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.