Comments in response to ‘design for good’ and the Contextual Challenge

I received interesting comments from Andy Mitchell (Design & Technology Association), David Spendlove (University of Manchester) and David Ellis (Southern Cross University, New South Wales) which they are happy for me to share. All three indicated that the Contextual Challenge provided important opportunities to show the worth of design & technology as a subject suitable for ALL young people.

  • From Andy Mitchell … considerable opportunity for the subject and students being encouraged to address real and relevant challenge
  • From David Spendlove … To me this is where design is potentially at it’s best as there are opportunities for pupils to reflect upon their own design thinking. So in my mind there should be a real opportunity to speculate and question
  • From David Ellis … an excellent opportunity for students develop their empathy for authentic design problems. I also think that the engagement in projects such as these are ‘gold’ in terms of promoting what we do to the wider community.

However none of them thought that such ‘design for good’ responses were a forgone conclusion.

  • From Andy Mitchell … (I) fear that the damaging and polluting effect of what has been the expectation from AO over recent years is going to take some undoing. If schools don’t see this as an opportunity and rise to the challenge, as I have also been saying, their future is at best insecure.
  • From David Spendlove … It offers so much scope but could simply end up in contrived tokenism.
  • From David Ellis … to add to the list of authentic design problems where teachers could develop a rich narrative, concepts such as eco-designing haven’t gained enough traction here.  The infiltration of environmental education values in the Australian curricula has presently been a missed opportunity in my opinion, and teachers could do a lot more.

Andy and David (S) were clear that teachers would need help in rising to the challenge.

  • From Andy Mitchell … But as you also imply, teachers really do need the type of support and input to help them think about the changes in ways that I suspect representatives of the AOs are unlikely to provide.
  • From David Spendlove … I wonder how many schools will fully embrace this and see it as an opportunity? So whether it is designing inclusive play for a park or designing for the elderly what is influencing students decision making and thinking – is it prejudice, cognitive bias, delusion, self-deception, etc.  The book Critique in Design & Technology Education would be particularly valuable here.

And I would add that in adopting a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge it is important for departments to talk in some depth with their SLT and governors so that they understand the potential of the approach but also the risks if an AO is unsympathetic to the approach. Knowing that you have your SLT and governors on side strengthens resolve and enables a department to present a robust case to a sceptical AO.

As an aside both Andy and David (S) mentioned the poor state of recruitment for D&T teachers and wondered whether some of the training providers would introduce their trainees to a ‘design for good’ approach to the Contextual Challenge. I wouldn’t want to underplay the crisis in recruitment or the fragmented nature of teacher education but one thing does seem clear to me. Unless schools can ‘up their game’ with regard to the subject it does not represent an attractive proposition for new teachers. If you have an engineering degree for example you would be qualified to enter a PGCE course for science, mathematics or design & technology. Unless the practice you see in schools inspires you why would you choose to teach design & technology? Observing young people tackling real and relevant problems that they themselves have identified using a ‘design for good’ approach could well provide such inspiration.

As always comments welcome.


The potential for ‘design for good’ in the new D&T GCSE Contextual Challenge

Design activity can inform the development of a wide range of products and services. It does this across different levels of detail: from the positioning and nature of a switch at the level of fine detail to the overall nature and purpose of what is being designed at the grand scale level and for a device that required one or more switches this might be an electrically powered toy. And in most cases the designs operate within complex interacting systems and have to be conceived so that they can do this successfully. In previous GCSE specifications the Awarding Organisations set relatively closed design briefs for candidates to tackle. This led to young people spending much if not most of their designing time making decisions concerned mainly with fine levels of detail. This is not the case for the new specifications which start to be taught this September (2017) for examination in May/June 2019. The Non Examined Assessment or Contextual Challenges will be announced in June 2018 and candidates will spend the autumn and spring terms responding to them. Candidates might still design and make similar products to those they produced in previous specifications but this to my mind would be a lost opportunity. The whole point of the Contextual Challenge is that it requires candidates to explore situations and identify the needs and wants of people in those situations. From this consideration of needs and wants candidates develop their own design briefs to which they then respond through designing and making. This approach gives ownership of the activity to the candidates and enables them to pursue an endeavour which they consider to be worthwhile. Here are some sample Contextual Challenges posted by three Awarding Organisations.

From OCR we have

  • Public Spaces

The sensitive design of public spaces can enhance users’ experiences and interactions with that space. Explore a space in your locality with the view to enhancing the users’ experiences within that space.

  • Security

Theft of people’s personal possessions is a problem in modern society. Explore the role design can play in securing people’s belongings.

  • Dining

Dining can be a wonderful social and cultural experience that does not only focus on the eating of food. Explore the ways design can enhance the experiences for any of the stakeholders involved.

From AQA we have a rather more minimalist approach

  • A high profile sporting event
  • Addressing the needs of the elderly
  • Children’s learning and play

From EdExcel we have

  • Improving living and working
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can living spaces also be used for a work environment?

(b) How can objects be used for different purposes in a living or working environment?

