Robot butterflies – a cautionary tale

Blc-Q2YCYAAMDyGIn his wonderful magical realism book One hundred years of solitude the celebrated Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a scene in which a young girl is surrounded by a cloud of butterflies fluttering around her. She is unafraid and entranced. article-2242598-1653D728000005DC-606_964x577Now imagine that the beautiful robot butterflies designed and made by Festo could be programmed to behave like this, fluttering around in such a way as to transport any human they surround to what might be described as a magical place. How marvellous would that be? Robotic-Butterfly-by-Festo-2You might even imagine that a literary young person who was studying D&T via the OCR GCSE specification might conceive of this as a possible solution to OCR’s exemplar contextual challenge of enhancing users’ experiences of public spaces. What a creative response! And by making contact with Festo the student might even be able to collaborate with their engineers in producing a prototype cloud of butterflies for deployment in a public place such as a park. But what of unintended consequences? Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, has written a series of very engaging short stories in his book Robot Futures. They are all edifying with regard to the impact beyond intended benefit of robots in our society. In the story Robot Smog robot butterflies have been deployed in society for just this magical realism purpose but … the way the robot butterflies interact with humans is through eye contact. If you look at one or more of them they will flutter around your head making eye contact. And there is no off switch. They are powered via sunlight. When it gets dark they simply fall to the ground. Once the sun comes up they flutter off again seeking eye contact with humans. This has led to a situation where people walking in the park are afraid to look up and have taken to wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact. I leave you to read about what else happens. So as with all things technological we need to be mindful of unintended consequences and ‘be careful what we wish for’. In my view Illah’s book would make excellent reading for Year 11 and above. I wonder how often we use these sorts of science fiction short stories to engage our students with the possible downsides as well as upsides of technology?

As always comments welcome

PS

And now this – cyborg dragonflies produced by genetic engineering to act as drones – not exactly biomimicry more bio combination!

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Three cheers for Amanda Spielman!

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It was with a heavy heart that I read the opening paragraph of the Summer 2017 Editorial of Designing

As design and technology specialists we all know that good quality design, engineering and technology education is an essential part of any government’s economic programme. We also know that design and technology is a place in the curriculum where young people can develop the skills, attitudes and values employers are looking for, that contribute to the economy and the making of a better society and that are in increasingly short supply.

We have been banging the economic utility of the subject drum for the past 25 years and it has done us precious little good. Of course some of the young people who study d&t will go on to work in design/technology based careers to their own benefit and that of the country. But as a percentage of the cohort that will always be low, no more than, say, 10% at the most and if we see d&t as a subject for all young people whatever their career intention it is important that we offer up and subscribe to other reasons e.g. A personal argument (learning useful skills) a social argument (being able to understand and contribute to the debates surrounding the deployment of design and technology) and a cultural argument (appreciating the contribution of design & technology to our society in the past, now and in the future). There is little economic rational for the teaching of history or geography yet teachers of these subjects have little difficulty in justifying their inclusion in the curriculum and they are held in high esteem. And whilst studying science is seen as a key school subject with regard to the nation’s economic success science teachers do not rely on this argument as the justification of science for all – quite the reverse.

s216_Amanda_Spielman__1_So thank heavens for Amanda Spielman who in her speech Continue reading

Enabling and revealing creativity in design & technology

Design & technology (D&T) has the possibility of enabling young people to be creative although in practice many teachers are reluctant to encourage the risk taking that is required for creative activity in order to ensure examination success. The conditions for enabling creativity are reasonably well known and can be summarised by a double AND gate model as shown here.

double AND

Four features need to be in place for pupils to act creatively.

  • The activity has to be presented in a context to which the pupils could relate.
  • The activity has to be supported by a significant stimulus which was often, but not exclusively, intensely visual.
  • Focused teaching is necessary to provide knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • An attitude of continuous reflection needs to be encouraged.

However these four features alone do not ensure creative activity. The deciding factor is the way they are managed. This must be done so that pupils can handle uncertainty in exploring and developing outcomes. There must be some risk associated with the endeavour in terms of the “originality” of the activity as far as the individual pupil is concerned. These ideas of context, stimulus, relevant teaching and continuous reflection mirror the requirement for being successful in the designing and making needed for the contextual challenge of the new single title D&T GCSE. And it would make sense for such preparation to be used in the teaching of designing and making assignments in the programme of study leading up to the contextual challenge.

