Deciding what to teach and how to assess it in design & technology (2)

This post (the second in a series of three) is to consider what might constitute valid and reliable means of assessing the acquisition of knowledge in design & technology. Tim Oates has robustly defended the Expert Panel decision to abandon levels of attainment in this short video clip. I do urge you to watch it. Tim makes the case for teaching pupils to understand enduring ideas as the basis for the decision. He cites this as the approach taken in other countries with higher educational performance than England, countries that do not assess on the basis of levels. In Tim’s view concentrating on levels does far more harm than good, should be abandoned and that it is essential to embed teaching of subjects in the acquisition of knowledge, skill and understanding embodied by those subjects.

His view is that in a system without levels the assessment needs to be based at the point of teaching on whether the pupil has ‘got it’ or not. Tim’s argument is that at a particular point in time with regard to teaching a subject some aspects of enduring ideas will be appreciated whilst others will not. He maintains that it is teachers who can discern whether such understanding has been achieved by probing question and answer sessions with the pupils that stimulate discussion and require/allow the pupil to reveal their grasp or lack of it of the enduring ideas being taught. Tim argues for teachers to be able to use such question-answer sessions effectively. In short to become expert assessors in their day to day practice.

An allied problem with the statements of attainment for design & technology was that they were couched entirely in procedural terms, concerned with ‘knowing how’ but ignoring ‘knowing that’ as exemplified by this example from the 1999 design & technology National Curriculum shows. At level 8:                                                Pupils use a range of strategies to develop appropriate ideas, responding to information they have identified. When planning, they make decisions on materials and techniques based on their understanding of the physical properites and working characteristics of materials. They identify conflicting demands on their design, explain how their ideas address these demands and use this analysis to produce proposals.

Tim is not alone in in supporting the significance of pupils learning enduring ideas. Neil Postman (1993) in his prescient polemical attack on the impact of technology on society refers to education as enabling young people to take part in the ‘great conversation’ and that such education is “… not child-centered, not training centered, not skill centered, not even problem centered. It is idea centered and coherence centered”  (Page 188). More recently E. D Hirsh (2007) has argued convincingly that in the USA it is a lack of knowledge that disadvantages those for whom education is expected to do the most. Most recently Ian Leslie (2014) has made the case for being knowledgeable if one is to be curious and use curiosity effectively.

So in response to these positions on the importance of knowledge we need a design & technology curriculum based on the teaching of enduring ideas i.e. we need to construct a curriculum that mirrored the contents of the hexagon diagram in the previous post. Such a curriculum should reflect the nature of the subject and teach ideas concerned with materials, manufacture, functionality, design and critique. It should deal with aspects of these ideas in a way that is progressively more demanding. It is the teacher’s task to devise a curriculum that meets the requirements of progression taking into account what we know about the complexity of such ideas and how they might be learned. This is straying into post 3 territory (devising the learning journey) but if the teacher has this vision of progression then at any one point in time she will be able to ask pupils the questions necessary to probe whether her teaching of enduring ideas has been successful.

Of course for design & technology ‘knowing that’ is only part of the story. The essential interaction of ‘knowing that’ with ‘knowing how’ will require that the teacher has developed the curriculum such that what has been taught and learned is deployed through tasks in which the pupils take action using the knowledge and understanding they have learned. Again the sequence of such tasks should require that progress is made and such tasks should be devised and managed by the teacher such that they become more demanding as pupils move through the sequence. And on completion of such a task the teacher should be able to make judgement as to how well a pupil has tackled the task. And again this would be without reference to levels; more of this anon. Clearly there is a whole host of issues to be considered with regard to tracking pupils’ performance as they move through KS3 and KS4 towards GCSE assessment including the thorny issue of using end of primary school assessment data to predict performance 5 years hence at GCSE. I want to park the discussion on this until a later post and for the moment concentrate on the sort of assessment that could operate at GCSE which deliberately assessed acquisition of knowledge (knowing that) in the context of the particular significance for design & technology of ‘knowing how’.

