Devising a learning journey for D&T (a)

The final post in this set of three was to 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. I now realize that trying to cover all three elements in a single post is unwise, readers would need an unusual amount of persistence. So this post will just consider a) the place of teaching enduring ideas in a design & technology learning journey. More on b) and c) in future posts.

I believe that in a learning journey the teacher should make the enduring ideas explicit to pupils, visiting them regularly and frequently so that pupils are taught to know, understand and use them. This approach will provide an intellectual coherence to learning across a wide range which for pupils is often fragmented and disjointed. The enduring ideas identified in previous posts were materials, manufacture, functionality, design, critique and the nature of the subject. I will discuss the place of each in the learning journey.

In the case of knowledge about materials whenever pupils are choosing materials for themselves or considering the choices of others I suggest there are four key points to be stressed:

  • Properties – what is this material like and how might it be manipulate?
  • Sources – where does this material come from and how is it obtained?
  • Footprint – what is the impact of acquiring and using this material?
  • Longevity – if the material is a finite resource how long will current stocks last?

These are general questions to consider and can be applied to all materials and so can be used consistently across all material (focus) areas. I don’t want pupils to learn long tables of properties off by heart but I do want them to develop a curious approach to the enduring idea of the nature of materials as relevant to design & technology. The four key points can be used regularly and frequently throughout the learning journey.

In the case of knowledge about manufacture whenever pupils are learning to make or making a product then whatever processes are being used they can be considered under the following five activities:

  • Subtraction
  • Addition
  • Forming
  • Assembly (sometimes with additional processing)
  • Finishing

These processes can be applied to all materials and be used to describe how a maker moves from materials in available forms to finished products. Pupils can use the same headings to describe their own making whatever material (focus area) they happen to be working in and also plan their making in terms of the sequence in which they will use the five activities. They can also describe the manufacture of commercial products in this way. These ideas can be used regularly and frequently throughout the learning journey.

The case of knowledge about functionality is more complex and I’m grateful to my colleague Kay Stables for suggesting that functionality should be subdivided into three separate areas. Taking her idea I suggest that these might be social function, aesthetic function, and technical function. A first consideration in thinking about the social function of a product is to be clear about the purpose of the product and what it has to do to achieve this purpose. But I suggest that this thinking needs to be extended to include how the product might affect the user, those in contact with the user and the wider society in which the product is used. Will the products enhance or detract from the quality of the human relationships? In broad term this is asking pupils to think about the worth of the product they are being asked to design and make or the worth of products developed by others. These are general questions to consider and can be applied whatever material or materials pupils may be intending to use. Hence they can be used at regular and frequent intervals throughout the learning journey.

Clearly the social function will play out by the way the aesthetic and technical functions are achieved. I suggest that achieving aesthetic function is broader than developing an attractive appearance although this is important. The designers Dick Powell and Richard Seymour have praised products that have ‘visceral appeal’ “I want it as soon as I see it even before I know what it is!” Hence in developing their own products and considering those of others I suggest pupils should be asked to think about how the design enables the product appeals to all the senses, how it makes them feel and how it piques their curiosity. This thinking would apply to products derived from all material areas and hence can be revisited and reinforced regularly throughout the learning journey. I suggest that achieving technical function can be conceived in terms of meeting structural, power and control requirements. All products whatever their material have structural requirements although the nature of these requirements will vary to a considerable extent according to the materials involved. But there are some underlying ideas that cross material boundaries e.g. how particular structural components can be joined or combined, how they might meet requirements for strength and stiffness, how to achieve stability in free standing items. So asking pupils to identify structural requirements and to consider how these are met in their design proposals are questions that can be revisited time and again as they move through their learning journey. I suggest that the areas of power and control are less easy to embrace across all material areas and within all products so it is especially important that when they are visited in the learning journey they are dealt with in a robust way. There are of course opportunities to integrate power and control into textile and graphic products as well as those products more typically associated with so called ‘systems and control’. In the majority of products that pupils design and make that require power the powering involves the slow release of stored energy. Such energy may be stored in batteries, capacitors, springs, material stored at a high level or a compressed gas. In some cases the energy can be stored by a person ‘doing some work’ e.g. lifting a weight or pumping a reservoir. The use of renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power to drive products adds an additional complication as such sources may not be reliable and this has to be taken into account when they are used. Often the power source is a given in that pupils have little or no choice as to which power source to use but this need not always be the case. In designing simple moving toys, for example, giving pupils a choice of power source will greatly increase the variety of outcomes. Whether choice is available or not it is important for pupils to appreciate that a power source is required, and think about the rate at which it can supply energy. An interesting challenge is to ask what changes need to be made to a proposed design if the power source is to last longer? If pupils are to gain insight into the efficient use of power sources then it is important that they move beyond ‘using what I’ve been given’ and consider different possibilities whenever they are required to power a product or consider the power sources used by others.