This leads us to the second AND gate. How do we enable young people to take risks and at the same time manage the risk taking? The answer lies in the design decisions that pupils have to make. This can be seen as involving five key areas of interdependent design decision, shown diagrammatically below:

Pentagon

  • Conceptual (overall purpose of the design, the sort of product that it will be),
  • Technical (how the design will work),
  • Aesthetic (what the design will look like),
  • Constructional (how the design will be put together)
  • Marketing (who the design is for, where it will be used, how it will be sold).

The interdependence of these areas is an important feature of making design decisions, as change of decision within one area will affect some if not all of design decisions that are made within the others. It is the juggling of these various decisions to arrive at a coherent design proposal that can then be realised to the point of fully working prototype that provides the act of designing and making with intellectual rigour and educational worth and makes it an essential part of technology education.

Teachers have used the design decision pentagon to audit the number and type of design decisions that pupils make during designing and making assignments. In most cases the teacher has made the conceptual decision. The class is going to design and make this sort of artefact. But the audit often reveals that design decisions in the other areas are few and far between. The technical and constructional decisions are made by the teacher, the marketing decisions in terms of who the artefact is for are often ignored with the only type of design decisions the pupils make is concerned with aesthetics. In such situations pupils are unlikely to learn to make design decision and the creativity of the outcomes will be minimal. But just how many different design decisions should a pupil make? Too many and failure to produce anything of worth is likely to be the result. One way to tackle this question is to give limited choices at the corners of the pentagon. So, for example the teacher might say, “You can choose one of these three different ways of working, and any one of three different main materials, and one of three different possible aesthetic influences and one of three possible users”. This gives 3x3x3x3 possible combinations – eighty one in total. If three at each corner is two many for a particular class then two choices gives 2x2x2x2 possible combinations – sixteen in total. In both situations there will be some overlap in choices between pupils but it is more than likely that there will be some if not considerable variation in the nature of the artefacts the pupils design and make in response to a given brief in which the conceptual nature of the artefact has been decided by the teacher. So by ensuring appropriate preliminary teaching and controlling the number of design decisions that pupils can make the teacher manages the risks that the pupils take in the design decisions they make. The wind is set fair for creative activity. Just how creative the artefacts produced are will be a matter of judgment and it is here that a comparison of outcomes across the class pays dividends. If a post-it sized photo of each of the items produced are displayed on a 5×5 grid the whole class’s work can be viewed at a glance. If all the items look similar then the strategy for enabling creativity has failed. Items that are different from the majority will stand out and give an indication of creativity. The greater the proportion of items that are different and stand out the greater the creativity there is across the class.

By tackling designing and making activities in the way described here teachers will be building mini creative communities to the benefit of the subject. The 5×5 grid of products will provide evidence for all to see just how creative the pupils in a class are being and such grids might well provide ‘something special’ for Julie Nugent.

As always comments welcome and we would be delighted to see some 5×5 grids of  artefacts designed and made by pupils.

Something Special for Julie Nugent

JulieN    In her latest editorial for D&T Practice Julie Nugent, D&T Association CEO, asks if schools will to tell the Association when they are doing ‘something special’. Often ‘something special’ becomes details of what students have designed and made and is presented as images of products that are clearly the result of considerable skill. There is however a great danger in pictures of products that are clearly objects of desire. The product alone does not tell the story of the process that enabled it to be envisaged in sufficient detail that it could be realised. This made me wonder about going beyond celebrating the product that is designed and made and revealing both the teaching and learning that enabled the designing and making to take place and the pupils’ thinking that used this learning to achieve sound design decisions and quality making. This reminded me of a paper I wrote (over 20 years ago now!) in which I interviewed a teacher and a pupil about what they did and thought in designing and making a textile product. You can read the paper here.

The paper probed the teaching that led to pupil learning that in turn enabled the pupil to make and justify really sound design decisions. It is this sort of information that shows the  teaching and learning needed for pupils to be able to combine the intellectual and the practical that is the hall mark of good design & technology – something special. The interviews that formed the basis of the paper I wrote did not take long – about 20 minutes each; and were conducted over the phone. So if your pupils at your school are ‘doing something special’ then it might be a good idea to carry out some teach/pupil interviews to reveal just how special this ‘something’ is and let Julie know. If time is short then I’m sure the D&T Association would be happy to organise someone to carry out the interviews over the phone.

As always comments welcome.

To teach D&T you have to teach economics and politics – really?

