Reading, writing and wroughting…………..

Detail from a dining table by Edward Barnsley

Detail from a dining table by Edward Barnsley


Following some pretty detailed comment from Martin Chandler on my last post it seems only fair to respond to some of what he said.  Given that I suspect both he and I come from pretty much the same stable there is a lot of common ground between us, but of course some issues arise from his comments.  In an earlier post,  “Mind the design gap”  (Also in D&T Practice, issue 2, 2014)  I explored some of the tensions that exist in our subject; design and make is not as simple as it first sounds.  Many of us came into Design Technology because we discovered in it something that worked for us.  We all know, though don’t always teach as if we knew, that people think in different ways, and therefore learn in different ways.  The continuing danger is that we assume that the way we learn and think is somehow the right way.  A dining table and set of chairs by Edward Barnsley recently came up at a local auction and I felt compelled to go and examine it in detail.  I needed to touch it.  Why? My first conscious allegiance as a designer maker was to the Arts and Crafts movement, those with significant formative influence on this part of my education had, in many cases been trained by Edward Barnsley  who for many years worked with teacher education at Loughborough College.

A significant proportion of those who I trained with as a teacher gave up the profession to become furniture makers, silversmiths and jewelers.  It is this kind of craft inspired background that underpins much of our thinking and I think I see in what Martin wrote.  I suspect that both he and I learned design through making, the discovered delight and validation in making lead us down a route that later encompassed design.  And of course there is nothing wrong with that, indeed it finds an echo in this article by Christopher Frayling.   It’s just that it might not be right for everyone, and it might not be right for design education as a whole.  I certainly don’t want to argue against making as a valued part of education.  Quite the reverse really.  Indeed on of the great ironies of the tenure of the late and little lamented Secretary of State for Education is that just as he was demolishing the structures that put creative endeavour at the heart of education across the Atlantic the maker education movement was gathering pace.  Engaging with the real had never been more important for education than it is now.

But.  Come on, you knew there would be a “but”.  Martin writes, “most people would consider that the design element will slowly increase as the pupils gain more understanding of materials, the making and manufacturing processes.”  And a little later he suggest that at the age of 14, “there is as danger that their design consciousness will outstrip their ability to make.”    I suggest that if they haven’t hit that particular brick wall until then, we have been doing something wrong.  On one hand the great contribution that new technologies have made to our subject is that we can allow them to lift the lid on children’s creativity.  The necessity to acquire, at great pains,  the skill to make to a sufficiently high standard to be impressed with themselves is to some degree removed. I am not arguing that we should accept anything other than the very highest standards from our children.  I have seen work by 14 year old pupils that shows a degree of sophistication and maturity that is hard to differentiate from professional adult work.  Indeed that is the point, if we teach the sophisticated skills of analysis and evaluation, (the ones that sit right at the top of the pyramid in Maslow’s terms), then there is a chance that we might address the criticism implicit in Ofsted’s review of the subject:  “However, students reported that although they found satisfaction in gaining technical skills they did not always find D&T as challenging as their other subjects”.

Many of the suggestions that Martin makes are exactly what we need, an exam system that allows the flexibility of the real designer and credits it, the ability t o award marks for high quality whether that be in the designing or the making and a recognition that the field of knowledge implied by such a broad spectrum of material areas makes it almost impossible to define a prescribed body of information for an exam.  What I would advocate and what I think is embedded in the new curriculum, is a greater emphasis on genuine design activity and at an early age.  The new curriculum principles  include innovation, authenticity and functionality as well as the requirement for pupils to be able to take design decisions.  I have no doubt that we as a community have the capacity to teach children how to make, what we need to develop is our understanding of and ability to teach design.  Martin suggest that, “Moving into KS3….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 ass a skill, as the pupils gain more experience and understanding of making.”  

