Contextual Challenges survey; the responses

A couple of weeks ago David invited English teachers of D&T GCSE to contribute to a short survey asking if and how they have they have changed their curriculum at KS3 and 4 to reflect the demands of the new GCSE and, in particular, its non-examined element, the Contextual Challenge.

Frankly, given how busy teachers are, we weren’t at all sure whether even a very short survey would get much of a response, so we are delighted that 41 colleagues have taken the time to do so; thank you very much!

We think the responses are of interest and the purpose of this post is to simply present the data from the survey without commentary or analysis.  As the original request noted, David and I will be including this data in a paper we are presenting at the PATT 36 conference in June. After that conference we will make the full paper available on this site and let everyone know that it’s available.

[Incidentally, we are working on this paper over the next few weeks – so if anyone else would like to respond to the survey, there’s still time (say until the end of this week) to have your data inform the final paper – if you manage to do this, thank you in advance.]

The survey had just two questions:

  1. What changes have you made to your KS3 D&T curriculum to prepare pupils for the new D&T GCSE? 
  2. What changes have you made to your KS4 D&T curriculum to prepare pupils for the new contextual challenge NEA?

Here are the results. [Click images for a full size version.]

The responses under ‘Other’ for Q1 were:

  • More focus on coverage. Start covering simple D&T theory in the early year. The amount to get through in 2 years (years 10 & 11) means you have to start teaching lower down the school.
  • Removed carousels – one teacher for all disciplines
  • Changes have been made due to budget cuts – not curriculum change. less making, I can’t afford materials and machines are breaking and not being replaced.
  • My sow (carousel) is now loads of mini projects covering a wide range of outcomes – theory lessons are also interactive with a practical element – homework assignments are evidencing how students use their outcomes through photo stories and story boards.
  • Home learning tasks have included more theoretical elements – we’ll revise our projects at the end of this year.
  • Spent more time on theory than I would usually do early on in a course to ensure they get all the time needed when the NEA kicks in. Was in danger of losing them at one point… Became to theory lead. Quickly reverted back to designing exercises and skills lesson inputs. I have not got the balance right yet re the course (AQA) ,. 1st year… Suppose it’s to be expected. Little support re NEA etc from exam board.
  • Bigger focus on client.
  • I don’t have a KS3 I teach in a UTC.
  • Struggling to make the changes necessary with an inexperienced department. Sticking with old fashioned design, make, evaluate ks3 projects. There is then an upskill in year 9 and 10 so they’re ready for year 11.

The responses under ‘Other’ for Q2 were:

  • My design tasks at GSCE have always been open. I rarely restrict students to a particular project. A range of projects creates a stimulus for the group, a collective problem solving focus and generates different outcomes.
  • Completely revamped the delivery of theory. Will tackle the NEA when we are closer to the release date and time.
  • Focussed yr10 on core theory
  • Small focused tasks and recorded range of skills and materials and lots of theory
  • More small fpt’s.
  • A mock NEA with year 10’s. Constant feedback through Google classroom
  • More small theory based makes to make the content less dry
  • Have done a lesson giving them a myriad of contexts and then asked them to research possible design opportunities / different briefs.
  • Add more theory components that cover core and in-depth of 2 materials. Have attempted to use maths activities from exemplars across exam boards. We also test theory knowledge weekly
  • Shorter design and make tasks to cover different core materials.
  • Focus practical tasks on processes and materials
  • More focus on theory within year 10. Only short practicals due to feeling there’s less time for NEA
  • I’ve tried to focus on areas of weakness/no links will be made in, if there isn’t a ‘pointed out’ element to it. Each small term is spent on 1 area of focus – t4 is currently mechanisms/cams/levers/gears etc

As ever, we’d be delighted to hear people’s thoughts on these responses via the comments.


Non-Examined Assessment; should we be worried?

I imagine most readers know at least the outline of the recent changes to the place of non-examined assessment (NEA) in Computer Science (CS). In short, Ofqual gave notice to schools in November 2017 that they were initiating a consultation on the place of NEA in CS following reports that ‘answers’ to the NEA were widely available on the web. Schools were advised that the core of the consultation was that the NEA would no longer count towards the final grade. At the time of the announcement many y11s following the course had already finished work on the NEA, many others were in the midst of doing it and the rest were soon to start; I think it’s fair to say that the announcement was met with, to say the least, frustration by both teachers and students.

In January the results of the consultation were announced with Ofqual saying

The responses have not persuaded us there is a better model to that we proposed in the consultation.

That model being, in short, that students taking their GCSE computer science exams in 2018 and 2019 should continue to complete one of the tasks set by their exam board for the qualification, but that the task would not contribute to the final exam grade.

I think this development is worth digging into as it’s not hard to imagine possible knock-on effects for D&T.

In particular, two aspects seem to be worth exploring: the first, and obvious one, is whether NEA more generally is under threat, the second is the implied expansion of the role of the awarding organisations from describing what students will be assessed on in a particular specification to detailing how they should be taught.

Should awarding organisations tell teachers how to teach?

Taking the second of these first, it seems to me to be an unwelcome development that a teacher should be placed in the position of being required to include a (non-assessed) task set by an awarding organisation in their scheme of work. This is what is set out:

Schools must give their students an opportunity to undertake the non-exam assessment tasks set by their exam boards and set 20 hours aside in the timetable to allow them to undertake the task. Exam boards must receive from each school a statement confirming they made such provision. This would make sure that all students have had an opportunity to develop the skills and apply their knowledge and understanding of the subject and go some way to making sure all students have a similar experience, regardless of whether they had yet to start, were part way through, or had completed the task when the changed arrangements were introduced.