Control is a wide domain and for the purposes of this post I’ll restrict consideration to mechanical, electric and electronic control and for the later I’ll concentrate particularly on programmeable control. To some extent all of this control activity can be seen in terms of a systems approach involving input, process and output with, in some cases, feedback. Mechanical systems use mechanisms that produce different sorts of movement and change the size, direction and point of application of forces and motions. Pupils can use this description to design systems that meet the requirements of their designs. It will always be a case of defining the input movement, identifying the desired output movement and choosing a mechanism or group of mechanisms to turn the input into the output. It is important that pupils are able to practice using this procedure rather than simply being given a mechanism that the teacher knows will work. Whilst the latter might ensure success it almost certainly guarantees very limited learning. Electrical circuits at their simplest use switches of various kinds to control a variety of output devices – lamps, LEDs, motors, buzzers and again it is far preferable for the pupil to identify the requirements of the electrical control system and devise circuits to meet this than for the teacher to provide a ready conceived solution however elegant or foolproof. It is when the circuit devised by the pupil fails to perform as expected that most learning takes place. My colleague Torben Steeg has argued that programmeable systems should be the core of electronics teaching from Year 7 upwards Such work enables pupils to use simple microprocessors to develop products with embedded intelligence and for the outcomes of their own designing and making to begin to mirror the electronic products they use in everyday life which all now contain microprocessors. The products developed initially by pupils are inevitably simple – products that use sensors to respond to changes in conditions, products that are in fact simple robots. But they lay the ground for pupils to consider the impact of such technology and to be able to design more sophisticated products that could be, for example, part of the Internet of Things.

A key question is how often across Key Stage 3 will pupils get the opportunity to consider technical function. Consideration of structural function should be a regular and frequent affair; less so perhaps for the considering power sources. Considering control in ways that build pupils capacity ‘to control’ will take some significant curriculum development. Introducing simple programmeable control should be possible in year 7 especially if the design & technology department can collaborate with those responsible for teaching computing. Devising items that require both electrical and mechanical control should be possible in year 7 and 8. Extending this learning to embrace programmeable control should be possible in Year 8 and 9. But this will need to be done in a way that leads to pupils developing ‘products of worth’ in which the exact nature of the outcome is uncertain. So there is a lot of work to do on this aspect of the learning journey.

I suggest that ideas concerning critique can be linked to ideas concerning social function but these will need to be extended. It is important to distinguish evaluation from critique. Evaluation is generally concerned with whether a design does what it was supposed to do i.e. does it meet the specification. Such evaluation does not question the overall purpose of the design. It does not ask the question “OK the design does ‘this’ but is ‘this’ what we should be doing?” which requires the questioner to consider the consequences of the design. For example I’m a great fan of teaching pupils about robotics and getting them to envisage possible robots for the future as well as designing, making and programming simple robots. But the impact of robotics on our society won’t necessarily be benign. They will almost certainly make some workers redundant and drones, for example, can be used for both good (mapping farm land to enhance agricultural efficiency) and bad (killing enemies at distance with considerable collateral damage). Hence I think it is necessary for me to teach pupils to critique – not just about robots but the use of any technologies and their associated products. There are two particular lenses that it is useful for pupils to use. The first is justice. Does this technology give rise to a society in which people are treated fairly or does this technology advantage some and disadvantage others? The second is stewardship. Does this technology harm the planet in ways that that will seriously affect for the worse the lives of future generations of those, human and non-human, living on the planet? I believe it is an essential aspect of the design & technology learning journey that all pupils are required to critique technology and associated products regularly and frequently. Case study reading for homework with short follow up presentations from members of the class are efficient ways to do this.

My colleague Bill Nicholl describes designing as exploring, creating and evaluating and insists quite rightly in my view that this is an iterative process with pupils working through the ECE sequence many times in any design activity. Informing this design activity of course is pupils’ knowledge and understanding of materials, manufacture and functionality and intriguingly some of the detail of this understand is enhanced as it is used in the pursuit of design goals. Designing can’t be taught from the front. It doesn’t really matter how much you read about designing the only way to get good at it is to do it. In this sense it’s a bit like riding a bike. No one can tell you how to do it you have to learn for yourself but of course once you have managed to travel a little distance without falling off there’s plenty of very useful advice and guidance available as to how to improve your skill and stamina as a cyclist. So it is with designing. The learning journey must involve regular and frequent opportunities to design. But of course once you’ve started there are all sorts of strategies to be learned that will develop pupils’ design abilities. Some of these are concerned with generating design idea, some with developing them and some with communicating them. And of course there are techniques for on going review and evaluation. All have their place in enhancing pupils’ design abilities as do the knowledge and understanding of materials, manufacture and functionality. Clearly a lot of different learning informs designing, some before, some during and some after the design activity. Hence building designing into the design & technology learning journey requires considerable orchestration on the part of the teacher and the curriculum developer.

Underlying all the enduring ideas so far considered is of course the nature of the subject; that through design & technology we intervene in the natural and made world and whether such interventions are worthwhile will be a matter of judgement with the surety that there will be unintended consequences. The learning journey I’ve described enables personal intervention on the part of the pupils through their own designing and making and also a scrutiny of the intervention of others. It provides significant understanding of materials, making and function to inform this intervention and scrutiny. Through the use of critique it develops pupils’ abilities to make judgements as to the worth and possible consequences of their own design & technology and that of others. Be in no doubt this learning journey is extremely demanding, intellectually and practically. It will be challenging for all pupils but not I hope daunting. That of course is where teachers are so important. We will need to display a powerful demand for effort, support that enables the struggle required for achievement and the infectious enthusiasm that evokes pupil commitment to their design & technology learning journey throughout Key Stage 3 and beyond.

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