controllable products – engineering type product using robotics and electronics
    Communication Information – graphic type products, advertising, animation, signage

    All these areas will have their own field of knowledge which will by supported in the main focus of the coursework but, with the possibility of incorporating other specialisms eg textiles with electronics. Within the coursework it would be important to encourage these links as part of the assessment structure. This would generate an enquiry based process that would help generate the cross links that will develop true innovation.

    In some cases it could be possible for two areas to be combined to enable a ‘double award’. This should cover the two focus knowledge areas in the same way the single award would but the project would have the opportunity to incorporate the two areas into one more detailed project or could have the option to create two projects that span the two focus areas. This will provide an incentive for the excellent schools to offer a range of subjects and for top pupils to receive a quality education in more than one area of Design & Technology. The larger, more in-depth projects could be run on an approval system where pupils submit a proposal and the examiner should give a guide as to how they would fit into the assessment system.

    Assessment needs to be much freer in it definitions. Some projects require substantial focused research work while others need extensive trialling and testing to perfect. The assessment could be flexible in its allocation of marks to different areas. If we can settle on maybe 4 areas 1) Preparation for designing, 2) Design ideas and development, 3) Making and 4) Evaluating, then each of those areas could have a range of marks available depending on the type of project but always totalling 100. This will then allow pupils to do what is necessary as the project develops to focus on the important aspects of the design process.

    The intention in all this is to allow many different scenarios without penalising pupils who want to pursue their specialism within the design process. If there is a need for a craft type answer to a brief the main weight of the marking could be on the final product without as much reference to the research section then the marking needs to reflect that balance. We do not want to force the research to become a significant section if it is not required in such depth. In working on the robotics type project, the making might be from manufactured components, so it will be the development of the ideas and use of the components is the major significant element of the project, so the assessment balance must encourage that to work.


    Design and make – design prep 15 marks, ideas and development 35 marks, making 30 marks, evaluation 20 marks.
    Make project – design prep 10 marks, ideas and development 20 marks, making 50 marks, evaluation 20 marks.
    Robotics – design prep 10 marks, ideas and development 50 marks, making 20 marks, evaluation 20 marks.
    System project – design prep 40 marks, ideas and development 30 marks, making 10 marks, evaluation 20 marks.

    This system will allow teachers to select the appropriate marking and development strategy for each pupil. We want to reward good work in whichever area it might be. Pupils and teachers can play to their strengths and be rewarded accordingly.

    Comments please!
    Martin Chandler
    The Making Project
    East Barnet School

  3. Taking Design and Technology forward at GCSE and A-Level

    If we are considering how we develop young minds in stages from KS1 through KS3 to university, the KS4 section needs to follow from their understanding developed in KS3 and the knowledge and application of that knowledge into more complex applications with an ever growing range of contexts.

    At university, the students have the freedoms to grow and develop their own skills and interests, integrating all the skills they have learned from their design education journey. Their work will be based on an understanding of a set of principles of designing, a knowledge of production and a specific set of materials. Many design courses do have a materials focus and are usually directed towards a vocation, eg fashion or engineering.

    If we consider the balance between designing and learning through the making, focus practical tasks and skills inputs, then I think most people would consider that the design element will slowly increase as the pupils gain more understanding of materials, the making and manufacturing processes. Through KS1 much of the work is through quite short guided tasks that are based on simple modelling techniques which explore the pupil’s creative thought processes. As the work develops through KS2 the pupils are making larger more sophisticated projects using technologies like electric motors, LEDs, pneumatics and hydraulics alongside hand skills, cutting, shaping and joining a range of materials, including wood, textiles, paper and card.

    Moving into KS3 there is a step up in the facilities and the means of production. Food takes on a different form with the ability for classes to learn to cook in a food workshop, providing the opportunity for pupils to build design skills into their cooking, along side learning the essentials of nutrition. The textiles, graphics, wood, metal and plastics material based learning has to concentrate on teaching basic making skills and incorporating small elements of design work. As the KS3 progresses the design element can become more involved and taught as a skill, as the pupils gain more experience and understanding of making. The design work will increase as a proportion of the overall work and this progression will carry into KS4.

