Not the outsides but the insides surely?

clock-faceI’ve come across several requests for new projects to support a revision of current KS3 schemes of work. My usual response has been don’t start with projects, start with what you want the pupils to learn. But I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to start with an existing and somewhat limited project and revitalise it by considering what might be learned if it was extended in various ways. This led me to consider the designing and making of clock faces. Many schools get pupils at KS3 (or even KS4) to design and make clock faces, providing a bought in mechanism to move the hands. My impression is that they use this as an opportunity to explore the aesthetics of particular design movements. So we get Mackintosh or Memphis or Bauhaus derive clock faces. I’m not sure that this is the best use of precious design & technology time. Surely the interesting idea behind such work is that we can devise machines that can record the passage of time. Being able to tell the time has had a large impact on the way we live our lives. Before this was possible sun rise and sun set provided the boundaries on our days with inadequate and often poisonous lighting (oil and kerosene lamps) giving some respite from darkness. So understanding the impact of measuring time on our lives and how this can be achieved would seem to have great potential in a design & technology course that was concerned with both perspective – understanding the interaction of technology and society, and capability – designing and making things that work. So some questions to consider:

  • Why might we need clocks?
  • What do various people use clocks for?
  • Who wins and who loses when people have clocks?
  • What sorts of clocks are there?
  • When and where were different sorts of clocks invented?
  • How do they work?

The history of clocks goes back a long time, starting with sundials and water clocks. The use of pendulums and springs then allow the invention of mechanical clocks which include some very delicate and accurate components moving on jewelled bearings. Such clocks needed winding up using a hand turned key but this function was overtaken by the electric motor. And then we reach the quartz clock that uses an electronic oscillator regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time. Most modern clocks (and watches) now operate this way.

It seems to me that there has got to be some good design & technology in a consideration of clocks that goes way beyond what their faces look like. It will be no mean feat to derive a unit of work that looks at the insides as opposed to the out sides of timepieces but I think the rewards in terms of learning would be great. All the BIG ideas will be represented to some extent – materials, manufacture, functionality, design and critique. And such a unit of work could embrace making without designing, designing without making, design and making and considering consequences. I expect other areas of the curriculum would be interested – mathematics, science and history. So as we prepare for the new GCSE and start to revise our KS3/4 offerings consider what we might teach if we seriously revamped ‘the clock face’ project.

As always comments welcome.


3 thoughts on “Not the outsides but the insides surely?

  1. As ever, clarity of thought shared with us here David. Sadly it is too often the case that departments talk about the projects that students make, and focus more on the outcome rather than the learning involved. It is too easy to judge a student’s progress by just looking at what they have made (whether finished or not), and miss out on the how and why, which is what D&T is really all about. I think departments can lose sight of the context of what they are teaching (e.g. history of the clock as a product, history of telling the time, imposition of time as a measure or tool to control, etc, etc) and use the word ‘design’ purely for aesthetic reasons.
    As you infer, the most important questions for any scheme of work should be:
    What are the students learning through this project?
    How are they going to be assessed?
    How can all stakeholders ‘see’ progress in learning?
    These are central to any scheme of work, and do not rely on any specific ‘project’ focus


  2. Most people, especially the young now rely on their mobile phone to tell the time. My own children do and neither have clocks in their houses. I ditched a wrist watch a while ago but was recently given a Mi Fit wrist band and do find the time display quite useful.

    When choosing projects and how to teach them it’s important we consider the opportunity cost and ask “Would something different provide a better experience?”. Researching the historical side of timekeeping can be a valuable exercise but maybe in the context of something more modern. Have you seen the wooden sculptures created by David C. Roy? Powered by constant force springs, they rely on the controlled release of stored energy to create amazing visual displays based on an understanding of Moire fringe patterns.

    Very few projects are bad, it’s often the approach taken that determines how valuable the experience is for pupils. Most ‘bad’ projects can be transformed and I’ve spent a large portion of my career showing teachers how to change the way they deliver their existing projects to provide more freedom for creativity, understand more of the science behind their designs and use mathematics to quantify design decisions.

    When visiting schools I like to get a feel for things so ask myself; “Is what I am seeing modern, relevant and challenging?”. If the answer to all three is yes there aren’t any serious issues but if the answer to any of them is no then there are likely to be missed opportunities.


    • It’s always good to here from Tim. I hadn’t seen the works of David C Roy and there are indeed quite wonderful. One of OCR’s suggestions for a contextual challenge is concerned with enhancing users’ experiences with a Public Space. One of Roy’s kinetic sculptures would surely do that and they might act as an inspiration for a D&T GCSE candidate. I agree that changing the approach to any particular project that can improve it considerably. I can see all sorts of creativity, math and science embedded in a unit of work on timing devices. I like Tim’s visit audit – is what I’m seeing modern, relevant and challenging. But here there might lurk the position that young people might not be interested in how things were done in the past or at least much more interested in how they are done now. I can see that it is important to appeal to modernity and try to understand the up to date but to my mind this is not really possible unless the up to date has been considered to some extent in the light of what used to be. The indecent haste with which new technology is purchased as soon as it is available – the overnight/early morning queues for the latest Apple product for example – is I think a cause for concern – hence the need for technological perspective.


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