Designing a Future Economy; there’s a bigger picture

Today the Design Council Published Designing a Future Economy,

…investigating the skills used in design, the link between these skills and productivity and innovation, and how they align with future demand for skills across the wider UK economy.

It’s an interesting report (well, executive summary; the full report will be released in January) and well worth downloading and reading. It focuses on three areas:

  1. the design skills required across a range of design-related jobs,
  2. the value of design skills in the UK economy,
  3. how design skills are acquired and developed.

It’s the third of these that I want to focus on here.

The report notes the plummeting rate of GCSE D&T entries (see above) and recommends that:

Education providers and regulators embed design in the curriculum:  

The traditional pathways into design careers – such as GCSE Design and Technology – are being eroded. The Department for Education, schools and academies should re-introduce GCSE Design and Technology as a priority subject in post-14 education to secure these skills in the short-term.

Anyone working in D&T education should be pleased that a body with some clout is both highlighting the worrying decline in D&T GCSE entries and banging the drum for D&T to have a higher priority post-14.

But…. I do worry about the constant emphasis on the economic reasons for including D&T in the curriculum. For example, just a few weeks ago, David wrote about a new report from the Institution Of Mechanical Engineers, “We think it is important but we don’t quite know what it is” The culture of engineering in schools; which argued, for economic reasons, that engineering should have a higher profile in schools.

It’s not hard to understand why these organisations focus on the economic justification; that’s where their institutional focus is. But it’s a case that has been being made for D&T for many, many years – years which have seen the subject decline. And I think the argument can be made that this dogged emphasis on the economic purpose of the subject has contributed to this decline.

Why? Well, because it positions D&T, in the minds of many stakeholders, as a vocational subject. This may well not be the intent, but it is the result and it has significant consequences.

In particular, schools, parents and government officials and ministers (etc.) mentally position the subject as ‘not academic’. As a result, in many schools it’s seen as a subject for weaker pupils (you know, it’s practical…).  Even where the powers that be are more enlightened, the fact that it’s not in the EBacc core (because it’s ‘not academic’) makes it very hard to create an options systems that encourages large numbers of pupils to select it. In any case pupils are likely to reason that, unless they have a vocational interest in design, the subject is not for them and many parents ambitions for their children will mean that they view the subject as of less worth, unless they are particularly well-informed.

When David, Nick and I wrote Re-building Design & Technology, we argued that the purpose of the subject needs clarifying and suggested four arguments for the place of D&T in the curriculum:

An economic argument

A steady supply of people who have studied design & technology is essential to maintain and develop the kind of society we value. Design & technology is central to the innovation on which our future economic success as a nation depends. For those young people who achieve a design & technology qualification at school the experience may well predispose some of them to consider a technical career. This is important as our country faces a “STEM skills” gap.

A personal argument

The learning achieved through studying design & technology at school is useful in everyday situations, as it enables young people to deploy design skills and technical problem solving to address and solve practical problems at both the personal and community levels.

A social argument

In their communities, their workplaces, and through the media, people encounter questions and disputes that have matters of design and/or technology at their core. Often these matters are contentious. Significant understanding of design and of technology is needed to reach an informed view on such matters and engage in discussion and debate.

A cultural argument

Technologies and the design thinking behind them are major achievements of our culture. Everyone should be helped to appreciate these, in much the same way that we teach pupils to appreciate literature, art and music.

If the fortunes of D&T are to be restored, then we need to adopt and advance this much wider set of arguments for the subject; they provide a strong foundation for what the Design Council wants; to “re-introduce GCSE Design and Technology as a priority subject in post-14 education” (which, of course, implies it is well-supported pre-14).

As a postscript I should also note what some readers will be screaming at the screen as they peruse this; which is that a supply of quality teachers is the other thing that is required to turn around the fortunes of D&T in schools. These matters are intertwined; its hard to attract good teachers when the subject looks so battered, but it’s hard to make significant change without those good teachers. I wonder if the Design Council and its partners could explore ways to improve the supply of teachers both immediately and in the long-term.

As ever, comments and discussion are welcomed.

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Assessment that helps pupils get better!

We know that making assessment both manageable and effective is hard, and we also hear many stories of teachers who have been pushed into carrying out ineffective forms of assessment driven by accountability pressures more than the needs of students and their teachers.

