Technology Education according to Neil Postman

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am a huge admirer of Neil Postman. I first discovered him early in my teaching career through his book Teaching as a subversive activity (if only!) and more recently through re-reading Technopoly which I blogged about on this site. Last week I managed to get a second hand copy of one of his later works The End of Education. It does not disappoint and what do I find in the last chapter a list of ten principles for technology education.the-end-of-education-and-technopoly-book-covers

Here they are:

  1. All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is a corresponding disadvantage.
  2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.
  3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Like language itself, a technology predisposes us to favour and value certain perspectives and accomplishments and to subordinate others. Every technology has a philosophy, which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
  4. A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige and a “worldview”.
  5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.
  6. Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.
  7. Because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different technologies have different political biases.
  8. Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.
  9. Because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different technologies have different social biases.
  10. Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases.

All this written was written 20 years ago.

Postman argues that through teaching technology according to these principles young people will know something worthwhile, have made sense of how the world was made and how it is being remade, and may even have some ideas on how it should be remade. I think that the Disruptive Technologies Project that I, Torben and Nick Givens are working on has significant resonance with Postman’s ten principles and that they form an excellent guide to what we have named Technological Perspective which provides insight into ‘how technology works’ informing a constructively critical view of technology, avoiding alienation from our technologically based society and enabling consideration of how technology might be used to provide products and systems that help create the sort of society in which young people wish to live.

It’s not that technological capability in terms of designing and making isn’t important, of course it is but to neglect technological perspective is to provide an education that lacks an essential dimension crucial to young people’s futures. Our challenge is to include both in the way we teach design & technology.

As always comments welcome

Re-Building D&T – the CPD!

re-building-dayWe’re really pleased to say that we’ve teamed up with the Regional Training Agency to provide a day-long workshop for schools on Re-Building D&T.

Full course details [pdf].

Initially we are offering two days, one in London on Friday 24 March 2017 and one in Leeds on Monday 27 March 2017. However, if the demand is there, we will be very happy to add further days either regionally or with clusters of schools who are interested.

Read more about our Re-Building D&T project.

A response to comments on the Re-Building paper

re-buildingWe (David, Nick and Torben) have been very pleased with the way members of the Design & Technology community have responded to the paper Re-Building Design & Technology. Many of you mailed us and indicated that you found the paper both interesting and useful at a time when the subject is in decline in schools. Some of you commented in much greater detail and we are grateful for the time and trouble you have taken. In particular we thank the following: Andy Mitchell, David Perry and José Chambers, David Spendlove, Malcolm Welch, Martin Stevens, Mike Martin, Pat Docherty, Tim Tarrant and members of the Product Design Surgery on Facebook.

We have responded in detail to individuals; the purpose of this blog is to surface the main themes raised by our respondents and offer our view on them. A result of all this feedback is that we recognise there are places where the document can be strengthened and a v2 of the re-building paper will be made available on this site – we expect by the end of February.

Pleasingly, all our correspondents welcomed the paper, indicating that it was timely and needed. There was general agreement that the purpose of the paper, to identify and discuss four reasons for the decline of the subject was useful.  These reasons were as follows:

  • A lack of agreed epistemology
  • Confusion about purpose
  • Uncertainty about the nature of good practice
  • Erroneous stakeholder perceptions

The paper explored how these might be achieved and made recommendations for action by the Design & Technology Association

Eleven main themes emerge from the responses which are detailed below.


1. What is the audience for the paper?

In addition to the general question of audience, some respondents felt that different interest groups would find only parts of the paper relevant to their concerns and that such parts might need to include more detail.

We intended and hoped that a wide range of those interested in and responsible for the school subject design & technology would read the paper. However, we do feel that it’s important that the different stakeholder groups have a view across the whole breadth of issues, even if they feel some aren’t their precise concern. We want to break down silos in the community of interest, not reinforce them.

On the specific matter of the level of detail, we didn’t feel that this document was the place for huge amounts of detail and we have tried to reference supporting material where appropriate. There was one area (Big Ideas) where a specific request for more detail was requested and we discuss this further in item 6 below.