I certainly do not want either a curriculum that becomes sterile of making or one in which we simply generate a heap of pretty designs, quite the reverse.  I do believe that the degree of complexity of thinking around making is underestimated by almost everyone, including Design Technology teachers and I certainly want to suggest that as a subject community our understanding of the way that design thinking works needs to be more sophisticated, as I said in my previous post.  What I would advocate is a greater expectation that  children from an early age are capable of handling the most challenging concepts in design.  That there is no single way off developing design capacity that depends on learning craft and material processes.  That we should be teaching challenging design ideas to children from a very early age and allowing for those who can express themselves by making much better than they can linguistically.


Our subject is amazing, it is amazing for those who will always want to be makers and who may not need to talk about what they make or why, it is amazing for those who want to change the world by designing better products which they will never make, it is amazing for those who will take the mental disciplines that are embedded in the way that designers think and apply them to situations that don’t even exist yet.  Our challenge is to be able to articulate the broad range of significance that makes what we do unique in education and of unique value to the world at large.  No pressure, people!




4 Responses to “Reading, writing and wroughting…………..”
  1. tristramshepard says:

    First let me say that I wholeheartedly agree with your post, and that the essence of the ‘craft’ aspect of design is of great importance. However, as I have always argued, the present scope of approach to design and technology in the majority schools is limiting. The world of design is much larger than envisaged in current examination specifications. As, for that matter is Technology which finds applications in many other areas than just 3D products. And I also think children should have more exposure to the history of design and technology in terms of understanding the way it has shaped their everyday lives.

    Indeed in my own teaching practice (some years ago now!) I often found it more successful to teach the higher level skills of designing through work that was based in 2D graphic communication or in architecture and the built environment. I also observed that some students achieved greater success in such contexts, and showed a distinct preference for such work.

    A further problem I have with current D&T in most schools is that it seems to be led by an assumption that students are being narrowly trained as future 3D product designers, while the reality is that only a very small percentage will go on to do so.

    For the subject to progress we need to develop a much wider understanding of the ‘make’ aspect. Whilst not for one moment excluding working in 3D in a resistance material, what we should really be talking about is ‘design and make it happen’, in which students propose possible solutions to a variety of different types of design& technology problems and realistically address the issues of how their ideas might be bought into some sort of reality through further development, funding for production and marketing.

    At the same time the notion of craftsmanship – essentially the production of something of high, fine, detailed quality – may well be effectively experienced in resistance materials but it is not restricted to it and can be developed in many other disciplines, for example ‘stage craft’ and even the craft of the classroom.

  2. Ruth Wright says:

    I think I’m agreeing! At least, I’m also offering this as a think-piece.

    So, a live example – I am (really I am, this is not a fictional D&T context) knitting a baby’s bootee – and working up the pattern as I go along. I need to record (and revise) what I do as this is a pair of boots, not just one boot. I don’t hand-knit ‘properly’ (I’d get low marks for technique if technique was assessed) as I have never grasped the art of holding onto two needles and yarn all at once. But I do know how this yarn knits up (through trial and error) and (also through experience) the size and shape of newborn feet, requirements for ease of getting baby socks on and off, not getting their toes stuck in loose-knit and of washability. I also know how to shape fabric, I can ‘see it’ in 3-D.

    How do I know how to shape fabric? Because I started designing and making clothes and other artefacts and systems from a young age and I learnt to look, hear, smell, touch and to assimilate information (including people-watching, historical and contemporary examples, music and film trends, colours, textures etc.) – sometimes recording or preserving in a sketch book or ideas bin but most often just ‘mentally filed’ and/or ‘tried-out’. So that, once upon a time, if someone asked, for example, ‘what colours and shapes will be selling in toddler’s daywear next Autumn?’ I could take a pretty reliable stab at the answers. Such ‘intuitively informed futures prediction’ is highly valued in many business environments but not, it seems, in the current school-level education (England) view of what ‘counts’ in terms of knowledge (or preparation for work for that matter).

