Where does D&T fit into Nick Gibb’s Social Justice Case for an Academic Curriculum?

At the beginning of May I reported via Twitter that Nick Gibb was on record as saying “”Art and music and D&T (design and technology) are terribly important, core academic subjects in our schools”. Yet now it is clear that there are rising concerns about the Minister’s views on the importance of EBacc subjects and the D&T community is feeling assailed by decisions in schools that privilege such subjects over the worth of D&T. What lies behind this apparent dichotomy? Nick Gibb has made an interesting case for an academic curriculum in terms of social justice. In this does he renege on his view about the importance of D&T? These are some of the points he makes with brief comments from me as to their relevance to D&T in italics.

He supports R A Butler’s rebuff of the criticism that “if everyone is educated who will do the work?” Butler retorted “Education itself will oil the wheels of industry and will bring a new efficiency, the fruit of modern knowledge, to aid the ancient skill of farm and field”. He attacks a culture of low expectations (with regard to learning academic subjects in particular), suggesting that we should never lower our expectations because too many young people are failing to reach them. Rather, we must raise standards by supporting teachers and turning around schools which are struggling. There’s a rub here. Is D&T an academic subject? In the post “But it is as hard as physics” I argue that there are aspects of D&T that make significant intellectual as well as practical demands but I realize that there are many who see the subject as essentially practical which to my mind does little to help our cause. Unless the subject can be seen as worthwhile from the perspective of its inherent ‘academic’ demand it will always be seen as less significant than those subjects that parade this virtue. I’ve argued the case for a D&T curriculum based on demanding BIG Ideas here and here. So I stand firmly in the camp that requires the subject to reposition itself with regard to academic worth. If we can do this then we can begin to demand support in achieving this goal.

He berates Ken Robinson for suggesting schools should reduce the emphasis on core academic subjects acknowledging that while he is correct to recognise the value of flexibility and creativity to success in life and the labour market he is wrong to suggest that the best way to foster these attributes is to reduce the emphasis on core academic subjects. Note Robinson has never been a friend to D&T; his Creativity and Culture report paid little if any heed to our subjects potential.

And he rebukes those who suggest that a core academic curriculum is academic elitism. In this he argues strongly against the position of Paulo Freire the Brazilian educationalist with a commitment to the education of the poor who developed the idea of critical pedagogy. Here I must admit to being torn. I am a great admirer of the work of Freire especially as a means to get young people to question the status quo and challenge prevailing power structures that disadvantage them in the short if not medium and long terms. However I do not agree with the bizarre notion that once you support critical pedagogy you are automatically required to dismiss the importance of subject knowledge. Quite the reverse is true. The only criticism of worth is one that is informed. And it is here surely that D&T can have the best of both worlds. Through our subject young people develop ‘eyes on the technological world’ and can gain 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. Developing such insight is not a trivial task, either for the students or their teachers.

Some in the D&T community argue that it is the EBacc that is at the root of our woes yet Gibb argues for a broad curriculum as follows: The EBacc is a specific, limited measure consisting of only 5 subject areas and up to 8 GCSEs. Whilst this means that there are several valuable subjects which are not included, it also means that there is time for most pupils to study other subjects in addition to the EBacc, including vocational and technical disciplines which are also vital to future economic growth. The vast majority of pupils will rightly continue to take the opportunity to study further academic GCSEs or high value, approved vocational qualifications at KS4 alongside EBacc subjects.

If we can reposition D&T as an opportunity for further academic GCSE study then there is definitely a place for our subject in the 8 GCSEs but there is a problem in attracting the most able students to our subject. And I definitely do want to attract the most able as D&T provides them with challenge worthy of their attention. Once a student has chosen three sciences there is likely to be only one ‘option column’ available from which to choose a GCSE subject. The others have already been taken by English. Mathematics, history or geography, and a MFL. This forces all the so-called ‘creative’ subjects into competition with one another. So the issue for me is in the nature of option choice structures that enables as many pupils as possible, especially the academically able, to study the creative subjects. This is a level of detail that is usually beneath ministerial concern. And that is a very important aspect of the problem we face. The Minister is unlikely to be aware of the ‘unintended consequences’ for our, and others’, subjects of his position on achieving social justice for all young people through an academic curriculum.