  • The sporting arena
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can technology be used to improve a sporting situation?

(b) How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation?

  • Expanding human capacity
  • Contextual challenges

(a) How can an aid for people with disabilities improve their capacity to perform a given task?

(b) How can we provide more protection for humans from the environment?

As an aside here we might ask if a more current and relevant contextual challenge would be the reverse?

Before we consider how these might play out in a ‘design for good’ approach it is worth looking briefly at this through the writing of Emily Pilloton. Her book Design Revolution is a clarion call to designers to make the distinction between ‘good design’ and ‘design for good’. To quote Allan Chochinovin writing in the foreword, when you move from good design to design for good ‘the design conversation moves from form, function, beauty and ergonomics to accessibility, affordability, sustainability and social worth.’ Allan is scathingly critical of much design activity, ‘Perhaps the wholesale poisoning of every natural system through industrialisation are “unintended” consequences, but there’s a cruel irony in designers running around, busily creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest, all the while calling themselves “problem solvers”’. Emily’s book features more than 100 contemporary design products and systems including safer baby bottles, a waterless washing machine, low-cost prosthetics for landmine victims, Braille-based building blocks for blind children, wheelchairs for rugged conditions, sugarcane charcoal, and a universal composting systems. These and all the other items described in the book will make excellent case studies for D&T students on the theme of ‘design for good’.

So if we want our young people to embrace ‘design for good’ how might this play out in their responses to the GCSE Contextual Challenges. In theory all of the challenges identified above could be viewed through the lens of ‘design for good’ but some seem to offer more obvious opportunities than others. First a word of warning, as I explored this issue it became increasingly apparent that some if not most of the suggestions were outside the sorts of outcomes we have come to expect as D&T outcomes. Be that as it may I still think the exploration is worthwhile and in fact may encourage us to widen the scope of what is seen as an acceptable D&T outcome.

  • Consider Public Spaces (from OCR) as an example.

What could be done for a park that was run down and poorly maintained or a piece of uncared for waste ground. Planting a meadow that flowered throughout spring, summer and autumn such that once seeded it would require minimum maintenance, be a joy to behold and adding furniture made from reclaimed materials to enable passers by to sit and enjoy the surroundings would surely be ‘design for good’. And this isn’t simply aesthetic indulgence. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions. They often host a multitude of wildlife providing areas for courtship displays, nesting food gathering and sometimes sheltering if the vegetation is high enough. Many meadows support a wide array of wildflowers which makes them of utmost importance to insects like bees and other pollinating insects and hence the entire ecosystem. Clearly there are obstacles to be overcome in negotiating with the local authority and their parks and gardens department but surely worth a try. And how to manage this as part of the NEA? Too big a task for a single student well then, could it be a group project in which several individual students take on different aspects of the challenge? Providing there was sufficient design and make activity for each student this should not be too great a problem. Each candidate would have to be able to demonstrate clearly their own individual involvement, reflections, ideas and outcomes that were not simply using the work/outcomes of the peers they were working with, acknowledging interactions with others as they occur. The group dynamics would need to be good and each student committed to a fair share of the effort, no room for passengers. And as for a busy city street that has existed since Victorian times there would be lots of history to be revealed which could be shown using augmented reality (AR). Developing a series of location specific histories using open source AR software that could be loaded onto a tablet or mobile phone would enhance the experience of users within that space. Would such a digital solution to the challenge count? I asked Jonny Edge of OCR and he gave this useful and considered response.

There would be possibilities and problems in this. If they are simply developing location specific histories that rely on freely available AR software, this is more App development and therefore the domain of Computer Science / ICT. Ideas and potential outcomes would have to be considered against the Marking Criteria. What is the physical 3D ‘final prototype’? If the teacher isn’t mindful then this could be leading candidates into a situation that will disadvantage their assessment. The problem seems to be that there is no physical product unless the learner designs a holder or hand support / glasses / heads up display / special accessory etc. for the tablet/phone. If this was included I see no real problem as long as the right balance is achieved. This could be a series of prototypes, rather than just one. Part of it might be the digital/virtual aspect, but in order to meet the assessment criteria of all boards there would need to be evidence of the use of hand tools, machinery, digital design and digital manufacture. The way the OCR assessment works means that this does not all need to be shown in the making of the final prototype(s). The consideration that a candidate needs to make here is the physical attributes of their design solution. Other solutions/considerations to those given above may be how they are displayed/presented in the location. A criticism of the AR approach to enhancing users’ experience of the space would be that not all users have access to mobile devices and this should be considered as a limitation by the candidate.


  • And what about Addressing the needs of the elderly (from AQA)?

