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.

 

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

Has Culture surrendered to Technology?

Recently I have had reason to reNeil Postman-read Neil Postman’s Technopoly a brilliant critique of the way technology has and will continue to dominate our lives in ways that diminish our humanity. In my opinion it should be required reading for all D&T teachers, those training to be D&T teachers and those studying D&T at KS5. There are some wonderful gems.

Did you know, for example, that when the stethoscope was first invented many Technopoly; the surrender of culture to technologydoctors were against its use? Their reservations were that the instrument would become between the doctor and patient, quite literally, and prevent doctors listening to what the patients had to say about the way they felt. For Postman, two ideas are key here, medicine becomes about disease not the patient and what the patient knows is untrustworthy; what the machine knows is reliable. What do many patients complain about with regard to our NHS? The doctor has so little time to talk to me. Postman devotes a whole chapter to medical technology and the way it can dehumanise medical practice. And of course de-humanisation across the piece is one of the major criticisms of technology.

It is in the final chapter that Postman turns his attention to the role of schools in helping young people resist the onslaught of technology on their humanity. He couches his argument in terms of action that should be taken by “loving resistance fighters”. He is particularly scathing about school curricula arguing …

The curriculum is not, in fact, a course of study at all but a meaningless hodgepodge of subjects. It does not even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person unless it is a person who possesses “skills” – a person with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills.

1410715035I must confess to a sense of despondency allied to this view when I see D&T justified in terms of ‘where it can lead’ without much in the way of a consideration of its intrinsic worth as described by Jacob Bronowski in his marvellous book The Ascent of Man from which the following is derived.

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 civilizations 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.

Postman is a great admirer of Bronowski and envisages a curriculum that would educate young people as being based on a study of ‘The Ascent of Humanity’. In Postman’s view to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems, to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said and done has been produced. Postman is stern in that such an education is

… not child-centered, not training-centered, not skill-centered, not even problem-centered. It is idea-centered and coherence-centered.

It would be wrong to think that Postman does not want to see technology in the school curriculum. He identifies a study of the history of technology as an indispensable component to understanding where we have come from. This provides as much as science and art provides part of the story of humanity’s confrontation with nature and indeed with our own limitations.

… we need students who will understand the relationships between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so that they may begin informed conversations about where technology is taking us and how.

Postman realizes that this is a BIG ask, to engage students with the study of what was in order for them to understand what is and what might be. Such teaching will require the very best from what teachers can do but what a worthwhile task. On this blog both Torben and I have argued for ‘technological perspective’ to be an essential ingredient of D&T learning and it seems we have an ally in Neil Postman, sadly no longer with us. His writings serve to remind us just how important a subject D&T is. I would dearly love to be able to talk with him about how he views ‘technological capability’ the sister to perspective that together provide the totality of D&T in the curriculum. I wonder what he would say?

quote-the-effects-of-technology-are-always-unpredictable-but-they-are-not-always-inevitable-neil-postman-260104As always, comments welcome.

What does David Spendlove think about Re-building D&T?

David has commented on the Re-Building D&T paper on his blog.As always it’s well worth a read. David hopes his comments will start a wide ranging and genuine debate across the community.

Torben, Nick and I will be collating comments received and publishing a summary mid – late January.

An interesting case of unintended consequences

e3c60004d9e6edb35b8e04f9567b324f-1 An article in this month’s issue of Develop 3D intrigued me. It features the Davy Safety Lamp and the production of an exact replica for museum display by 3D printing. The article reminded me of the controversy surrounding the impact of the Davy lamp on miners’ safety. Mining is a dangerous business. There is always the possibility of tunnels collapsing but the use of strong props and careful monitoring of vibrations interpreted by miners’ experience goes a long way to mitigating this. The presence of dangerous and invisible gases is much more pernicious. If flammable such as methane they can cause explosions. And some such as carbon dioxide can cause asphyxiation. The lamp was devised to combat these hidden hazards. The way it works is ingenious. A wire mesh screen encloses the wick. This allows air to enter the lamp and for the fuel evaporating from the wick to burn but the holes are too fine to allow a flame to propagate through them and ignite any combustible gases outside the mesh. The lamp also provided a test for the presence of gases. If flammable gas mixtures were present, the flame of the Davy lamp burned higher with a blue tinge. Lamps were equipped with a metal gauge to measure the height of the flame. If the flame burned higher with a blue flame the miners would know that methane was present. Miners could also place the safety lamp close to the ground to detect gases, such as carbon dioxide that are denser than air and so could collect in depressions in the mine; if the mine air was oxygen-poor the lamp flame would be extinguished. The lamp gave an early indication of an unhealthy atmosphere, allowing the miners to get out before they died of asphyxiation. So the Davy lamp must surely have been a boon to miners, not the case unfortunately. Paradoxically, the introduction of the Davy lamp led to an increase in mine accidents, as the lamp encouraged the working of mines and parts of mines that had previously been closed for safety reasons. Men continued to work in conditions which were unsafe due to the presence of methane gas. Although extractor ventilation fans should have been installed to reduce the concentration of methane in the air, such fans were not installed, as the mine owners claimed this was too expensive. One way to interpret this is that the owners valued the lives of miners less than they valued profits. Also the miners had to provide the lamps themselves, not the owners, as traditionally the miners bought their own candles from the company store. Another reason for the increase in accidents was the unreliability of the lamps themselves. The bare gauze was easily damaged, and once just a single wire broke or rusted away, the lamp became unsafe. Even when new and clean, illumination from the safety lamps was very poor, and the problem was not fully resolved until electric lamps became widely available in the late 19th century. A lamp invented with the intention of making mines safer for those who worked in them had the opposite effect; surely a poignant example of unintended consequences? David and Torben would be pleased to hear about other examples of unintended consequences that might be taught in D&T lessons.

Something to read over the Christmas Holiday?

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Getting a book published is always rewarding but especially so in this case for the following reasons. First it was a successful collaboration with my friend and colleague John Williams. It is well known that technology education is under researched and also that teachers rarely if ever have access to research findings and when they do they are unlikely to be able to use them to inform practice. So a second reason is that not only does the book provide the opportunity to share research findings in technology education with teachers in schools but deliberately explores how teachers might use the findings in their own practice. A third reason is that the book makes suggestions how teachers might get involved in furthering the research. The book contains chapters on each of eleven successful PhDs from different parts of the world but all with relevance to teaching design & technology in schools in the UK. You can find details here. The book is published by Springer in the series Contemporary Research in Technology Education. It is titled Helping Teachers Develop Research-informed Practice. The really good news is that John and I are already working on Volume 2 to be published in January 2018!

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.