We do agree that we need to be very clear from the start of the document that we intend the audience to be all who have a stake in the subject and v2 will make this clearer.


2. Why the focus on the Design & Technology Association?

In particular, is it reasonable to place the burden of all our recommendations onto the Association?

We believe that it is important that the Design & Technology Association show the practical and intellectual leadership needed to address the poor status of the subject and reverse the trend of falling numbers at GCSE; realistically, it is the only body in a position to lead on this. We did try to be equally clear that the burden of re-building the subject should not fall on the shoulders of the Association alone. The entire design & technology community and key stakeholders will need to work in synergy with the Association.

It should be noted that, though we made the recommendations to the Association, several relate to the need to work with the wider community of interest in re-building the subject.

Given the number of respondents who made comments in this vein, it is clear to us that in developing v2 of the document we need to make much clearer our view that, though we believe the D&T Association needs to lead on re-building, this can only be accomplished with support from the whole community.

We will look to see where we can make recommendations to the wider community of stakeholders that are sufficiently bold, realistic and achievable.


3. Can the current community of practice rise to the challenge of re-building?

The concern expressed has been that that D&T teachers and departments are under so much pressure from curriculum reform, the knock-on effects of national assessment policies such as the EBacc and recruitment problems that they may not have energy to grapple with re-building the subject.

We do have confidence that design & technology teachers and subject leaders in schools do have the potential to rise to the challenge of re-building the subject but that they will not be able to do this alone or unaided. Hence many of the recommendations we made concern the support they need to address what is a daunting task. We strongly believe that given such support each design & technology department in every secondary school can contribute to re-establishing the subject as one of significant worth for all young people and reverse the trend in GCSE uptake. This is a task that will require curriculum reform from the beginning of year 7, individual teachers acquiring more extensive subject and pedagogic knowledge and sharing this knowledge by working much more collaboratively in teams. These will not be achieved without sustained and substantial CPD.

It is worth noting that there are many able, recently appointed heads of department who will be able to, and will need to, make a significant contribution to this CPD. It is important that these ‘young Turks’ are identified and enabled to play a full part in re-building and taking on leadership of the subject.

In v2 of the document we will make clearer our belief in the abilities of those working in schools, discuss the need to develop to develop leadership for the future from those working in schools and review our recommendations for CPD to ensure they are clear and robust.


4. Why not a radical re-vision as opposed to a re-build?

Many respondents drew an analogy with the recent development of computer science in schools where ICT was relegated to curriculum history and a new vision for the subject was developed.

Several respondents indicated concern about the name of the subject wondering whether it would be better to call the subject simply Technology. Some have gone so far as to suggest that this should be reflected by changing the name of the professional association to the Association for Technology Education.

While we have some sympathy with the argument for revision we believe that the analogy with ICT/computer science is not as strong as it may appear.

Firstly, ICT as it was conceived for the National Curriculum was not devised to achieve a computer science curriculum. When this was desired, then a radical revision was necessary.

Secondly, there was significant pressure from key figures in industry and august institutions such as the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineers for such a revision. We see no similar pressure from those quarters to radically revise design & technology education.

Thirdly, the then government could see that a radical revision might be of considerable economic benefit to the country in the short term. As we hope the re-building document makes clear, we do not think that putting all our eggs in the basket of economic renewal is helpful to the subject in the long-term. In any case, the current government has not shown that it believes there is a strong economic argument for design & technology.

More importantly, we do not think the original vision for the subject as laid down by the Parkes Report is flawed. It represents both the unique nature of the subject and the reasons for teaching it extremely well. The difficulty the subject has faced is, we think, that it has not been able to meet these expectations.

It is also worth noting that only recently has the whole curriculum from 5-18 been revised; we doubt there is appetite either amongst teachers or the relevant national bodies to carry out further significant reform at present. Rather we think that these revised expectations provide a strong foundation for the re-building we are arguing for.

Hence we believe that a radical revision if attempted is almost certain to fail and that re-building is by far the much better option. This does not mean that within the re-building young people should not be engaged with modern technologies for design and manufacture nor that they should not be engaged in designing and making technically sophisticated products; quite the reverse. Modernisation is essential and this can be achieved within a re-building strategy.