    Designers gaze into, and work in, the future. They try to imagine they are in others’ shoes, try to make sense of information, predict, design ahead of ‘now and me’. Designers also try to design stuff that will sell. Yes, it is an unashamed commercial occupation – but that doesn’t mean that designers do not take on board sustainable and ethical design principles and action. On the whole, it’s about marketable products, knowing, in your bones, your markets (often global and differing), your tools and materials, what ‘works’ and may not ‘work’, your manufacturing/selling processes and, crucially, about people (why they want or need stuff, what other things they are looking for – e.g. in clothing – ease of dressing/undressing, fit, drape, washable, quality etc.) and what different customer groups want and are prepared to pay. Nearly all of this you learn as you go along, when you need to find out or it doesn’t quite ‘work’, in trade magasines or someone shows you – or etc. It is always changing so you have to keep up with the learning. You have to be steeped in it, live it, it’s a mindset – you can’t turn it on and off, ‘do’ it for a couple of hours a week. But, I’d argue, that once you’ve grasped the mindset you can, with some very serious immersion and reflection work, pull at least some of it back. And you can move it across – to, say, research design, policy design, organisational strategy & etc.

    I can’t design without making something (2D or 3D). Designing and making are aspects of each other, not a sequence. There are lots of ‘designing-aids’ in D&T, exercises to get you thinking if you need help, but they are just that, they are not designing. Along with the ‘sponging’ mindset/stimuli (where the ideas incubate and keep refuelling), modelling, prototyping and rough sketching (where useful to work up ideas) and writing (thinking notes, records etc) – i.e. doing it, trying it out – surely has to be the way to get stuff out of your head into a visible and ‘testable/reviewable’ form? Then working very hard (brain-ache level) on that and/or details of that to research, develop, improve. ‘Final design’ is prior to (or, if hiccups occur, during) manufacture after a long R&D phase, not ‘choose one of your three hastily thought-up ideas, draw it, plan it, then make it’. So, if we took a view of designing as being the heart, essence, of D&T, might we say that in D&T we are concentrating on the R&D phase?

    So – if we are serious about (this view of) designing in D&T – and I am not certain that in D&T we all mean or want the same sort of thing when we discuss design/designing – how do we nurture this mindset and how do we reward those who progress in acquiring it? It’s largely about implicit/tacit knowledge (known through being inquisitive, through practice, trial-and-error, perseverance etc.) so is hard to describe, let alone assess. And some say that its not ‘legitimate’ / ‘worthwhile’ knowledge, or even knowledge. But you know it when you see it (as in the APU or e-scape) and its high level stuff.

    I believe that what you know (or don’t) becomes visible in your designing (R&D – and, arguably, e.g. sales/customer satisfaction results) and can be assessed through what you do and the impact that has – more as in workplace learning and performance than as in the current, England, school-level education view of ‘knowledge’. I also believe that (as the Parke’s Group discussed) “designers … draw upon knowledge from whatever sources seem likely to assist them in their quest for a solution” (DES & WO, 1988:10) – i.e. ‘real-world’ designing cannot have a (totally or even substantially?) pre-specified ‘body of knowledge’ – however handy that might be if you want to assess recall of ‘facts’ and/or want to play the hierarchy-of-subjects-with-lots-of-facts-and-rigour game. However, I also know that many D&T’ers would disagree – maybe they don’t see D&T or ‘knowledge’ the way I do (fair enough) or disagree for pragmatic reasons (e.g. performance tables, subject retention, workshop management issues – understandable) or for learning reasons (e.g. kids need fixed, known boundaries).

    But, if broadly agree, how to nurture? The revised Art & Design curriculum goes a little way towards: “Pupils should be taught … to create sketch books to record their observations and use them to review and revisit ideas” but that, alone, is insufficient. Could well do that, tick all the boxes, and not be developing a design(erly)-mindset. Designing is driven. By something real you desperately want to resolve, by the current and future market(s), by deadlines, by the processes available to you … & etc.