It is of course important to maintain the learning demands of D&T on a broad front – practical, intellectual and creative. This latter aspect is particularly important and we should be clear that this in no way detracts from the intellectual demands of the subject (especially if we position our subject within the STEM agenda). In his fascinating book Curious Ian Leslie make a strong case for the importance of academic knowledge in supporting creativity. “Without knowledge, including factual knowledge, a child is like a sculptor with no clay to work with – she is creative, but only in theory.” So the key question is “Where does Nick Gibb stand on enabling pupils, especially academically able pupils, to study design & technology?” Will his position on academic learning as a vehicle for social justice inadvertently betray D&T?

The easiest way is also the most direct – just ask him. I shall be writing to my MP (Justine Greening) with a request that she directs this question to Nick Gibb on my behalf. I have every expectation that Justine will do this. I urge you to do the same with your MP. The key point to make I think is to help the Minister see the importance of school’s option structures and how this might undermine access to some very important subjects including D&T.

As always comments on the post are welcome

PS The problem created by pupils taking 3 sciences skewing curriculum balance is not new. In the 1980’s there was a move to address this problem by introducing a double science qualification, as a opposed to a triple science qualification. In the early 2000’s the Nuffield Foundation’s 21st Century Science course adopted a similar approach with a core science course for all with the possibility of students taking one of two additional qualifications – an applied science course or an academic science course. This approach was confounded by the government’s insistence on the availability of a triple GCSE in science.

Understanding materials in D&T

A flurry of tweets asking what pupils should learn about materials in D&T has prompted this blog. To my mind the understanding of materials has a central place in D&T. We live, literally as reminded by Madonna, in a material world. So to understand and perhaps take part in conceiving and constructing such a world what might pupils need to know? Can we identify a set of ‘BIG’ ideas that underpin pupil understanding of materials? I believe we can. The first BIG idea is that of ‘property’ – the features of a material or substance that distinguish it from other materials and substances and which define the way that material behaves. The second BIG idea as far a D&T is concerned is that we can divide the properties of a particular material into two main categories: the intrinsic properties of that material and the working properties of that material. The former are concerned with what that material is like and the latter with how we can apply tools and processes to change the form of a piece of that material. The intrinsic properties can be further divided in categories such as mechanical, electrical, optical, thermal, chemical and a broad set of aesthetic qualities. These properties can be applied to all and any materials but sometimes the form of the material can affect the way the properties play out. In the case of textiles the behaviour of a particular piece of fabric will depend on the intrinsic properties of the material, the tightness with which the fibers have been spun into a yarn and the looseness or tightness of the weave used to produce the fabric from the yarn. So this is quite tricky territory. In D&T we would want pupils to chose the material they think is most appropriate for the design they are envisaging. Clearly they will need to take into account the intrinsic properties of possible materials and also consider whether they themselves have the necessary skill, tools and equipment to process the material into the required form. Overlaid on this of course will be the cost or purchasing the material – affordability is important. But the choice requires further considerations. Where does the material come from, by what means is it obtained and what is the carbon footprint of this acquisition? If the material is non-renewable it will be important to consider the longevity of the material. How long will it be available for if it is used up and not recycled or up-cycled? Whilst such considerations may be beyond the scope of pupils’ personal material choice in school they should feature highly in any critique pupils make of the choices made by professional designers and engineers. So the third BIG idea is that in choosing a material, designers and engineers have to make a judgment as to which is the most appropriate using criteria concerned with properties, cost, source, footprint and longevity and that often there has to be trade offs between these sets of criteria. So, for example, I might choose material A as opposed to that material B because although A is less strong (so I have to make the part thicker) it is much easier to recycle. Often designers and engineers (and pupils) use precedent to simplify this decision making process. In a similar design this material worked well so I’ll use that too. Whilst this yields a quick and apparently successful result as the future unfolds the impact and significance of source, footprint and longevity on the decision may well change and precedent might not be the best way of approaching the decision. And as the future unfolds nanotechnology will become ever more important in developing materials with particular and unusual properties. The properties of such materials will depend not so much on the material used but on the nanostructure by which that material is built. This is heady stuff which runs counter to our teaching of the first and second BIG ideas and is probably best left until pupils are in Key Stage 4. So if the above represents the BIG ideas about materials we want to teach pupils in D&T the question is “What’s a good way to do this across KS3 and KS4?” How can we use teaching about these BIG ideas to develop both pupils’ technological capability as designers and makers in their own right AND their technological perspective through which they can take a position on the way society uses the materials at its disposal. I’ll leave the last word to Mark Miodownik, Director of the Institute of Making at University College London