There is no doubt that we are living longer and that this is creating problems for our health service. The elderly become infirm and frail and sometimes suffer from dementia. Providing care for the elderly is a problem that is likely to grow (see for example and it is important that young people appreciate this and become engaged with developing solutions. So this is a challenge that has implicit appeal to ‘design for good’. And it is essential that any approach to the elderly treat them with respect and dignity. How might young people tackle this challenge? Visiting and listening to the elderly is surely a first step, perhaps their own family members, perhaps residents in local sheltered housing or care facilities. Simply hearing about their lives now and in the past would provide a wealth of information that could lead to suggestions for the elderly and the young people to consider together. I’m not sure what would come out of such considerations. But then, that’s the point of a Contextual Challenge, you don’t know at the start what you’re going to be designing and making. One idea that might appeal to both young and old alike did occur to me. A treasure box in which an elderly person could keep particularly precious mementos of times past – letters, postcards, photographs, jewellery, medals – which he or she could use as reminders of the past and as stimulus when talking to others about their life. Exactly what such a box would look like would be up to the young and elderly to decide together but there would certainly be lots of opportunity to design and make to an exceptionally high standard.

  • And How can merchandise be used to promote a sporting situation (from EdExcel)?

I must admit my heart did sink a bit on this one; merchandising had the ring of “creating more and more garbage for our great grandchildren to dig up, breath, and ingest” to re-quote Allan Chochinovin. However I know from personal experience that lots of sporting events are linked to charities of considerable worth – fun runs to raise funds to support research into diseases and support for those caring for the ill. So the question for me becomes how might young people re-interpret the idea of memorabilia so that the items designed were not trivia to be discarded after the event. I was drawn to the idea of packets of seeds that could be planted to give various coloured flowers to act as a reminder of the event. This might involve choosing the seeds, ensuring that they do in fact grow well in various conditions, providing instructions for planting and care, developing ‘memorabilia’ pots for the seeds – not typical D&T activities but then perhaps one of the challenges of the Contextual Challenge is that it will broaden what counts as designerly activity in D&T.

Engaging D&T students with ‘design for good’ through the Contextual Challenge will not be easy but is I think worth doing. If we are successful then the results will be plain for all to see and this has the potential to raise the profile and status of the subject with a wide range of stakeholders – parents, SLT, governors, the local community and local businesses. And D&T departments will I believe find allies in this endeavour. Sponsorship from local DIY stores (B&Q), local building supplies (Dewson) local banks (Barclays has several innovation centres) would be possible and desirable. Good PR for the sponsor, the school and the subject. Is this just too idealistic? Well may be, but what’s the point of being a teacher and trying to enable our young people to flourish if we aren’t idealistic? And remember there’s almost a whole academic year to lay the ground for the Contextual Challenge before they are announced.

As always comments welcome, particularly from Awarding Organisations.

  • PS

More can be found out about Emily Pilloton’s work; US based but there are lots of lessons for us in the UK here and from her Ted Talk Teaching design for change

Apple, Google, Microsoft or Amazon – which of these tech giants will help you live your life and spend your money? Whose AIs will you trust?

  • Google has Google Home, a hands free smart speaker which will be able to answer questions supported by advances in translation and image recognition.
  • Microsoft hopes to dominate the business space.
  • Apple has the HomePod to be launched in December and is investing in emotion detecting technology
  • Amazon has Alexa which will on request provide access to goods and services with more to come.

And according to an article in the September 2017 edition of Wired, authored by Liat Clark, Amazon is the front-runner. Whereas Google can provide information, Amazon can bring you things! Google Home is the smart friend at a party whereas Alexa is a benign butler. According to Liat Clark …

Amazon wants to introduce Alexa into every area of your life: your home, car, hospital, workplace. The ‘everything’ store is about to be everywhere. Alexa has to be human like because it is essential that people trust her, enough to let visual and audio ‘surveillance’ into their homes ad lives. Alexa can try to empathise with words alone at the moment but when she has cameras at her disposal she will be able to respond to visual clues as well as aural input. And in response Alexa is becoming more human like. Alexa can whisper, pause, take a breath, adjust its pitch and allow for key words such as ‘ahem’ and ‘yay’ to be emphasised in more engaging ways. Forging an apparently ‘emotional’ response from Alexa is the goal. An AI will need to know a person well to engage in a relationship based on emotional response. Amazon may well know more about you than your closest friends and so, of course, will Alexa and be able to use both what you say and do to forge, maintain and extend that relationship. The insightful film Robot and Frank asked the question, “Can an AI be your friend?” Amazon has the answer, “Of course, if you trust the AI as you might another human.” And that is Amazon’s overriding intention – to get us to trust Alexa as we might a human friend in the knowledge that she is not in fact another human and hence will not pry into your life or betray you as a human friend might.

Of course Jeff Bezos (and the CEOs of other tech giants) are constructing cathedrals of capitalism where they intend consumers to come to worship and offer up as sacrifice their wages in return for the goods and services recommended and provided by AIs they trust. But here there is a supreme irony. The very same AIs that are the heart of this new faith are also being deployed to automate many of the functions the worker-worshippers utilise to earn the wages they need to live out their consumerist lives. AIs may be simultaneously the engine of capitalism and its doom. What are we to make of this conundrum? Surely it is worth discussing with the young people whose lives will be most affected by this impact of technology on society and society’s response. And where better to do this than in design & technology lessons.

As always comments welcome.

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


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


Three cheers for Amanda Spielman!


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:


  • 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.