The make baby and the design bathwater.

vapour trails


Some very thoughtful and enlightening feedback to my last posts and a conversation with a colleague are the starting points for this post.  My colleague, who teaches at a local sixth form college,  was showing me around and, as you do, we were sharing frustrations.  One in particular was a great product model, fully developed and showing some really refined design thinking, well made and sufficiently detailed to demonstrate everything that needed to be shown about the design.  The problem was that it didn’t match the exam criteria,  it was not a finished product,  and so was marked down. In another case brilliant work was marked down because the proportion of  the project that was made using CAD/CAM, (or emerging technologies as we should call them now),  was too high.  Hmm, an A level design exam which prevents you using exciting new manufacturing techniques?  Now of course that is a form of madness which those of us who teach in schools recognise all too well.  I have written before about the ways in which an oversimplified notion of what design looks like has become enshrined in an examination mark scheme and so constrains what we are able to allow our children to do.  If like me you have found yourself saying, often to a highly intelligent and capable pupil, “That’s a really great idea but we can’t do it because it won’t get you the marks”, or conversely “You can’t make that because there isn’t enough room in it to show design ideas”, then this post is for you.

My A level colleague is of course right to draw attention to the madness of an exam which penalises exactly what the student might find themselves doing if they went on to a university design course.  A ‘proof of concept model’ might well be the final point in a design process both in higher education and industry.  The danger lies in extrapolating from this a view of the curriculum which edits out making in favour of design.  Andy Mitchell, writing in the current edition of D&T Practice  makes a powerful case for the centrality of making to Design and Technology.  He writes, “….D&T is about practical activity, using skill sand knowledge, materials and processes to make things.”  Of course it is and for a number of our pupils it is that which matters most, how often can you identify children for whom the practical activity of making matters a great deal, giving them the means to explore learning in a way that really works for them and perhaps giving meaning to their whole school experience?

Some years ago a particular student of mine was very knowledgeable and skilled in traditional woodworking.  He insisted on dragging into the school workshop quantities of solid English oak which he proceeded to turn into the makings of a traditional blanket chest.  You can imagine, solid fielded panels, haunched mortice and tenons, the works.  Of course he didn’t finish it, I’m sure he did later but at the time he was able to get an A grade because the quality and level of challenge of the work were very high even though it as incomplete.  Under the current exam system he would fail dismally because of the requirement that the item be finished and complete.   What we seem to have is a curriculum which is dictated by the exam syllabus, or rather the mark scheme.  That would be fine if only the mark scheme was relevant.

One further issue with the current examination is that we have sequentially added content to what is usually called the theory side of the subject.  Please don’t misunderstand, I love learning about the theoretical side of the subject, well, that’s not strictly true, I love learning about the bits that interest me, that are related to my practice as a designer maker or my wider interests.  What we have done in schools is take the body of  explicit knowledge, (as opposed to the tacit knowledge involved in the subject), and added to it each time we have incorporated something else.  As an example,  in my first job I was teaching woodwork, metalwork, engineering and plastics.  Each had a body of knowledge, all of which were combined into the syllabus for the next generation of exams.  Since then emerging technologies have added to the  mix as have new materials and sustainability issues to give but two examples.   It used to be the case that you could reasonably expect to cover the whole syllabus whereas now that is arguably an impossibility

Given that we are about to get a revised examination scheme wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way around these problems?  Unlikely in the scheme of things with greater emphasis being placed on your ability to remember and regurgitate but let’s be optimistic.  As Tristram Shepard points out in his comment on my last post, we are teaching a range of children, some small few of whom might go on to be product designers, some few who might become designer makers, some makers and some simply consumers.  The challenge for Design and Technology is to generate a curriculum that justifiably works for all these groups and most of all to produce an assessment model that is realistic and flexible enough to cope with the needs of this range of groups.

I am, most of you will be pleased to know, not in a position to design such a scheme.  What I would want from it is a recognition that Design Technology is about how we engage with the material world.  I would like it to validate a range of pathways that allow for the designer who arrives at a model, one who carries the design through to a finished product made using whatever technology is appropriate,  another who makes with apparently little evidence of design, another who makes several times and develops the work as they go.  I would like the end of course assessment to be flexible enough to credit the degree of challenge in the work even if the outcome is a failure in the common sense of the word  because by denying failure we limit creativity.  I would like it to validate any form of making from modelling through fine hand craft to emerging technologies without requiring a detailed technical knowledge of all these forms from everyone.  I would like it to be able to allow for the teachers judgement as well as the paper based evidence.  Not too much to hope for, is it?

4 Responses to “The make baby and the design bathwater.”
  1. tristramshepard says:

    Absolutely! The current (and proposed future) D&T examinations are completely misaligned with any sort of effective assessment of what Design Capability actually is. Exams in Art & Design, while not perfect, have a much more open approach which could easily and appropriately applied to D&T.

    Not a new problem of course – I recall back in 1981 having an O level CDT candidate who came up with an excellent, elegant, minimal solution to a problem but lost a lot of marks because there was not enough ‘making’ involved….

    And the candidate whose design skills were minimal but got a high A level grade on the strength of being good at his written exam technique.

  2. ruthwright2 says:

    I agree absolutely, too! If your last paragraph came to fruition, all would be nigh on perfect.

  3. Without knowing the make-up of the group revising the examinations, I ask the question whether they recognise the issues so clearly set out by Geraint and whether they have the freedom and authority to devise a specification that would address them. I too live in hope the new examinations reward students equally whether they have covered a wide range of materials and technologies or delved deeply into a narrow field. The projects I remember nearly all come from the latter category and my main fear is the single title for D&T will reward shallow, broad brush responses and penalise in-depth work.

    On another tack, I don’t like the term ’emerging technologies’ when referring to CADCAM. Computer Aided Manufacture developed in the automotive industries in the late 60’s and Computer Aided Design (not to be confused with Computer Aided Drawing) emerged commercially in the 1970’s. Even 3D printing has been around for over thirty years! How long does it take for a technology to emerge? (I have a similar problem with the term ‘modern materials’). Ask people in the street what is meant by ’emerging technologies’ and I doubt many will come up with CAD or CAM. The term is too woolly and will lead to confusion. For some time the D&T Association has been using the term ‘Digital Design and Manufacture’. For me this best encapsulates the breadth of design tools and manufacturing processes enabled by computers and programmable systems, will need less explanation and can absorb new technologies as they ’emerge’.

    • Hi Tim, welcome to the party. Like you I suspect that a ‘one size fits all’approach will be the outcome of the exam restructuring, especially as we are in a facts based exam phase of government thinking. This will mean one of two things; either a syllabus so wide ranging as to be meaningless or a severely limited approach reminiscent of the original proposal for the new NC.

      With regard to emerging technologies, I picked the phrase up in conversation recently, I realise. It does have the advantage of leaving the field wide open to the very new. For example I only very recently discovered injection moulded cardboard as a material. Now while I don’t suggest that schools rush out and buy one it does highlight the ever changing terrain we deal in.

      As to the length of time it takes for new to become old, or accepted to the degreee that they asre not noticed any more, well Andrew Chitty in a very interesting lecture called “Seven myths that drive the digital economy” (
      proposes that all technologies undergo a forty year cycle from inception to banality.

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