Deciding what to teach and how to assess it in design & technology (1)

This is the first of three blog posts concerning the content of the school subject design & technology and how it can be assessed.

This first post will deal with the historical development of the subject and the nature of the knowledge that the subject should embrace.

The second post will deal with how the acquisition of this knowledge can be assessed.

The third post will deal with the issue of devising a learning journey for design & technology that teaches this knowledge.

Knowledge in design & technology is tricky in that involves both ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. Design & technology involves at its core the idea of taking action, some form of intervention. This was explicitly acknowledged when the subject was being considered for inclusion in the National Curriculum way back in 1988. An Interim Report (Department for Education and Science and Welsh Office 1988) submitted to the government of the day asked the question, “What is it that pupils learn from design and technological activities which can be learned in no other way?” and gave this answer:

In its most general form, the answer to this question is in terms of capability to operate effectively and creatively in the made world. The goal is increased ‘competence in the indeterminate zones of practice’. Page 3

The report made clear the distinction between homo sapiens (man the understander) and homo faber (man the maker) and acknowledged that these ways of knowing were not mutually independent but did not clarify the relationship between knowing and doing.

The current administration puts great store on the idea of the essential knowledge (e.g. facts, concepts, principles and fundamental operations) that children need to be taught in order to progress and develop their understanding. Such knowledge may be seen as being composed of enduring ideas.

In his book Technology’s challenge to science education David Layton strongly endorsed the idea that scientific knowledge of varying sorts was needed to support ‘know how’. Jacob Bronowski makes the same point many times in The Ascent of Man but particularly well in his description of the manufacture of the samurai sword – a process discovered by trial and error which could only be maintained and repeated by turning the practice into a traditional ritual that always worked but was not understood. There is no doubt that much scientific knowledge needs to be reorganized and remodelled to make it useful and more accessible to practical users. It is clear that there is other important knowledge that can only be acquired through practice. It is this knowledge ‘set’ embracing both knowing that and knowing how and the relationship between the two that has to be defined and that taken together forms the enduring ideas that comprise design & technology in the school curriculum.

However the development of this relationship between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ as exemplified by schools’ practice in design & technology was initially insufficient to convince the Expert Panel set up by the current administration to review the contents of the National Curriculum that the subject taught enduring ideas. To quote from the Panel’s report (Department for Education, 2011)

4.8 Despite their importance in balanced educational provision, we are not entirely persuaded of claims that design and technology, information and communication technology and citizenship have sufficient disciplinary coherence 58to be stated as discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subjects’. We recommend that:

  • Design and technology is reclassified as part of the Basic Curriculum. We recommend that design and technology programmes should be developed by schools in response to local needs and interests, which is why we take the view that a reclassification to the Basic Curriculum is desirable.

58 Implicit in this judgement is a view of disciplinary knowledge as a distinct way of investigating, knowing and making sense with particular foci, procedures and theories, reflecting both cumulative understanding and powerful ways of engaging with the future. In this sense, disciplinary knowledge offers core foundations for education, from which the subjects of the curriculum are derived. Some very worthwhile areas of learning apply such knowledge in particular ways or foreground particular areas of skill or competence – but have weaker epistemological roots. Our judgement about possible reclassification is based on the balance of advantage, given the need to reduce prescription in the National Curriculum. Page 24

Lobbying by the Design & Technology Association convinced the Minister that the subject should be included in the National Curriculum and further lobbying, particularly by the Royal Academy of Engineering using the document New Principles for Design & Technology in the National Curriculum (E4E 2013) led to the introduction of a Programme of Study (Department for Education 2013) which seems to be well regarded with Elizabeth Truss being quoted as saying, “I believe the draft you have submitted is strong and welcome in particular the way in which it embodies the coherence and conceptual rigour of design & technology”.

However to my mind the relationship between ‘knowing that’, ‘knowing how’ and enduring ideas still needs to be clarified. I developed the following diagram to describe six areas of enduring ideas that taken together can be used to define design & technology as a school subject.



Importantly one of the ideas concerns the nature of the subject and should include the idea of intervention through design activity, its consequences and using knowledge from a wide variety of sources in addition to the knowledge delineated in the diagram. The other ideas all involve an interaction between knowing that and knowing how.

  • For materials pupils use what they know about materials to choose materials that are appropriate for their designs
  • For manufacture pupils have to turn their knowledge of manufacturing methods into skills so that they can make their designs
  • For functionality pupils need to use their knowledge of structures, power and control to devise the functional performance required by their designs
  • For design pupils have to know about a wide range of design strategies and learn how to deploy them in developing their designs
  • For critique pupils need to use their knowledge of how design & technology is being used in the world to make value judgements as to the worth and appropriateness of such use with, to my mind, particular regard for justice and stewardship.

Underpinning this knowledge based description of design & technology must be a statement as to its worth in the place of human endeavour and hence a justification for its place in a school curriculum. The following seems a good starter.

Imagining what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create that future is a unique human ability which has led to the development of successive civilizations across history. Such activity embodies some of the best of what it means to be human. Learners study design & technology because it introduces them to this field of human endeavour and empowers them to become people who see the world as a place of opportunity where they and others can, through their own thoughts and actions, improve the world in which they live.

 If we can be confident that this is what we have to teach and why then the next step is to devise valid and reliable means to assess this acquisition of knowledge.


Bronowski, J. (1973) The Ascent of Man. London: British Broadcasting Corporation

Department for Education (2013) Design and technology programmes of study National curriculum in England. London: Department for Education

 Department for Education, (2011). The Framework for the National Curriculum. A report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review. London: Department for Education

Department for Education and Science and Welsh Office. (1988). National Curriculum Design and Technology working group interim report. London: HMSO

E4E (2013) New Principles for Design & Technology in the National Curriculum London: E4E

Layton, D. (1993) Technology’s challenge to science education Buckingham: Open University




4 thoughts on “Deciding what to teach and how to assess it in design & technology (1)

  1. Pingback: Where does D&T fit into Nick Gibb’s Social Justice Case for an Academic Curriculum? | David and Torben for D&T

  2. Pingback: Conversations with Martin Chandler | David and Torben for D&T

  3. Pingback: Tracking pupil progress in design & technology | David and Torben for D&T

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