    The recently published KS3 curriculum separates food and nutrition from the main body of design work, because there are differences in the way food products have to be created and tested quickly and nutrition is a fundamental aspect of healthy living. There are other discrete packages of knowledge which we consider important to designing and making at secondary school level, for instance, mechanisms in robotics or construction techniques in textiles. We operate at small design project level with a focus on the skills we are trying to use and apply to a given context.

    We cannot teach every aspect of technology from systems, electronics, textiles, fashion, materials, graphics, robotics, animation, etc as we would either spread the understanding so thinly as to be useless, or have too much content and little design work. If we can concentrate, but not restrict design, to sections of knowledge we stand a chance of building a reasonable level of understanding for the student to be able to design in a reasonable level of detail within that focus and for the student to build skills and create links to related specialisms. This also aids the teachers’ confidence to be able to teach within their area of understanding. We do need to ensure that the design principles and methodology are transferable.

    At this point the pupils have a basic understanding of many materials, techniques and skills, though they are far from being skilled makers or designers. At the age of 14 years they are aware of hundreds of products all around them in their normal lives and they are making choices governed by their own taste, influenced by media, friends and family and experience. It is at this point that there is a danger that their design consciousness will outstrip their ability to make. If they still have to learn all materials and all the appropriate specialist techniques, the curriculum will become vast and unmanageable. If the pupils can focus on a specific area of learning that will give them a body of knowledge around which they can design in some detail, they will be able to build quite sophisticated, quality products that match their aspirations as teenagers. What we must allow is for the pupils to build in links across disciplines and to be able to explore design combinations without penalty.

    As the design element of projects increases, the A level provides an opportunity for pupils to approach a much more open ended design situation, but due to the vast knowledge base, it would be impossible for a design teaching course to cover all the possible theoretical aspects of engineering, robotics, animation, product design, textiles and fashion design, and electronics design. In order then for pupils to be able to design in detail they need to specialise in a focus area, which is why traditionally we have textiles, engineering, product design (resistant materials for want of a better name), graphics and systems and control. The focus area provides a reasonably challenging body of knowledge, which linked to the design theory can allow pupils to design and make quality products within the restrictions of that focus. There is no reason why pupils should not be encouraged to explore across disciplines but by stretching too far we are in danger of superficial design work not supported by the necessary knowledge and understanding.

    KS1 – experimentation, exploring creativity, hazy understanding and little knowledge of materials or details.
    KS2 – limited material focus, incorporating some basic systems and experimenting with imagery and developing an understanding of scale and joining techniques.
    KS3 – incorporating most familiar materials and an understanding of manufacturing processes and material manipulation. Design processes developing to allow limited experimentation within individual projects.
    KS4 – detailed understanding of a focused area and an ability to design in some detail and to be able to create individual products that have relevance to the designer.
    KS5 – understanding of a range of materials, detailed experimental design linked to an understanding of production techniques in differing manufacturing circumstances applied to a client who will dictate much of the context.
    Degree – broad range of experimental, detailed, creative design linking across material and manufacturing techniques.
    MA – highly focused detailed innovative design that explores materials and manufacturing.
    Creative design consultancy.

    So what do we need from our exam system?
    At GCSE we need a focus on materials and processes, the pupils at KS3 still only have a passing knowledge of materials and production and their relevance to the process of designing a product or system. The main areas of learning should be how to design in a meaningful way and how to convert that idea into a sound product in a way that has relevance to production processes in industry.

    At A-Level the student should be applying their basic design understanding to the wider world. They should be looking how their slowly amassing knowledge can be relevant to others, especially to third world situations. This level of study should be about expansion of thinking skills, developing better designers who care about what they are designing and why. They should be building a moral compass that includes not only third world problems, but elements of the circular economy, sustainability and the use of energy. To move the design profession forward the students going into the profession as an engineer, fashion designer or product designer must be militant in the morality of design to work in our world.

    Martin Chandler
    The Making Project
    East Barnet School

    • Wow! Now that’s a comment! Martin I think the issues you raise are important and so I want to reply ion the form of another post rather than in the limited space of a reply comment. Thanks for your detailed ideas.

  4. Hi Lucy, glad you enjoyed it. The opportunity exists to make just the sort of assessment you are suggesting. If the new curriculum is only intended to account for a proportion of your Design Technology curriculum and if schools are now free to use their own set of progress measures then why not add into your assessment pattern something to do with creativity and engagement?

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