Timely words from Louise Davies

As you will know the Awarding Organisations will be posting the Contextual Challenges tomorrow. I’m sure we are all both interested and nervous. But it is very important that we play this completely by the rules and do nothing that compromises the NEA as happened with the NEA in the Computing GCSE leading to the withdrawal of the NEA as a form of assessment. Louise Davies has posted these timely words of warning on here Food Teachers website.

I am really worried that D&T teachers do not seem to be aware of the new NEA regulations as their NEA is about to be released (D&T is a year behind Food). Some are approaching this like ‘old coursework’, thinking they can use the same writing frames and teach the students through the assessment. This food group is much more knowledgeable than that, so if you have D&T colleagues, please take a few moments to show them your JCQ document. What is the worst that can happen? 1. Your school centre is accused of Malpractice 2. D&T loses NEA as Computing GCSE did once answers and writing frames are posted on websites (this has already started to happen) 3. Food GCSE loses its NEA as if it is found that Computing and D&T could not be trusted with NEA, who knows OFQUAL might take ours away as a consequence. A 5 MINUTE CHAT with D&T is needed, please help them see what is regulated – https://www.jcq.org.uk/exams-office/non-examination-assessments


Robots but not as we know them

IMG_1804Every now and then New Scientist publishes a piece that almost unintentionally raises profound issues about technological possibilities. This was the case with an article published in the 12 May 2018 issue; the title – Bionic beetles take to the skies. It describes the work of Hirotaka Sato from Nanyang Technology University. He and his research team took male Mecynorhina torqata beetles and implanted electrodes into their flight muscles and used electrical pulses to steer the direction and speed of their flight. The upshot is that this research shows that truly bio-hybrid robots the size of insects are a real possibility. These ‘bionic beetles’ have the potential to act as the first arm of search and rescue in ways far superior to current drone technology. Bio-hybrid robotics is likely to be developed initially across a wide range of insects. And here’s the question: Why should it stop at insects? It’s easy to see that other more intelligent animals, dogs and dolphins, for instance might easily become part of the development trajectory of bio-hybrid robotics. And of course someone somewhere will think about and investigate the possibility of human-hybrid robotics. Initially this is likely to be in the search of the development of alternatives to and improvements of prosthetic limbs for those who have suffered accidents.

But will it stop there? Such technology will almost certainly be developed to enable enhancement and in the future, for those who can afford it, integration of such technology into their bodies to provide improved physical performance will be possible. They will have become trans-humans. Throw in the idea that governments might use this technology to enhance military performance and we appear in dystopian science fiction territory but it might not be science fiction but technology fact. The trajectory of any technology is inevitably uncertain but as we move along any trajectory it seems essential to ask with regard to what we might be able to do “We can, but should we?” For those who teach design & technology this surely must be a key message in our teaching.

As always comments welcome.

240px-Cyberman_2013PS Have been unable to resist the connection between this article and Dr Who episodes from my childhood, my children’s childhood and their children’s childhood – Cybermen!

What does technology want?

For those of us who teach design & technology a question must be what should we teach our students about the nature of technology and get them to consider the extent to which us humans can influence the technologies that are developed and what they might be used for? Kevin Kelly has an interesting viewpoint on this. Currently he is Senior Maverick for Wired and is well known for his provocative and unconventional views on the nature of technology. More details of his extraordinary life and work can be found here.

PortraitHe views technology as a conglomeration of individual technologies linked together into an overall system which he calls the ‘technium’ that has the properties we associate with a complex living being and as such has needs and wants which it tries to meet. He explores this idea in depth is his book What technology wants. He identifies three interacting influences that govern the technium:


  • The primary driver is pre-ordained development – what technology wants.
  • The second driver is the influence of technological history, the gravity of the past, as in the way the size of a horse’s yoke determines the size of a space rocket.
  • The third force is society’s collective free will in shaping the technium, or our choices.

Buzz AldrinKelly sees the first driver as the most significant with the second as an inevitable influence on the first driver and the third driver, how humans respond in the way they contribute to the development of technology and their reactions to it, as the smallest influence on how technology plays out in the world. This seems to explain why Buzz Aldrin was able to admonish the US government with his famous quote, “You promised me Mars colonies and I got Facebook!”