While we believe that abandoning National Curriculum levels was broadly a Good Thing, we also understand that devising replacements hasn’t always been easy and that, in some schools, approaches based on one-size-fits-all-subjects haven’t, in fact, fitted the particular needs of assessment in design & technology especially well.

So we were intrigued to see that the Schools, Students and Teachers network (SSAT), the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) have produced of a series of Refocusing Assessment documents concerning English, geography, history, mathematics, modern foreign languages and science. The documents considered four key questions:

  • What does it mean to be successful in a particular subject?
  • What is the purpose of assessment in that subject?
  • What does progress look like in that subject?
  • How can progress be assessed most effectively in that subject?

We (David, Nick and Torben) were impressed with these documents and thought it would be useful to have one focused on the needs of design & technology; so, we have produced Refocusing Assessment – Design & Technology in which we explore the answers to these questions for our subject.
We are delighted that ASCL, SSAT, and NfER will be putting a link to these materials on their websites.

Writing the Refocusing document got us thinking in some detail about the process of assessment in design & technology, particularly assessment for learning in which feedback to students is of paramount importance. This led us to write the working paper Assessment in D&T, in which we consider three aspects of assessment:

  • ‘in the moment’ feedback which takes place during learning,
  • approaches to feedback at the end of design & technology tasks and
  • how teachers might be able to know the impact of their teaching.

With the demise of levels, it is more important than ever that teachers are clear about what they want their pupils to learn, how to help pupils to achieve this learning and what success in that learning looks like. We hope that the approaches to assessment we have written about will help with these endeavours.

As a postscript we note that a just published report from Pearson, Testing the Water; How assessment can underpin, not undermine, great teaching, confirms the importance of teachers being able to understand and use assessment in ways that aren’t onerous or stressful for themselves or their pupils. We hope that the work we present here will go some way to supporting D&T teachers in such use of assessment.

If you think our proposals are realistic and are able to try them out in your school, we’d really like to know about your experience.

If you think what we are advocating can be improved on, and have suggestions for this, we’d like to know about that too.

You can give us your views and tell us about your work by contacting us or commenting on this post.

Will this report make a difference?

It is generally acknowledged that the proportion of the future workforce with engineering and other STEM skills will significantly determine the UK’s future economic success. Yet the low visibility of engineering in our schools means that the nation is heavily reliant on a narrow cadre of young people, often from families with engineering heritage, to become the nation’s industrialists, manufacturers, innovators and designers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a technically-skilled workforce from more diverse backgrounds and with a wider range of interests and talents.

There have been a plethora of reports extolling the virtues of education for engineering in secondary schools in recent years. The sad fact is that they have made very little difference to the status of subjects that support education for engineering and the numbers of young people studying named engineering courses at schools has remained low. One can but hope that the new report from the Institution Of Mechanical Engineers, “We think it is important but we don’t quite know what it is” The culture of engineering in schools  will not suffer the same fate.

The report is the culmination of two research studies that explored perceptions and experience of engineering in secondary school education. The first study sought to understand how 11-14 year old pupils, their parents, teachers, school governors and school leaders, frame engineering. The second presented a deeper engagement with engineering through the experience of post-16 students, participating in bespoke engineering debating competitions run jointly by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Ideas. This report calls on Government, education practitioners and the engineering community to act together to ensure that more young people discover what engineering is, both as a creative intellectual process and a rich source of future career opportunity.