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New technologies do not emerge out of the blue. Increasingly their development begins with science. The work of research scientists reveals phenomena which can be exploited as the basis for new technologies. But turning this knowledge into technologies that can be used by society requires vast amounts of money. In some cases governments provide this money, often to support military developments to enhance national security. The work of DARPA in the USA is a good example here and these developments often spin off into useful developments for society in general. But in most cases the money is provided by venture capitalists who back various developments with very large sums of their own money in the hope/expectation of making even more money. Hence the development of new technologies is strongly tied to the capitalist system. In the past new technologies have generated more jobs than they eliminated. The rise of the motor car completely displaced the need for horse drawn transport and all the occupations associated with this but generated lots more employment in manufacturing, driving, garages, vehicle maintenance and infrastructure. However this may not be the case in the future.

The National Curriculum Design & Technology Working Group Interim Report (DfE&WO 1988) laid the foundations for the nature of the subject in the National Curriculum. Its influence is still very much alive today and this can be seen in the nature of the new single title D&T GCSE. The Report noted that in addition to pupils actively engaging in the processes of D&T there was an additional dimension to consider and this entails “critical reflection upon and appraisal of the social and economic results of design and technological activities beyond the school.” There can be little doubt that the increasing role of automation through robotics and artificial intelligence is having and will continue to have significant social and economic effects and this is the starting point for this blog post.

The latest report from the McKinsey Global Institute (2017) A future that works: Automation, employment and productivity indicates that while less than 5% of all occupations can be automated entirely using demonstrated technologies, about 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of constituent activities that could be automated. A key phrase here is “demonstrated technologies”. Given the rapid increase of machine intelligence demonstrated for example by the recent success of AlphaGo in beating the world Go champion and the use of IBM’s Watson in medical diagnosis combined with the increasing physical capabilities of robots such as those developed by DARPA, one might suppose that the long view adopted by McKinsey of the next 100 years might become compressed to 25 years. In a long view of 100 years we might then find ourselves in a situation in which the majority of ‘work’ has become automated. This has serious consequences for capitalism. At the moment, the captains of industry and commerce make huge sums of money by employing vast numbers of workers to create goods and services which these workers then purchase to a greater or lesser extent by spending their earnings. As industry and commerce become more automated there will be fewer and fewer workers and hence less purchasing power for the goods and services produced by industry and commerce. The drive for technological efficiency through automation will literally do capitalism out of a job. This train of thought has led economists to consider the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) paid to all citizens whether they are in work or not. Far fetched? Well perhaps not that far fetched. Several countries have considered this and Switzerland held a referendum in 2016 (BBC news 5 June 2016). The idea was rejected but 27% did vote in favour. Most recently the results of a trial in Finland (Independent 2017) has indicated mental health benefits for those in receipt of UBI. As more and more jobs are lost to automation it is not difficult to envisage a swing towards supporting a UBI. It is unlikely that this will happen very quickly but we can imagine moving towards a tipping point at which there becomes sufficient unemployed or lowly paid human workers that there are insufficient earned wages to purchase the products and services of automated industry. Bill Gates has argued for a tax on robots with the revenue from such taxation being used to ameliorate the impact on workers. It is perhaps worth asking ourselves what the role for education becomes in a world where pupils are guaranteed an income when they become adults? To quote Neil Postman we might move to a situation where school teaches, “how to make a life as opposed to make a living.”

Four_futures-183ac70241fda54162674557095cf068 Peter Frase has considered the situation in which capitalism is no longer viable in its present form in his entertaining book Four Futures: Life after capitalism which is short and accessible. It is an interesting thought experiment. He takes two sets of critical uncertainties and uses them to create four future scenarios.

 

 

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Four possible post capitalism futures as envisaged by Peter Frase

Frase calls on science fiction to embellish his scenarios, particularly the use of the replicator from Star Trek to provide the ability to replicate whatever we want from constituent atoms. This might be the ultimate destination of 3D printing. The extremes of the Abundance/Scarcity axis refer to the extent to which we have overcome the environmental challenges we currently face. The extremes of the Equality/Hierarchy axis refer to extent to which the majority or minority of society have access to available resources. A limitation of such an approach is that it necessarily limits itself to two sets of critical uncertainties. Frase does note consider other sets of critical uncertainties which might provide different scenarios. But for the purpose of this post I will accept this limitation.