So where will technology take us if it has its way? My cousin Geoff sent me this list of possibilities with regard to the way the technium will behave with regard to automobiles:

  • Auto repair shops will disappear. A gasoline engine has 20,000 individual parts. An electrical engine has 20. Electric cars are sold with lifetime guarantees and are only repaired by dealers. It takes only 10 minutes to remove and replace an electric engine. Faulty electric engines are not repaired in the dealership but are sent to a regional repair shop that repairs them with robots. Essentially, if your electric “Check Motor” light comes on, you simply drive up to what looks like a car wash. Your car is towed through while you have a cup of coffee and out comes your car with a new engine.
  • Gas stations will go away. Parking meters will be replaced by meters that dispense electricity. All companies will install electrical recharging stations.
  • The first self-driving cars will appear for the public in 2018 (that’s now). Around 2020, the complete industry  will start to be disrupted. People won’t want to own a car any more. A person will call a car with his/her phone, it will show up at their location and drive them to their destination. They will not need to park it, only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. The very young children of today will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car. A baby of today will only see personal cars in museums.

Are these predictions realistic? And if so what is driving them? Is it what we want or technology wants?

Finally I think we should note a quote from the late, great Douglas Adams about our reaction to technologies from the book The Salmon of Doubt

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Our students will be in the number 2 stage but we might want to give them pause for thought in the light of Buzz Aldrin’s disappointment in technology and the possibility that little is actually within our control.

As always comments welcome.

Diplodocus isn’t a dinosaur OMG!!! Scientific truth is a function of time

Be warned this isn’t usually what I write about on this blog but this weeks (5 May 2018) New Scientist has a fascinating piece on dinosaurs which I feel impelled to share. I must confess to becoming interested in all things prehistoric since I attended primary school. Then, the latest educational technology was the radio, and a particular favourite of mine was first thing Monday morning – How things began. It was a weekly trip along the geological column starting at the Cambrian and travelling, over the weeks, right up to the Pleistocene and of course meeting the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic. Each episode involved the presenter travelling back in time, observing and reporting on the flora and fauna at that time and getting into a life-threatening scrape from which he escaped just in time. I was captivated by prehistory and particularly dinosaurs. My final primary school project was writing a short ‘book’ entitled Jurassic Age Dinosaurs.


I maintained my interest and was particularly intrigued when the debate about dinosaurs moved on to consider whether they might be hot blooded and not at all like the reptiles we have on Planet Earth today. I taught about this in a general science course in the late 70’s as part of understanding how scientists use evidence to develop explanations. In more recent times I’ve been intrigued by idea that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs despite the existence of a small group of scientists which name themselves BAND – birds are not dinosaurs. The book Feathers is a great read if you’re interested in this debate. But what particularly intrigued me in the New Scientist article was the idea that dinosaurs as a group do not actually exist.

In 1887 Harry Selley identified two distinct sorts of animals from the Mesozoic: ornithiscian and saurischian depending on their hip structure and put forward the idea that as such they did not have a common ancestor and hence did not belong to the same group of animals. His idea was rejected despite this difficulty and the scientific community and the general public believed in the idea of dinosaurs. By 1984 both ornithiscian and saurischian were deemed to have a common ancestor hence dinosaurs were a legitimate group and this included present day birds. The evidence for this decision comes from cladistics which uses a wide range of differences and similarities to group animals according to their shared evolutionary history. Early in 2017 a reworking of the clade data put diplodocus outside the dinosaur group – the nation’s favourite not a dinosaur! Later in 2017 the data was revisited again and the dinosaur family tree was revised to include diplodocus. But there is still uncertainty. To my mind all this adds up to a wonderful story illustrating the nature of science; which is that, in the light of observation, evidence and interpretation, what is true today might not be true tomorrow.

As always comments welcome.

Contextual Challenges survey; the responses

A couple of weeks ago David invited English teachers of D&T GCSE to contribute to a short survey asking if and how they have they have changed their curriculum at KS3 and 4 to reflect the demands of the new GCSE and, in particular, its non-examined element, the Contextual Challenge.

Frankly, given how busy teachers are, we weren’t at all sure whether even a very short survey would get much of a response, so we are delighted that 41 colleagues have taken the time to do so; thank you very much!

We think the responses are of interest and the purpose of this post is to simply present the data from the survey without commentary or analysis.  As the original request noted, David and I will be including this data in a paper we are presenting at the PATT 36 conference in June. After that conference we will make the full paper available on this site and let everyone know that it’s available.

[Incidentally, we are working on this paper over the next few weeks – so if anyone else would like to respond to the survey, there’s still time (say until the end of this week) to have your data inform the final paper – if you manage to do this, thank you in advance.]