The report makes four recommendations

  1. As part of its industrial strategy, Government should situate engineering at the heart of schools education by:
  • Setting up a working group of leading educationalists and other stakeholders to review and report on innovative ways to integrate engineering into young people’s education
  • Appointing a nationally respected Schools Engineering Champion to provide a channel of communication between schools, Government and industry, and to advocate the wider cultural value of greater technological literacy alongside the economic rationale for investing in skills to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  1. National Education Departments should begin this process by ensuring that engineering is integral to classroom learning by:
  • Advocating curricula that better reflect the importance of the made world to modern society, and make explicit reference to the engineering applications of science, mathematics, and design and technology
  • Promoting approaches to teaching that emphasise and value engineering ‘thinking skills’ and problem-based learning
  1. Individual schools should adopt an engineering vision and strategy, with support from local employers and national governors’ associations, which would include:
  • Appointing a member of the school senior leadership team as an Engineering & Industry Leader to establish and communicate a vision for the school and to drive change
  • Appointing a dedicated Industry School Governor to work alongside and advise the Engineering & Industry Leader, and to embed employer relationships in school governance
  • Implementing a robust careers strategy such as the benchmarks set out in The Gatsby Foundation’s Good Career Guidance report, with special emphasis on embedding careers awareness in the curriculum
  1. The engineering community should present a unified narrative around engineering that will be attractive and relevant to a wider range of students by:
  • Stressing the creative problem-solving nature of engineering, its social benefits and relevance to individuals
  • Providing opportunities for students to take part in activities that explore the political, societal and ethical aspects of technology.

For those of us who support education for engineering these recommendations will seem eminently sensible and that the various bodies charged with taking them forward should do just that. But will this be the case? Who will act as agent provocateur with those agencies and organisations called upon to take action to ensure that this report, like so many before it, does not sink into oblivion? So I’m asking that Peter Finegold, the Head of Education and Skills at the IMechE uses his influence and that of the engineering community to galvanise action with regard to Recommendations 1 and 2. Clearly all the professional engineering institutions, the Royal Academy of Engineering and employers have their parts to play with regard to Recommendation 4 although I think it will be necessary to identify a focus for this support if it is to be effective. As to Recommendation 3 I think design & technology departments in individual schools can and should support an engineering vision and strategy. Readers will have noted that I have used the term ‘education for engineering’ not ‘engineering education’. I firmly believe that teaching young people design & technology at school is much more likely to open their eyes to worthwhile technical careers in general as well as engineering in particular than named engineering courses. Such teaching will not only predispose some young people to consider a career in engineering but will give all young people studying the subject a positive attitude towards and appreciation of the contribution designers, technologists and engineers make to our society.

The report argues that ‘the made world’ should have a much higher profile in the school curriculum. In response, my message is simple – if we want more young people to understand the made world and engage in STEM careers then we need to “BIG UP” design & technology and make sure the new GCSE is a huge success.

As always comments welcome and I’ll be happy to forward these to Peter at theIMechE.

Slaughterbots!

You may consider the youtube video Slaughterbots  a piece of science fiction but that would I think sell it short. I prefer to think of it as a thought experiment with regard to how swarm robots coupled face recognition software might be used as autonomous killer robots. That is robots who can decide for themselves when to kill a human target when the face recognised matches a ‘threat’ identified by those who own and control the deployment of the swarm robots. It’s easy to see this as fanciful but many serious folk are taking the possibility of autonomous killer robots very seriously. From a government’s point of view deploying robot soldiers as opposed to human soldiers has many advantages, not the least the lack of human casualties. At the moment robot soldiers of various kinds operate in collaboration with humans who have the ultimate ‘say’ with regard to a ‘kill decision’. This was explored effectively in the film Eye in the Sky Face recognition software played a significant part in the human decision to initiate a lethal strike. So Eye in the Sky to some extent endorses the thesis in Slaughterbots of the near reality of autonomous killer robots. The use of swarms of killer robots reduces the research and development costs significantly – each bot is cheap and mass manufacture is relatively inexpensive and the software guiding swarm behaviour is not that complex – as indicated in the youtube video. Where is this issue taken seriously – look no further than the Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons website This provides a call to action and links to a campaign to stop killer robots

This is an important issue facing society and the question for us involved in teaching young people is to what extent should such an issue be explored in school? One of the justifications for teaching design & technology as part of a general education for all young people is that it introduces them to such issues and gives them the intellectual tools to think about them in a critical yet constructive way. I look to the day when such issues feature in the written examination of the recently introduced D&T GCSE. Would this be too much to ask of a GCSE introduced to reinvigorate the subject?

As always comments welcome.

The Curriculum: A design and technology perspective on the Ofsted curriculum survey

In June, Sean Harford, National Director, Education, Ofsted, gave a presentation in which he described Ofsted’s current curriculum survey.