In Scenario 1 (equality & abundance) we have a situation where the planet has been saved from environmental disaster, automation produces all goods and services required for living, a situation Frase calls post scarcity. All are relieved of the need to work and can carry out activities as they are inclined. Their status is not dependent on what they own or who they control. Although this society does not have the central mission of the starship Enterprise and hence the related command hierarchy it does mirror the post scarcity situation enjoyed by members of Starfleet. Frase names this scenario Communism. Clearly this is a utopian view but in a non-derogatory sense.

In Scenario 2 (abundance & hierarchy) there is a clear hierarchy between those who own the data files that allow goods and services to be produced by replicator and AI ‘assistant’ technologies and those who use/consume these goods and services. These users/consumers do not need to do the work that provides the goods and service; this is automated. Hence some redistribution of wealth to this large majority of society will be necessary, perhaps via a UBI, in order for them to access these goods and services. Frase names this scenario Rentism on the grounds that those with power ‘rent’ goods and services to the rest of society with strict conditions as to availability and use. The scarcity experienced by the majority of society is in fact an artificial scarcity created by those who own the data files. Frase asks for how long the majority will accept such a situation. Clearly this is a dystopian view.

In Scenario 3 (equality & scarcity) the world is recovering from the impact of global environmental disaster and the survivors have limited resources to build the society they want. They are committed to a society without any significant hierarchy. The replicator and AI assistant technologies are in operation but provide what might be termed rations in order that all will get a fair share of the limited resources. Without the need to work for these products and services members of society commit themselves to the task of ecological reconstruction, building a world in which there will be less scarcity in the future and in which humans and the other living creatures on the planet co-exist to mutual benefit. Clearly this view tends towards the utopian although life in this scenario is more demanding and less immediately attractive than life in scenario 1.

In Scenario 4 (hierarchy & scarcity) we have a situation in which a small elite live in luxury compared with the vast majority who live in extreme poverty, do any work required and are kept under control by robot police. This matches the situation described in the film Elysium. Taken to extreme this situation could move to the point where a revolution by the workers is put down so severely by the ruling elite that those not in the elite are exterminated. Frase names this scenario Exterminism Clearly this is another dystopian view.

Given the limitations of such scenario building techniques we have to ask shouldn’t we take all Frase’s writing with a very large pinch of salt? Possibly, but thinking about the future and what it might be like, and perhaps more importantly, what we might want it to be like, is surely a worthwhile activity for young people at school. The scenario descriptions presented above are very much an oversimplification of Frase’s more detailed descriptions and considerations. His point in building these scenarios is not that they are intended to be predictive but to be clear that any future we build will depend to a considerable extent on the way technology is deployed, how environmental issues are tackled and how power is distributed as we move towards that future. As a committed socialist and environmentalist he argues that the distribution of power should be as non-hierarchical as possible and humanity should live in harmony with the natural world with deployment of technology to both those ends. But of course this cannot and will not happen unless people are given the opportunity to debate the sort of society they want and the intellectual tools to argue for and then build that society in their future. So a critical question is, “How much of this sort of thing should we teach in school?” David Brown of pop band You and what army considers this question in his You Tube channel ‘boyinaband’ and if you haven’t seen his rap video ‘Don’t go to school’ it’s well worth a watch.  Consider this extract:

I know igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks
Yet I don’t know squat about trading stocks
Or how money works at all – where does it come from?
Who controls it? How does the thing that motivates the world function?
Not taught how to budget and disburse my earnings
I was too busy rehearsing cursive.
Didn’t learn how much it costs to raise a kid or what an affidavit is
But I spent days on what the quadratic equation is

This dissatisfaction with the school curriculum indicates perhaps that some lesson time spent considering possible futures and how to reach them might be well received. And this of course leads to the question “How much should we teach in D&T?” It’s not as if we don’t have a lot to do in developing designer – maker capability to be used in response to the contextual challenge of the new single title GCSE. Yet understanding something of the impact of technology on society is now part of this new GCSE specification. But I suspect that any written paper examination questions will not require the sort of critique outlined above. So if not formally taught then perhaps as part of an after school technology – society debating club? You mean you don’t have a technology – society debating club! Why not?

Returning to the Interim Report here is a quote which indicates that this aspect of design & technology was considered to be of particular importance.