    We know from D&TA that we urgently need to be collectively agreed on what D&T is and the direction it should go in. I certainly don’t want to hear again, as I did the other day, a young man saying that he had studied “theoretical D&T” at school (highly selective ‘academic’). Regarding ‘content’ (and by implication, assessment), for national curriculum and qualification purposes and/or for improving D&T practice across all schools perhaps it just isn’t possible for D&T to be more like Art & Design or KS4 Computing (brief and loose) than like Science (extensive and specific)?

    Designing is often about compromise and pragmatism – but how far do we go regarding the ‘content’ of curriculum and qualifications and is D&T chiefly about engaging in R&D or is it about something else?

  3. I am enlightened and fascinated by these posts and prompted to re-examine my own perceptions of what should be taught in the subject we currently call D&T.

    Most of us can point to key individuals who set us on the path to a career as educators. In my own case it was my dad who could fix most things mechanical probably out of necessity to make the family budget go further. When dad made something you knew it would do the job and probably withstand a direct hit! The downside was a homework desk that was functional rather than aesthetic. Despite losing and breaking many of his tools, I was encouraged to make, mend and adapt things. My attempts to fix repairable objects often rendered them scrap but all the time I was learning how things worked. How else do you learn how much to tighten a bolt or screw other than by stripping a few threads/ I still manage to break things like the pesky hidden clips holding the printer case together.

    The other major influence on me was Mr Thorpe, Head of D&T at Wilnecote High School. His team taught me the craft skills of working with wood, metal and plastics, gave me hands on experience of a wide range of materials, processing techniques and numerous opportunities to ‘adapt’ designs. The department was full of magazines about the made world and all the teachers made things themselves. I have clear memories of the ‘Water Clock’ Mr Thorpe made from clear acrylic that hung on the wall but rarely indicated the actual time!

    I don’t remember being ‘taught about’ design, that came later at Loughborough University where ‘Control Technology’ was at the cutting edge of the subject and included; materials, structures, electronics, pneumatics, fluidics and mechanics. Spare time would be spent in the computing department playing Lunar Lander on their mainframe terminals. Typing rocket thrust/vector commands and waiting for a print-out with updates on height and decent velocity was usually followed by “You have just created a new Lunar crater approximately 100 feet in diameter”.

    How sad I was to hear the PGCE course at Loughborough closed this summer.

    Although these experiences enabled me to design and make things I had little idea how to teach but was fortunate as a probationary teacher to join a brand new school with open plan teaching spaces. Every lesson was informally monitored and I was able to observe experienced teachers in action every day of the week.

    After nearly forty years as an educator my understanding of the world is still a work in progress and something I often describe as a string vest. It hangs together but has large holes.

    For me the foundation of design is curiosity. I constantly ask “how does that work?” and won’t rest until I find out. A clear understanding of something often leads to another question “What if….?” and for me this is the catalyst for the development of a new product.

    So, maybe the term “Product Development” better describes what D&T is all about. It’s the term most companies use and encompasses both design and engineering. Techniques including sketching, illustration and concept models are still used to explore, develop and present initial ideas but equally critical to a successful new product is the engineering that takes those concepts and; selects the most appropriate materials and off-the-shelf components, comes up with parts that can be manufactured, serviced, replaced and recycled, hopefully without compromising the designers concept. Most products go through many iterations with improvements informed by rigorous testing to quantify performance, something we could learn from in education.

    To be successful as teachers of D&T we must develop both areas; creativity or the ability to think outside the box and experience of materials, processes and techniques. Both require practice and experience which needs time and resources, both in short supply in many schools.

  4. Thank you all for your contributions. I think what we are sharing is that the ways in which we came to the position we are now in as designers and makers are quite similar, an interest in the made world and encouragement to believe that we could make/change/fix/design parts of it. I am sure this is why the maker movement is having such an impact. More to come on this, I think.

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