We were unable to be present at the talk but the slides themselves got us thinking about the place of design & technology in the curriculum. Clearly d&t is of special interest to us and is, in our view, much misunderstood and, as a result, underrated. Hence we (David Barlex, Nick Givens and Torben Steeg) have produced a working paper, The Curriculum: A d&t perspective on the Ofsted curriculum survey, which reflects upon the nature, purpose and teaching of design & technology in the curriculum in the light of Sean’s presentation. We have shared this paper with Ofsted and, as ever, we hope it will stimulate discussion and we look forward to your comments.

Let there be science

The book Let there be science  by David Hutchings and Tom McLeish explores the case for Biblical support for scientific activity. I found it a fascinating although in many places I think they conflate science with technology. Rather than seeing this as a weakness I think it provides an opportunity to extend the consideration of Biblical revelation as to the nature and purpose of technology and what if anything this might have to say about the teaching and learning of design & technology in the secondary school. With these thoughts in mind I have written Let there be science – considerations from a design & technology education perspective as both commentary and critique.

My friend and colleague Torben Steeg, the very opposite of a ‘faith head’, has read the piece and raised the following comments and questions:


On page 5 you write

Those without faith might see the universe as being ‘ordered’ in this way as a result of its intrinsic nature and not through its being created by God but that seems to me to be just as much an act of faith as believing in God.

I think one might argue that it’s been the exploration of science/scientists that has revealed that the universe does appear to be ordered – for whatever reason. In that case it’s a working assumption that could be falsified; but I guess it’s a bit circular since without such an assumption the enterprise of science wouldn’t make much sense. So you could label that ‘faith’; but I don’t think it’s the same kind of thing as religious faith. (Though I’m sure some scientists operate from a faith that is more like the religious type…)

On page 6 you write

And it is echoed in the writings of Robert White (2014) a prominent geophysicist.

Natural processes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and the natural greenhouse effect are what make the world a fertile place in which to live. Without them, it would become a dead, sterile world and no one would be here to see it.

(page 10)

But… if you wanted to push this, why couldn’t an omnipotent god create a world (an the underlying science) where a fertile and rich environment wasn’t dependent on such things?

In your discussion of Chapter 10, (pages 8-9) it occurs to me that the notion of precautionary principle is useful – with practical examples being the original and the recent Asilomar conferences on, respectively, genetic engineering and AI.

On page 11 you write

However, the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1 – 9) by which humans could reach heaven was confounded by God through the creation of multiple languages so that those building the Tower could not communicate with one another. This can be seen as a denial of technological activity when it is being used to thwart God’s purpose.

It seems to me that the Tower of Babel story is of dubious relevance; if she’s an interventionist God, why the arbitrariness of when to intervene or not? For example, why not intervene when torture or gas chambers are being built – or is she only concerned about threats to her own domain…?

But then I do think that there is a tendency for religious types to assume that God’s interventionist aims align with their own (though they would probably say that their aims align with hers…) – as when all sides in a war (or election…) pray for victory.

Nick Cave captures this nicely…

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

(You can watch/hear the whole thing here)

I have heard it argued (persuasively to me) that the second of the Ten Commandments (You shall not use the Lord’s Name in vain) refers not to casual ‘blasphemy’ but rather to the use of phrases like ‘It’s God’s will’ to persuade folk to the opinion of the speaker.

You go on to say that:

Hence it seems that God is placing the responsibility on humanity to use technology in ways that are consistent with the covenant between God and his creation, in particular our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it.

But this responsibility is given without, it seems, very clear guidance; my, admittedly casual, observation is that Christians seem to disagree about a lot of things that relate to “our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it“.


Rev. Colin Davis, Rector of Carrowdore & Millisle, Church of Ireland has also read the piece and made the following comments:


It can sometimes be a popular misconception that science and faith (mostly Christian, but I guess others as well) are in opposition and yet in reality, as Tom and David indicate, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible teaches that God created order out of chaos and although the Earth can often seem a very chaotic place, in fact it ‘operates’ by very definite ‘laws & principles’. Science rather than being a ‘spoiler’ (removing the mystery from nature through explanations that are arid and lacking in wonder) helps us to understand more of how things work and provides greater insight that we can use to appreciate the wonder therein. We can see Biblical writing as exploring and revealing the relationship between God and humanity and in revealing something of the nature of science and our obligation to pursue scientific activity also reveal something of the nature of God.