Our terms of reference refer to pupils being able to ‘appreciate the importance of design and technology in society, historically and present day, particularly as it affects the economy’. Understanding of technological change and of the ways in which it is restructuring the workplace and influencing life styles is a crucial aspect of an education in design and technology. The consequences of technological change are profound and pervasive. Furthermore, technological revolutions are irreversible; no technological change can be uninvented after it has taken place. We need to understand design and technology, therefore, not only to solve practical problems, to invent, optimise and realise solutions, but also so that we can acquire a sense of its enormous transformatory power. … By the end of the period of compulsory education pupils should have some understanding of the value options and decisions that have empowered the technological process in the past and which are doing so today. [DfE & WO (1988) pages ⅚]

This seems to me to be a highly persuasive argument to spend at least some time in D&T lessons considering possible futures in the light of technological developments. There is no doubt that this is challenging but so interesting and so relevant to young people and their future lives; not in a narrow vocational sense but in a wider political sense.

As always comments welcome.

Post Script

For a different take on a world without work you’ll find this piece by Yuval Noah Harari both challenging and intriguing

References

BBC News 5 June 2016 available at this url: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36454060

Department for Education and Science and Welsh Office (DfE&WO) (1988). National Curriculum Design and Technology Working Group Interim Report. London: HMSO

Frase, P. (2016) Four Futures Life after capitalism London: Verso

Independent 8 May 2017 available at this url: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/finland-universal-basic-income-trial-pilot-scheme-unemployed-stress-levels-reduced-a7724081.html

McKinsey Global Institute (2017) A future that works: Automation, employment and productivity McKinsey & Company

 

 

 

Tom McLeish and the case for understanding the nature of science (and perhaps technology) through Biblical Revelation

Tom McLeishTom McLeish is a self-confessed ‘faith head’ i.e. a very committed Christian (a Reader in the Anglican Church since 1993) but also a highly successful scientist (Professor of Physics at Durham University and chair of the Royal Society’s education committee); a combination that isn’t as unusual as we might think. I was very impressed with his book Faith and Wisdom in ScienceThis book challenges much of the current ‘science and religion’ debate as operating with the wrong assumptions and in the wrong space. It is critical of the cultural separation of sciences and humanities, suggesting an approach to science, or in its more ancient form natural philosophy – the ‘love of wisdom of natural things’ – that can draw on theological and cultural roots. His writing led me to the work of Deepen Project, which taking nanotechnology as an example, explored why the general public are often suspicious of new and emerging technologies.

The Project identified five narratives underpinning this suspicion. These were:

  1. Be careful what you wish for – the narrative of Desire
  2. Being kept in the dark – the narrative of Alienation
  3. Messing with nature – the narrative of the Sacred
  4. Pandora’s box – the narrative of Evil and Hope
  5. The rich get richer – the narrative of Exploitation.

In teaching young people about the nature of technology I think it might be useful for teachers to keep these suspicions in mind and discuss them openly with their students. See this post which comments on this work.

If I have one criticism of Tom’s writing it is that I think he often conflates science with technology and we know where that gets us in the secondary school curriculum – science ruling at the expense of design & technology. Never the less I was really looking forward to his new book, co-authored with David Hutchings a physics teacher at Pocklington School, Let there be scienceIt’s a terrific read whether you are a Christian or not and I urge all D&T HoDs to get a copy for the department library. Partly because the book has some really interesting things to say about the nature of science plus its relationship the Christian faith but also because Tom (and now David) still to my mind often write about technology as well as science.

The following comments from eminent scientists, cited in the book, indicate that science and faith need not be strangers or incompatible.

Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) responsible for discovering the principles underlying electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis, “I cannot doubt that a glorious discovery in natural knowledge, and the wisdom and power of God in the creation, is awaiting our age, and that we may not only hope to see it, but even be honoured to help in obtaining victory over present ignorance and future knowledge”.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) Responsible for formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon, “I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable”.

Max Planck (1858 –1947) originated the quantum theory, which revolutionized human understanding of atomic and subatomic processes, “Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations … to the former He is the foundation, to the latter the crown”.

And my favourite, from Werner Heisenberg (1901 – 1976) responsible for the creation of quantum mechanics, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”.

We know that there are scientists who are atheists; Richard Dawkins is the example that comes to everyone’s mind. But, as a friend of mine who is a committed Christian said, “The God Dawkins doesn’t believe in is the God we all stopped believing in when we were 14”. Tom and David have a very sophisticated and nuanced view of God and Biblical revelation and there is much of value in Let there be science for teachers of design & technology as well as science whether they believe in God or not, or are agnostic.

It’s too difficult to do Let there be science justice in a short blog post and I’ll be writing a more detailed commentary in the working papers section shortly. And of course one of the questions I wish to explore will be the extent to which Tom and David’s writing can be used to consider the possibility of Biblical revelation as to the nature and purpose of technology.