The survey had just two questions:

  1. What changes have you made to your KS3 D&T curriculum to prepare pupils for the new D&T GCSE? 
  2. What changes have you made to your KS4 D&T curriculum to prepare pupils for the new contextual challenge NEA?

Here are the results. [Click images for a full size version.]

The responses under ‘Other’ for Q1 were:

  • More focus on coverage. Start covering simple D&T theory in the early year. The amount to get through in 2 years (years 10 & 11) means you have to start teaching lower down the school.
  • Removed carousels – one teacher for all disciplines
  • Changes have been made due to budget cuts – not curriculum change. less making, I can’t afford materials and machines are breaking and not being replaced.
  • My sow (carousel) is now loads of mini projects covering a wide range of outcomes – theory lessons are also interactive with a practical element – homework assignments are evidencing how students use their outcomes through photo stories and story boards.
  • Home learning tasks have included more theoretical elements – we’ll revise our projects at the end of this year.
  • Spent more time on theory than I would usually do early on in a course to ensure they get all the time needed when the NEA kicks in. Was in danger of losing them at one point… Became to theory lead. Quickly reverted back to designing exercises and skills lesson inputs. I have not got the balance right yet re the course (AQA) ,. 1st year… Suppose it’s to be expected. Little support re NEA etc from exam board.
  • Bigger focus on client.
  • I don’t have a KS3 I teach in a UTC.
  • Struggling to make the changes necessary with an inexperienced department. Sticking with old fashioned design, make, evaluate ks3 projects. There is then an upskill in year 9 and 10 so they’re ready for year 11.

The responses under ‘Other’ for Q2 were:

  • My design tasks at GSCE have always been open. I rarely restrict students to a particular project. A range of projects creates a stimulus for the group, a collective problem solving focus and generates different outcomes.
  • Completely revamped the delivery of theory. Will tackle the NEA when we are closer to the release date and time.
  • Focussed yr10 on core theory
  • Small focused tasks and recorded range of skills and materials and lots of theory
  • More small fpt’s.
  • A mock NEA with year 10’s. Constant feedback through Google classroom
  • More small theory based makes to make the content less dry
  • Have done a lesson giving them a myriad of contexts and then asked them to research possible design opportunities / different briefs.
  • Add more theory components that cover core and in-depth of 2 materials. Have attempted to use maths activities from exemplars across exam boards. We also test theory knowledge weekly
  • Shorter design and make tasks to cover different core materials.
  • Focus practical tasks on processes and materials
  • More focus on theory within year 10. Only short practicals due to feeling there’s less time for NEA
  • I’ve tried to focus on areas of weakness/no links will be made in, if there isn’t a ‘pointed out’ element to it. Each small term is spent on 1 area of focus – t4 is currently mechanisms/cams/levers/gears etc

As ever, we’d be delighted to hear people’s thoughts on these responses via the comments.

Manchester MakeFest 2018

Manchester MakeFest returns this year on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 May at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

The Caller for Makers is open with a deadline of 4th March.

This year, our family festival of making, building, coding, crafting and tinkering has new dates and an exciting programme to celebrate the Year of Engineering.

We need all kinds of people to make MakeFest happen. If you’re a techie, engineer, hacker, hobbyist, crafter, artist, tinker, tailor or even a candlestick maker—we want to hear from you.

Do you run coding activities for families? Are you working on an engineering project that you’d like to try out with the public? Do you create magnificent machines in your shed? Have you got a passion for creating circuits you’d like to share? Or something else that fits in with the MakeFest theme? Whatever you do and whatever level you’re at, we’d love to hear from you.

A Festival Pack is available, this has all the information you need if you have questions about participating. However feel free to also contact me if you want to know more.

Can you contribute to research to be presented at an international conference?

Torben and  David are presenting a paper at PATT 36. The title is Teaching young people to respond to a contextual challenge through designing and making – a discussion of possible approaches.

One of the referees has suggested that it would be useful find out to what extent other countries have adopted a ‘contextual challenge’ approach in their technology curriculum.
So, we have asked colleagues abroad to let us know if their countries have such an activity as part of their technology curriculum either as an assessment and/or as a means of teaching?

If possible we would also like to include comments from teachers in England about how they have, so far, prepared their students for this challenge. We know this is a busy time of the year but it would be very helpful if those of you who are teaching the new D&T GCSE could let us know how you are doing this. You can do this via a really short questionnaire or, if you’d like to provide more detailed information you can contact us directly.