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.

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

  1. Just to stick up for the physicists for a moment (I don’t think our real battle is with them after all…)….
    I don’t think most physicists would recognise the implied description of their subject as ‘totally theoretical and without application’. Some physicists devote themselves entirely to theory – but their labour would be in vain without the experimentalists to test the theories – and actually much theoretical drive comes from the unexpected results of experiment. Even the division I’ve implied here of there being two camps of physicists, theoretical and experimental, is a crude simplification; many physicists exist happily with a foot in both camps.
    I could create a vast list of interesting and important practical applications of physics but instead I’ll give you a thought-provoking fact and a great video.
    The fact is that when I adopted the PGCE in D&T at The University of Manchester the metalwork H&S training took place in the Physics department (one of the best in the country…) because that was where the best equipped metalwork shop was; I’ll leave you to speculate on why this was the case.
    The video is of one of the greatest theoretical physicist of the 20th century demonstrating in the clearest possible applied way why the Challenger craft had exploded:

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  2. Hi David, I think there are two issues that worry me, one is that of course D&T can be very intellectually demanding (more so than Physics) if you consider the thinking required in professions like architecture, but on the other hand it can be very skills and craft based and so it could cover a very wide spectrum and therefore most children can succeed at some level. That is part of our problem that it doesn’t easily fit into the ‘phyisics’ camp, because it is not totally theoretical, it has application!
    The second issue is that why do ‘the powers to be’ think that intellectual is ‘better’ than practical? Who does Nick Gibb call when he needs his plumbing fixed? Why can’t we work the argument that practical is just as important as intellectual, because otherwise the world would not work!
    At the intellectual side of D&T we have the Dysons of this world, but he relies on hundreds of designers, makers, engineers and technicians to make his products! So how is one ‘better’ than the other because we need both!

    Martin Chandler

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