A final word from Albert Einstein, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.

As always comments welcome.

Daily Telegraph Headline “Design and technology GCSE axed from nearly half of schools, survey finds”

We were pleased that the Daily Telegraph reported on the problems facing our subject. So, of course, we wrote to the Telegraph about it. We were less pleased when the letters’ editor told us, “Sorry there isn’t room on the letters page.” So here is an extended version of our letter explaining what a tragedy it is that the government has ignored the contribution design & technology can make to the general education of all pupils whatever their intended careers. Feel free to forward to all who might be able to use it for the good of the subject.

The recent piece in the Daily Telegraph newspaper (10-3-17) on the imminent demise of design & technology GCSE merits an urgent response. Amongst the factors that have contributed to the decline in numbers taking GCSE design & technology, we think two are key; the role of the EBacc and the DfE’s inability to effectively plan for a supply of new teachers into the profession. Unfortunately, the effects of these interact to create the dire situation reported. As far as teacher supply is concerned, UCAS reports that applications to train to become a design and technology teacher have dropped by 34% since last year (a year in which recruitment was already low, following a pattern of year-on-year decline), yet the government insists “…we do not consider that there is compelling evidence of a shortage of DT teachers.” The Telegraph’s article provides a clear explanation for this apparent paradox; in the face of recruitment difficulty, school leaders are simply not replacing design & technology teachers as they leave and instead are shrinking and closing design & technology departments. The financial pressure on schools gives an added incentive to take this path as does the EBacc, to which we now turn.

Our recent Working Paper ‘Re-Building Design & Technology’ has detailed the way that design & technology sits outside the EBacc, which inevitably puts it down the pecking order when it comes to student choices for GCSE. This means that there needs to be considerable clarity about the contribution design & technology makes to young people’s learning, particularly regarding its uniqueness (i.e., the learning it provides that is not offered by any other subject) and its rigour (both practical and intellectual). It seems to us that a high level of clarity about design & technology’s role in developing fully rounded young people is not always present (in schools or amongst parents and students) when discussions about GCSE options are taking place. Therefore, we would like to offer four arguments that emphasise design & technology’s importance in the curriculum.

An economic argument

A steady supply of people who have studied design & technology is essential to maintain and develop the kind of society we value. Design & technology is central to the innovation on which our future economic success as a nation depends. For those young people who achieve a design & technology qualification at school the experience may well predispose some of them to consider a technical career. This is important as our country faces a “STEM skills” gap.

A personal argument

The learning achieved through studying design & technology at school is useful in everyday situations, as it enables young people to deploy design skills and technical problem solving to address and solve practical problems at both the personal and community levels.

A social argument

In their communities, their workplaces, and through the media, people encounter questions and disputes that have matters of design and/or technology at their core. Often these matters are contentious. Significant understanding of design and of technology is needed to reach an informed view on such matters and engage in discussion and debate. For example, students designing and making robots in design & technology have to engage with both hardware and software design issues; these provide rich opportunities for them to consider some of the wider implications of robots in society such as their roles in elder care, in warfare and in displacing human jobs.

A cultural argument

Technologies and the design thinking behind them are major achievements of our culture. Everyone should be helped to appreciate these, in much the same way that we teach pupils to appreciate literature, art and music.

The sentences below have their origins in the writings of Jacob Bronowski’s seminal work, The Ascent of Man. We think they provide a powerful justification for teaching the subject that touches on all four of the arguments noted previously (economic, personal, social, cultural).

Envisaging what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create and critique that future is a unique human ability, which has led to the development of successive civilisations across history. It embodies some of the best of what it means to be human.Through teaching young people design & technology, schools introduce pupils to this field of human endeavour and empower them to become people who see the world as a place of opportunity where they and others can, through their own thoughts and actions, improve their situation.

The implications are that design & technology requires young people to be imaginative, develop practical skills, be thoughtful and develop intellectual skills, develop a positive attitude towards confronting problems, be both reflective and active, make judgements as to what is worth doing and understand the ways that design & technology underpins cultural and social structures.

If taken seriously, the arguments given above provide compelling reasons for teaching design & technology to all young people, whatever their career intentions might be, as part of a rounded, general education. We are utterly mystified that the government continues to marginalise the subject both through the EBacc and through its inattention to teacher supply.

 

As always comments welcome.