As to renaming the subject and association, we can see that there might be advantages to this: a single subject name and the word ‘education’ in the title. But we think it seems unlikely that there is any desire in government to change the formal (statutory) name of the subject

The name of the Association is, of course, a matter for the Association but it is worth remembering that this has been raised, and knocked back, many times before, including by Andy Breckon, when he was the CEO of the Association. It is also noteworthy that many countries name the school subject that we call ‘design & technology’ just ‘technology’, but that their curricula still include design as an essential feature of technological activity.

It seems to us that renaming the subject is probably better aligned with re-visioning than re-building but if there were to be a change in name it would be important that this didn’t signal just cosmetic changes; there would need to be a robust recognition of the same themes of epistemology, purpose and practice that we discuss.

Though we will continue to advocate re-building as opposed to radical re-vision, we want to acknowledge in v2 that for some there is an appetite for re-visioning and that, in the light of successful re-building, re-vision might then be appropriate.


5. Why hasn’t more been made of pupils’ joy in making?

No one doubts that some (although not all) pupils gain great enjoyment from making, perhaps sometimes because it is a relief from the intellectual pursuits required in other subjects. However, enjoyment per se does not impress ministers, or those who advise them – largely because it doesn’t guarantee that learning is taking place. There is the potential for joy in every subject and the pedagogy employed is a significant factor in this; we have gone to some length to ensure that the learning activities we recommend for the subject do indeed have the potential for enjoyment as well as the acquisition of knowledge, skills and understanding. We do take the point that the enjoyment of practical activity in association with conceptual demands might well enable young people to achieve and appreciate such learning when they otherwise might not.

We will ensure that ‘enjoyment’ as a feature of effective pedagogy is included in v2 of the document. We will also review the document to ensure that the importance of making within the subject is clear. 


6. Can you clarify/extend/explain the Big Ideas more thoroughly?

Whilst most accepted our epistemological framework based on Big Ideas, others found it opaque.

We think this may be because we presented it as a high-level summary that was low on detail although we did provide reference as to where such detail might be found. We believe that the framework is robust and that it is important for the subject to have such a framework. It was the criticism that the subject had weak epistemology that led the Expert Panel to advise Michael Gove that the subject should not have a prescribed Programme of Study in the National Curriculum.

We don’t think it would helpful to include the large extension to the document that a full exploration of Big Ideas would require, but we recognise that an accessible explanation would be valuable. We will create such an explanation and place it on our website from where it can be referenced in v2.


7. Why haven’t we challenged the privileging of conceptual over procedural knowledge?

This was posed both as a general question about the place of procedural knowledge generally in education and, more specifically, about the way these kinds of knowledge are balanced within design & technology.

We believe that design & technology has suffered because as a subject, in practice it has often privileged the reverse – procedural knowledge over conceptual knowledge. Our view is that ‘know how’ uninformed by ‘know that’ is not an appropriate epistemology for the subject. We believe it is incumbent upon us to identify a body of knowledge the learning and understanding of which enables young people to respond effectively through procedural knowledge to meeting the challenges of designing and making items of worth. This is what we have tried to do in the re-building paper.

In fact, we strongly believe that all school subjects should (and most do) incorporate both procedural and conceptual knowledge. In fact, we think we would go so far as to say that design & technology could lead the way here in providing a basis for curriculum reform in many school subjects where what pupils do with their conceptual knowledge is not addressed.

We think it will be useful to make our position on this even clearer in v2, as we believe that unless design & technology addresses the acquisition of conceptual knowledge without abandoning the importance of procedural knowledge then it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the subject to regain its status as a subject of worth.


8. Why hasn’t more been made of the soft skills that the subject teaches – problem identification, problem solving, teamwork, and communication?

In the current climate, the idea of academic rigour is holding sway and there seemed little point in identifying features to which the government and the DfE do not give much weight – even though we may believe these are important learning outcomes.

Part of the problem is that the importance of soft skills is highly contested territory; this, of course, does not mean that they are not important as educational outcomes but before we can make a strong case for them to be included as fundamental to learning in design & technology it is necessary to have evidence that this is the case. Such evidence as there is, is scant and often anecdotal.