Making is not just an economic activity, it is the equal of literature, performance or mathematics as a form of human expression. By eschewing material knowledge we cease to understand the world around us.

Stuff we like: A catch up

It’s always been our intention to use the Stuff we like… pages to share things we’ve been reading, watching and listening to. So this is the first in what I hope will become a rather more frequent series of ‘catch up’ posts – bringing the site up to date with some of the things I’ve been reading over the past few months. These are listed in about the order I read them – but I’ve also linked them (‘Filed under’) to the sections of the website where the permanent references are.

The Second Machine Age iconThe Second Machine Age – Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew Mcafee, published in 2015 by Norton. This provides a really good overview of the range of (largely digital) technologies that are starting to impact all areas of life. The authors discuss both the opportunities that these technological revolutions offer and also the risks to people from the scale of the changes they predict. They also provide recommendations for individuals and policy that they think will help ensure the smoothest possible transition to the technological age they predict. Interestingly they put quite a high priority on the importance of education to prepare both individuals and society for the second machine age and note the need to reform education for such a purpose. Although their brief overview of the (US) educational landscape does no more than skim the surface, I do think they are right that education needs to change in the face of the immense social challenges that digital technologies are bringing. This book won’t tell you much about how education should change – but it lays a foundation for understanding what such changes need to achieve. Filed under …about Technology

Learning Reimagined iconLearning Reimagined by Graham Brown-Martin, published in 2014 by Bloomsbury  is a beautifully produced book – full of gorgeous photos – through which the author explores radical approaches to education from around the world that have been facilitated by digital technologies. Organised by country, the book contains interviews with leading thinkers along with case studies of schools and learning communities. These are interspersed with ‘Thought Pieces’ from the author in which he reflects on some of the wider and overarching educational issues that his visits and conversations prompt. True to its focus on new technologies the book makes good use of augmented reality, in particular linking from the written interviews to videos of those being interviewed. If The Second Machine Age outlines why education needs to change, the wealth of examples in this book will inspire thinking about how it might change. Filed under …about Education

Girl genius 3 iconGirl Genius – Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle by Phil and Kaja Foglio, published in 2014 by Titan. This is the third novelisation of the wonderful series of Girl Genius steampunk comics. These comics are first published online (for free) in three instalments a week, then bound up and sold as comic books. Every now and then a series of the comics is published in novel form. All the incarnations are excellent; a strong and intelligent female lead, lots of good technology humour and great story lines. What’s not to like…..? Filed under …that is Just Cool

I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That iconI Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre, published in 2014 by Fourth Estate. This is a collection of articles by Goldacre previously published elsewhere – many of them in The Guardian’s bad science column and on the Bad Science website. The merit of the collection is that the articles are grouped into themes and thus allow a line of thought to develop. Goldacre has a laser-like focus on identifying the bad use of science and, in particular, on how data is used and misused. He’s an entertaining writer and this is an accessible and well-grounded introduction to a lot of ideas in statistics and data handling. The book includes a section on education; Goldacre has made something of a name for himself in advocating for education the use of these kinds of large scale randomised control trials that have transformed medicine. Not all education researchers are convinced that these ideas will transfer to education as well as Goldacre claims, but this book is a good place to read Goldacre’s argument. Filed under Big Data

