Conversations with Martin Chandler

Early in the New Year I posted a piece entitled A single GCSE for D&T – will it fly? in which I presented the case for a single title GCSE for D&T which was not in any way material specific. This isn’t an easy or trivial decision. It has big implications for the nature of the subject, the way it should be taught and assessed. As a backdrop to this decision it is important to bear in mind that in many schools D&T does not have a high reputation so such a change represents an opportunity to modernize the subject and communicate clearly about its worth for the majority of young people whatever career path they might choose. Since the post I’ve been having an interesting and lively conversation with my long time professional colleague Martin Chandler and he and I have agreed to publish a set of extracts. Our intention is to provoke discussion amongst teachers so that as Martin puts it

… The more people join in the better for all of us to create a consensus and a feeling that the grass roots have a say in what is going on. My greatest fear is that the teachers on the ground, at the chalk face, in the workshops, don’t put their point of view and so feel done to rather than involved! 

Let’s start with a comment attributed to Nick Gibb (Minister of State for School Reform with responsibility for, amongst other things qualifications and curriculum reform) when he was in conversation about GCSE D&T. He asked: “Will it be as hard as physics?”

I wrote to Martin that we should say “Harder actually but only if we up the intellectual content”. Quite rightly Martin pulled me up on this arguing, “There is plenty of intellectual content!’ and of course Martin is right BUT I think the problem is that very few folk, including perhaps Nick Gibb, aren’t aware of this intellectual content. Martin wasn’t backward in coming forward here. “We need to impress upon the Gibb’s of this world that practical and spatial thinking are just as difficult as the theoretical stuff!” This is tricky territory. Spatial thinking is not the sole province of D&T. It is obviously a part of shape and space in mathematics and as a one-time chemistry teacher I know that understanding the structure of molecules and reaction mechanisms is indelibly linked to spatial thinking. And there are clearly many aspects of physics that require spatial thinking e.g. astronomy, electromagnetism, behaviour of light, etc. (There’s a nice piece here about spatial thinking and how SATs by and large don’t recognize of assess this.) But Martin wouldn’t let go.

What is not recognised is that D&T operates on a different level and that level is just as challenging if not more so because it does have to bring together ways of working the theoretical and the practical. What the intellectual snobs fail to grasp is that spatial thinking and understanding as well as the theoretical materials and process understanding and then being able to combine the two is the challenge.

Here I think Martin has put his finger on a really important point. Science is essentially concerned with ‘explaining what is’ – the wonderful range of phenomena that make up the universe. D&T on the other hand is concerned with ‘what might be’ – what can be produced by ‘intervening in the made world’. W Brian Arthur, author of The Nature of Technology, argues that this is completely dependent on the phenomena we have at our disposal. If the universe were made up of different phenomena we’d have different technologies at our disposal. So there is an intimate link between the phenomena identified, explored and explained by science and what we can do with them in D&T. Nailing the phenomena is the first step; doing something with them is the second. Both are important, of equal merit and demand. Hence we can argue that D&T will be as hard if not harder than physics BUT we have to show this in both what is taught in D&T and the way that it is learned. Again Martin puts his finger on a key point:

When asked pupils say D&T is really difficult because there’s lots of it that you can’t learn from a book and there’s no single right answer to design problems.

As teachers we explain to pupils that there will be a range of possible solutions of varying effectiveness. And of course any such effectiveness will be a matter of judgement. Here is a key difference from physics which we might argue makes D&T ‘harder’.

Whilst conversing with me Martin was crossing swords with the DfE over the place of D&T in the STEM agenda. The DfE were clear on several points:

D&T GCSEs will count towards the new secondary accountability measures announced, which move from 5 A*- C including English and mathematics, to the progress measure and attainment across 8 subjects; meaning schools are encouraged more strongly to improve their teaching across the whole curriculum. The new curriculum and new qualifications will also ensure strong links between D&T and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Interesting and valuable ammunition to take to an SLT who undervalues D&T BUT …

It is not true to imply that government initiatives to increase engagement in mathematics and science subjects have failed. Since 2010, there has been a 13% increase in mathematics A level entries and a 16% increase in physics entries. Getting more young people to study these subjects remains vital to ensuring more study engineering-related subjects at university.

Is this a Freudian slip (i.e. no mention of D&T) with the DfE revealing that as far they are concerned the STEM agenda is really a SM agenda?

One of Martin’s concerns was the breadth of a single title GCSE and the inability of a single teacher to teach across the piece and he linked this to the quality of entrants to the D&T teaching profession …

I have not been impressed with the quality of knowledge of the graduates over the past ten years and many of them lack the all round knowledge required to teach the subject.

I’m not sure about this with regard to the national picture but I suspect that folk from PGCE programmes are probably strong in those areas of D&T that are related to their degrees but, not surprisingly, weaker in those topics that are unrelated. The role of the school in providing on going CPD for NQTs, RQTs and established teachers is perhaps more crucial in D&T than any other subject given a) the variability in entrants subject knowledge and b) the rate at which technologies are developing and changing. And of course such CPD is relevant to the implementation of a single GCSE in two areas, not only new subject knowledge but also new pedagogic knowledge which would encourage and enable the team approach necessary to deal with the breadth. There are real causes for concern with regard to the initial training of D&T teachers in the fall in numbers being trained. Despite the DfE saying …

Improving the quality of teaching is also important and we are encouraging more top graduates into teaching by offering bursaries of up to £9,000 (up to £12,000 from 2015/16) for trainees in D&T.

There has been a 50% under recruitment in two consecutive years (data from Andy Mitchell of the D&T Association) and a modernized single GCSE offering might well provide a key to attracting the top graduates the DfE wants to see in the profession but only if SLT commit to providing their D&T departments the necessary CPD.

Martin was very concerned about a team approach to teaching at GCSE …

…this is very difficult due to specific timetabling and rooming, which will mean that you are not using your skilled teachers in the place where they can be most effective and then quality will suffer! 

My response here is that D&T departments should treat this as a wicked problem and spend time designing a decent solution – not easy but important.

So where does that leave you the reader of this post, especially if you are a D&T teacher?

  • Will a single D&T GCSE seen as the culmination of a 5 year course of study (years 7 – 11 in the secondary school, and an 11 year course of study if you include the primary school) underpinned by five Big Ideas (materials, manufacture, function, design and critique) and reflecting the true nature of D&T (see my post here about these) be of benefit to the subject and the pupils who take it?
  • Will it have the status required for SLT to see it as important for Progress 8?
  • Will it be more explainable and justifiable to key stakeholders?
  • Will it lead to departments becoming smaller (one of Martin’s fears for the future) or will it enable departments to grow as they develop a team approach?

Let us know what you think.