My position is this. If we limit what young people should know and understand and be able to do to that which is required to successfully tackle a major design and make task we are selling the subject short. Not that tackling such a task is an insignificant endeavor. It is not. It requires hard investigative work to appreciate the nature of the problem the design has to address, what we might call ‘knowledge of the problem’. For an authentic task this knowledge cannot be ‘taught from the front’ or looked up in a textbook. It has to be sought out through a user centered approach to design. Techniques for doing this can of course be taught. Then in responding to the problem there are all sorts of knowledge, understanding and skill needed – what we might call ‘knowledge for the solution’. Some of this a pupil may have been taught but some may well be beyond what has been taught and the pupil will need to find out for herself. This of course is where Ian Leslie’s main argument in Curious is particularly pertinent – the more you already know the easier it will be to find out about what you don’t know and need to know. But however demanding any one project might be it cannot cover the breadth of knowledge required to appreciate a whole subject. So limiting assessment of design & technology to the procedural competence, albeit knowledge, understanding and skill dependent, is to my mind insufficient. We are fortunate that there is now significant and substantial expertise in assessing design & technology project work. The e-scape project  carried out through the work of Richard Kimbell and colleagues at TERU, Goldsmiths has shown that we can do this in a way that is both valid and reliable and I would certainly want this aspect of assessment to continue. But I want more than this. I want to assess the extent to which pupils have really grasped the enduring ideas that are important in design & technology in a way that is true to the nature of design & technology i.e. an assessment that takes into account ‘knowing that’ and its relationship to ‘knowing how’ for the subject as a whole.

And allied to this wider interpretation of what is worth knowing about and learning through a broad and balanced design & technology course is developing ‘technological perspective’. By this I mean giving young people insight into ‘how technology works’ such that they develop a constructively critical view of technology, do not become alienated from the technologically based society in which they live and are able to consider how technology might be used to provide products and systems that help create the sort of society in which they wish to live.

Of course rigorous assessment of the enduring ideas in design & technology will be difficult as this territory is not that well explored. However here is an initial foray into thinking about questions (harking back to some extent to Tim Oates’ position on the significance of questioning) for consideration.

  •  Some questions will need to probe specifics, others should be synoptic in nature requiring candidates to draw on knowledge and understanding from a range of specifics.
  • Most if not all questions should require the use of knowledge to show understanding as opposed to simply being able to recall particular pieces of knowledge. In fact I see many questions as requiring candidates to respond to/resolve different sorts of designerly dilemmas.
  • Some questions can require explanatory writing; in some cases quite extended writing and how such answers can be marked will be a challenge. However English and History teachers have that expertise and we can look to them for advice and guidance.
  • Some questions can be structured into parts that scaffold the candidate in developing a solution to a problem.
  • Some questions will require quantitative as well as qualitative reasoning.
  • Some questions can be multiple choice. I remember assertion reason questions which consisted of three parts: statement 1 and statement 2 separated by the word ‘because’. Statement 1 could be true or false; statement 2 could be true of false; if both statements were true then statement 2 might or might not be a justification/explanation of statement 1. The candidate had to decide which of the possible permutations was represented in the question. Demanding to write but really probing in terms of knowledge and understanding.
  • Some questions will be like none of the above as we work out different sorts of questions for our purpose

Developing such questions will be a challenge but one to which we must rise, particularly at this time when new GCSE specifications are being developed by the Awarding Bodies in collaboration with Ofqual. There will be a consultation about this in the coming months and I think it will be important to respond to this with a robust position that requires assessment of knowledge as well as process for the reasons outlined in this post.

The final post in this set of three will deal with the issue of devising a learning journey for design & technology that teaches the knowledge required for pupils a) to have a grasp on the enduring ideas that comprise design & technology knowledge, b) to develop technological capability and c) to develop technological perspective.


Hirsch, E. D. (2007) The Knowledge Deficit New York: Houghton Mifflin

Leslie, I. (2014) Curious The desire to know and why your future depends on it. London: Quercus

Postman, N. (1993) Technopoly The Surrender of Culture to Technology New York: Vintage



2 thoughts on “Deciding what to teach and how to assess it in design & technology (2)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s