Hot to Cold iconHot to Cold: An Odyssey of Architectural Adaptation by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) published by Taschen in 2015. I’m a huge fan of  Bjarke Ingels’ architecture – the fact that he’s Danish is, of course, immaterial…. This book (produced for an exhibition of the same name at the National Building Museum in Washington DC earlier this year) provides an overview of around 60 of BIG’s projects, some built, others in progress and some speculative, ordered by the temperature of the climate where the work is set. What I like about this is that it provides really clear descriptions of the design thinking that led the group to some really very radical building designs.  I think these could be used as design case studies with pupils as a well as the book being a great D&T design reference. For those who prefer their information in comic book forms, an earlier work by BIG, Yes is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution, covers some of the same territory. Filed under …about Design

The Language of Things iconThe Language of Things by Deyan Sudjic published in 2009 by Penguin. SuDjic is the Director of the design Museum in London, and in this book provides a great popular introduction to a number of ideas in design, looking not only at the language of design (as indicated by the title) but also design archetypes and the relationship of design with luxury, fashion and art. He’s a clear and often witty writer and I think this is nice overview of some interesting idea in design that D&T teachers would find valuable. Filed under …about Design

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth iconOperating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller, published 2008 by Lars Muller. This book was originally published in 1968; one the one hand this shows very clearly in the style of writing – which was probably very relaxed for its time but can come across as a bit stilted in places by today’s standards. On the other hand, many of the ideas it in seem almost prophetic when read with hindsight. Buckminster Fuller is probably best known for the design of geodesic domes, but this book clearly shows him as a polymath with very wide interests and a knack for binging together seemingly unrelated ideas. His writing is motivated by a strong belief that social inequity is unacceptable and that design and technology should be a tool for equalisation, he is concerned about the consequences of rapid population growth, about the implications of automation and about   our unsustainable use of ‘Spaceship Earth’s’ resources. All of which continue to be live issues. However he is an optimist; he believes that humans can work together to produce a fair and sustainable world. He argues that humanity needs to bring range of tools to bear on the planet’s problems, including systems thinking and synergistic thinking, and that by doing so we have the capacity to ensure  a good future for all of Spaceship Earth’s passengers. Filed under …about Technology

Saturn's Children iconSaturn’s Children by Charles Stross published in 2009 by Orbit. Stross is among my favourite SF authors and this book has his trademark dark humour. Set in a future where humans have engineered advanced robots to look after them – and then become so lazy that they slip into extinction, the story follows the adventures of one of these robots. This is a great exploration of what happens when ‘our’ machines try to sustain a human society that is bereft of humans. Filed under …about Science Fiction

The Art of Critical Making iconThe Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice by John Maeda, Rosanne Somerson and Mara Hermano, published in 2013 by John Wiley. This collection of essays by and interviews with members of the staff teaching at the highly regarded Rhode Island School of Design (RSID) ranges widely across material contexts and approaches to teaching design and making. But running through the book is the idea that making should be a critical activity and that design education should encourage deep thoughtfulness and a questioning attitude to such things as the materials being used, the purposes of this use, the needs of people impacted by the designing and making and social and environmental impacts. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these are seen as important in design education, but the value of this book lies in the descriptions of the learning experiences enjoyed by students at RSID, many of which, it seems to me could be applied to school-level education as well. Also of interest is the broad emphasis on the importance of the embodied learning that arise from physical interaction with materials; computers certainly don’t seem to be banned at RSID, but neither is their use privileged.Filed under …about Design

The Scientist As Rebel icon

The Scientist As Rebel by Freeman Dyson published in 2008 by New York Review Books. Dyson is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists but applies his considerable intellect well beyond the confines of physics. This collection of essays is arranged in four groups; Contemporary Issues in Science, War and Peace, History of Science and Scientists and Personal and Philosophical Essays. It is compassionate, human and very readable. The first section contains the material most directly relevant to D&T education and includes an exploration of the implications of the mass adoption of novel technologies such as neurotechnology and synthetic biology, speculating, for example, that:

Instead of CAD-CAM we may have CAS-CAR, computer-aided selection and computer-aided reproduction.