We also note the research evidence that skill & knowledge transfer between subjects – and even contexts within a subject – are much more difficult to achieve than often claimed (expressed, for example, in the idea of ‘situated knowledge’).  In the light of this there may well be a place for design & technology to develop specific strategies for fostering contemporaneous transfer within the subject (i.e. between material areas), with other subjects (science, maths, art…), with life beyond school boundaries and over time (from prior experiences and to experiences yet to come). Developing these ideas goes beyond the scope of our re-building paper, in our view, but we’d like to note here their importance.

We also think that the OECD’s interest in soft skills as exemplified by the introduction of Creative Problem Solving tests into the PISA testing regime is indicative of increasing interest in this area that we should keep an eye on.

In the light of all of the above, we believe that the pedagogy we have identified in the section on good practice does in fact provide the opportunity for such soft skills to be developed, but this needs bringing out more clearly.

We will indicate in v2 how ‘soft’ skills might be developed and revealed in the pedagogy described.


9. Why no comments on ITE and recruitment?

There is little doubt that ITE has become highly fragmented and the many and varied routes into teaching are confusing for potential applicants. Also it is clear that a one year PGCE programme provides insufficient time for trainees to acquire the breadth of basic subject knowledge they will need. This is clearly a cause for concern. It is noteworthy that in some other countries (e.g. Malta) the post-graduate qualification required to become a design & technology teacher is a full time two year Masters programme.

There is also no doubt that recruitment to ITE has been falling significantly for several consecutive years. But the government report that there is no shortage of D&T teachers. The presumed explanation for this apparent contradiction is that where design & technology teachers can’t be easily be replaced, schools are simply contracting D&T departments – being under no pressure by current accountability measures to maintain the subject at full strength. This is clearly a huge worry for the subject

So, if there is all this to be concerned about why haven’t we written about it in the re-building paper? Our view is that these concerns are genuine and need to be addressed but the re-building paper is not the document in which to do this. If we can re-build so that there is sound epistemology, clarity of purpose, good practice and informed stakeholder perception then the status of the subject will increase, more parents will support it, it will gain wider status in industry and more young people will want to study it and this will impact on both the nature of ITE and recruitment; what you might call a market pull argument.

We wanted to concentrate on re-building the subject and felt that dealing with ITE and recruitment would distract from the key re-building features. This in no way lessens our view that the nature of ITE and recruitment are serious issues and one that the community needs to pay serious attention to.

We will note the gravity of the situation regarding initial training and recruitment in v2 and indicate the need for significant action on this front.


10. What alliances need to be forged to enhance the status of the subject?

Several respondents noted that there are several educational initiatives outside design & technology which are relevant to its learning intentions. Alliances with these initiatives are likely to be of mutual benefit. Two such examples are the emerging Maker Education Movement and the research into ‘Thinking like an engineer’ carried out by Professor Bill Lucas and his associates. In addition, organisations such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Arts, and the Edge Foundation have shown considerable interest in the subject and it is important that those promoting the subject in schools develop purposeful relationships with such organisations.

We agree that building on these relationships is important. They can support the re-building of the subject as well as increasing its profile to important constituencies. We note that gaining political support is the focus of the next and final theme.

We will consider in v2 the need for alliances that a) inform the curriculum development necessary for re-building and b) enable the subject to build support from a range of stakeholders.


11. How can the subject get the political support it needs to change its status?

Several people noted that an important part of re-building the subject and thus enhancing its status is achieving political support. They wondered whether we should say more about this in the paper.

To some extent this is a chicken and egg problem; re-building is difficult without political support but if re-building is successful then political support will follow. We believe that it is important that individuals and institutions with influence bring this to bear in ways that will generate political support across a range of justifications for the subject especially the social and cultural justifications.

In v2 we will be developing some recommendations to the wider community of stakeholders in the subject. We want to ensure that these explicitly identify what each interest group might do to achieve political support for the subject.


We hope that we have done justice to the comments we have received and expect to produce a v2 of the Re-building design & technology paper by the end of February.

As always further comments are welcome.