We know from experience and history that gifts can be used for good or ill, and seeing science as a gift from God places on us ‘the burden of responsible use’. The story of the Tower of Babel points very much to a warning for humanity to use God given gifts, including science and technology in the light of this burden rather than for us to raise our own sense of achievement without regard to God’s wishes putting humanity in the position of challenging or denying God. The futility and arrogance of such challenge/denial is captured well in this anecdote I remember from my days when training for the priesthood.

A group of successful scientists were so accomplished and confident that they thought to challenge God and create their own human being. God accepted the challenge and taking a handful of dust he created a human. The scientists bent down to grab some earth and God stopped them saying, “Get your own dust!”

God, in creating the Universe including the Earth and all creatures living on the planet wants a special relationship with humans. God loves us and wants us to love Him/Her in return and to love one another but in doing this takes a huge risk. We have a choice as to whether we love God, one another or not. The way we live our lives, treat one another and use the gifts of the creator will be determined by the choice we make. For the Christian St Paul sums this up in Chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans:

3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

4 For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function,

5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.

6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith;

7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching;

8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.

It is not too much a stretch of the theological imagination to envisage another verse along the lines:

Or she that is scientific or technological to pursue this with due humility and regard for consequences.


As always further comments or questions welcome.

Comments in response to ‘design for good’ and the Contextual Challenge

I received interesting comments from Andy Mitchell (Design & Technology Association), David Spendlove (University of Manchester) and David Ellis (Southern Cross University, New South Wales) which they are happy for me to share. All three indicated that the Contextual Challenge provided important opportunities to show the worth of design & technology as a subject suitable for ALL young people.

  • From Andy Mitchell … considerable opportunity for the subject and students being encouraged to address real and relevant challenge
  • From David Spendlove … To me this is where design is potentially at it’s best as there are opportunities for pupils to reflect upon their own design thinking. So in my mind there should be a real opportunity to speculate and question
  • From David Ellis … an excellent opportunity for students develop their empathy for authentic design problems. I also think that the engagement in projects such as these are ‘gold’ in terms of promoting what we do to the wider community.

However none of them thought that such ‘design for good’ responses were a forgone conclusion.

  • From Andy Mitchell … (I) fear that the damaging and polluting effect of what has been the expectation from AO over recent years is going to take some undoing. If schools don’t see this as an opportunity and rise to the challenge, as I have also been saying, their future is at best insecure.
  • From David Spendlove … It offers so much scope but could simply end up in contrived tokenism.
  • From David Ellis … to add to the list of authentic design problems where teachers could develop a rich narrative, concepts such as eco-designing haven’t gained enough traction here.  The infiltration of environmental education values in the Australian curricula has presently been a missed opportunity in my opinion, and teachers could do a lot more.

Andy and David (S) were clear that teachers would need help in rising to the challenge.

  • From Andy Mitchell … But as you also imply, teachers really do need the type of support and input to help them think about the changes in ways that I suspect representatives of the AOs are unlikely to provide.
  • From David Spendlove … I wonder how many schools will fully embrace this and see it as an opportunity? So whether it is designing inclusive play for a park or designing for the elderly what is influencing students decision making and thinking – is it prejudice, cognitive bias, delusion, self-deception, etc.  The book Critique in Design & Technology Education would be particularly valuable here.

And I would add that in adopting a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge it is important for departments to talk in some depth with their SLT and governors so that they understand the potential of the approach but also the risks if an AO is unsympathetic to the approach. Knowing that you have your SLT and governors on side strengthens resolve and enables a department to present a robust case to a sceptical AO.

As an aside both Andy and David (S) mentioned the poor state of recruitment for D&T teachers and wondered whether some of the training providers would introduce their trainees to a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge. I wouldn’t want to underplay the crisis in recruitment or the fragmented nature of teacher education but one thing does seem clear to me. Unless schools can ‘up their game’ with regard to the subject it does not represent an attractive proposition for new teachers. If you have an engineering degree for example you would be qualified to enter a PGCE course for science, mathematics or design & technology. Unless the practice you see in schools inspires you why would you choose to teach design & technology? Observing young people tackling real and relevant problems that they themselves have identified using a ‘design for good’ approach could well provide such inspiration.

As always comments welcome.