But the essays are of interest beyond this; he provides unfashionable views on climate science, thoughtful observations of the relationship between religion and science, and insights into a range of contemporary issues such as environmental protection and genetic engineering. Filed under …about Technology

Teaching- Notes from the Front Line iconTeaching: Notes from the Front Line by Dr Debra Kidd, published in 2014 by Independent Thinking Press. A thoughtful and bang-up-to-the-minute exploration of the some of the significant contemporary issues facing teaching and teachers. Kidd writes as both a teacher and a senior leader in schools, she is passionate about high quality education and, equally,  clear that much of the political and administrative activity around schools undermines quality education. This will not be a surprise to most working in schools. What marks this book out as more than just another teacher’s whine about how hard teaching is, is that this a handbook of ‘pedagogical activism’. The cover of the book claims that “We are … in need of a revolution in education” and most chapters end with a series of  bulleted action points of things ‘you can do now’. Kidd  does not think there is time to wait around and hope things improve, she want teachers to “take control of the direction of education and policy”. You may not agree with all her views or prescriptions, but I think most teachers will find inspiration in her proactive attitude. Filed under …about Education

Design as Art iconDesign as Art by Bruno Munari, this edition published 2008 by Penguin (original published in 1966). Munari was an influential Italian designer of the 20th century and in this series of short pieces he explores not only the relationship of Design to Art but also the place of design in society under the broad areas of Stylists, Visual Design, Graphic Design, Industrial Design and Research Design. He is a thoughtful and humourous writer and a number of his chapters (along with the copious drawings that accompany them) could form the basis for activities that will get pupils in D&T thinking more deeply about design. Filed under …about Design

But it is as hard as physics!

The recent post from John Newbigin bemoans the fate of so called ‘creative subjects’ within the government’s view of what constitutes the ‘hard subjects’ young people need for a ‘good start’. John has little time for this position arguing that it is what the creative subjects offer that industry really needs. I have some sympathy with this but I think it is a mistake to see the creative subjects, particularly design & technology, as not ‘hard’ or as I prefer to say ‘academically demanding’ To make this point Torben and I wrote a briefing paper for Nick Gibb with the title D&T GCSE Briefing for Minister. In this we make the case that although different from physics it is certainly as hard in its own way and in no sense intellectually inferior. So whilst I support John’s position on the importance of the creative subjects I think it is very important that in doing so we don’t inadvertently ‘dumb them down’.

Roehampton University leads the way in STEM education for schools

The half day seminar at Roehampton University ‘STEM Education – Visions of integration and synergy’ this afternoon (4 June) could not have been better. Great opening keynote from Maggie Philbin about the work of TeenTech CIC. Do visit the website and find out how TeenTech events and awards make a real difference to a wide range of young people. Miles Berry entertained and informed with a presentation on computational thinking with real time problem solving in front of the audience – a bit nerve wrecking for Miles but hugely engaging. David Swinscoe, who was involved in the production of the Royal Society Vision Report, gave a thought provoking piece celebrating the seminal work of the ASPIRES Project and highlighting the significance of appropriate practical work in science.

I had the D&T slot and made what I thought was a convincing case for D&T to be a part of STEM. My’take home’ messages were:

  • Differences between STEM subjects are legitimate and to be respected
  • By teaching in the light of STEM …
  1. Learning in science and math can enhance learning in d&t
  2. Learning in d&t can enhance learning in science and math
  3. This requires planning but is NOT disruptive
  • Impact of STEM needs to be assessed

There are more details in the actual Powerpoint – STEM Roehampton[final]

And of course BIG thanks to Ruth Seabrook and Simon Gallacher for conceiving and organizing the event. They will be publishing a fuller report in due course. As soon as I know where it is I’ll blog the link.