Not only that, but, prompted by responses to the consultation suggesting “that if schools were required to confirm they had given all of their students the opportunity to complete the task some would, effectively, fabricate any such a statement“, Ofqual is now requiring awarding organisations

to divert the resources they would otherwise have put into moderating teachers’ marking to ensuring all students (are) given the required opportunities to compete (sic) the task. […] a school or college that was found to have made a false statement about the opportunities would be investigated by the relevant exam board under its malpractice procedures.

This seems extraordinary to me. Do we really want the awarding organisations deciding for teachers how they should organise elements of their teaching? With a malpractice threat if they fail to do so?

It looks very much like the thin end of a potentially very thick wedge. And if you think that’s paranoid then note that the Ofqual document points out

There are other GCSE subjects for which schools are required to make a statement confirming students have been given an opportunity to undertake an essential element of the qualification, such as in GCSE geography.

So, it’s actually a wedge with a thin end in Geography that’s now being hammered further into the curriculum.

Responses from teachers of CS seem to have ranged from ‘makes no difference to me because of course I would include a task like this – in fact I include lots of such tasks as a core part of my teaching’, to ‘my kids hated the task and found it very demotivating; I have other ways to teach the material that work better in my setting’. And that, of course, is the point; teachers should be free to use their professional judgement to decide how best to prepare their particular students, in their particular setting, for a GCSE.

Is there a general threat to NEA?

Turning to the possible threat to coursework, it’s worth making clear that this change of rules was, ostensibly, prompted by growing evidence of malpractice

During autumn 2017, we saw evidence that the rules for the GCSE (9 to 1) computer science non-exam assessment tasks were being broken. The tasks had been released by the exam boards on 1 September 2017, for completion by students taking their exams in summer 2018. The tasks should not have been discussed outside of the controlled conditions under which they were completed. However, the tasks, which students had to complete by March 2018, quickly appeared, in full or part, on-line and were widely discussed, advice offered and solutions developed. The speed with which the tasks appeared on-line and the number of times the discussions and solutions were viewed threatened the integrity of this aspect of the qualification.

One can understand Ofqual’s concern. However, two other factors appear to have been in play and these have not been as widely discussed. The first of these is that, because CS counts as a science in the government’s accountability measures

Our decision, taken in 2014, to allow non- exam assessment in the qualification was finely balanced.

A cynic might wonder if they were looking for an excuse to remove the NEA.

The second is that Ofqual

heard from stakeholders that some teachers were finding the non-exam assessments difficult to manage (they were not permitted to discuss the tasks with colleagues outside of their own centre, for example).

In fact, the consultation quotes the Royal Society report After the reboot: computing education in UK schools in saying

Finally, many teachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland raised the new Non Examined Assessment arrangements for GCSE computer science qualifications as a cause for concern. These teachers felt that the new rules on GCSE Non-Examined Assessment (NEA) are onerous, and consume a disproportionate amount of teacher time and teaching opportunities in the computer science GCSE

I think one has to take these teachers’ views at face value. If the NEA had been kept one might have had sympathy while arguing that the specification is what it is, and teachers have little choice but to work with it – perhaps while lobbying for considered change in the future. But it seems extraordinary to use this as argument to support eliminating the NEA while keeping exactly the same (‘onerous’ but non-assessed) task in place!

More broadly, we know that when the GCSEs were revised the initial position of the government was that coursework was to be removed from all qualifications. It seemed that in an argument between validity and reliability in assessment the reliability of exams was being set against the validity, for many aspects of many subjects, of coursework. One suspects that a strong driver for this is that GCSEs are now as much about measuring schools’ performance as that of pupils; the quote above from Ofqual about the place of CS as a ‘science’ subject supports this view.

So, it was seen as a victory when some subjects fought for and regained NEA. Though one senior examiner pointed out to me that the fact that Art and Design had gained 100% coursework could simply be seen as a measure of the (low) value placed on the subject by ministers at the time. By extension, D&T’s 50% NEA might also be seen as a measure of the subjects slightly higher low worth.

(Just to be clear, I am definitely not arguing that the way to raise the profile of D&T in ministers’ eyes is to relinquish coursework. We’ve made the case for Re-building D&T that developing both technological capability and technological perspective are at the heart of the subject – and you can’t measure all the dimensions of capability through a written exam.)

HMCI Amanda Spielman made some comments about science practical work in a speech to the ASE in January that may be relevant.

Where we still have a live and worthwhile debate is on the role of practical science in the curriculum. This point is demonstrated in John Holman’s Gatsby report on ‘Good practical science’, which I believe is being discussed a great deal at this conference. His report identifies 5 purposes of practical science: to teach the principles of scientific enquiry, improve understanding of theory, to teach practical skills, to motivate and engage students and to develop teamwork skills. His preliminary survey finds that teachers rate the use of practical science for teaching scientific enquiry and practical skills as the least important of those 5. They rate motivation as the most important.

But we should be uncomfortable with the idea of practical science being mainly about motivation. Yes, children should find experiments fun and motivating, but making sure children finish practical tasks having learned something or having consolidated what they have just been taught, is most important. And we know that there are limits to the extent to which skills such as teamwork and enquiry can be developed in isolation.

More generally I think we are still learning what can and can’t be achieved through practical science work, and how this varies at different ages. I am watching this space with great interest. But we do know that scientific understanding is cumulative, and so children need knowledge and understanding before they can create and test hypotheses. Good schools understand this.

It’s hard not to read in between the lines that there is some suspicion at high levels in the education system of the educational value of practical work. Especially as the speech gives no weight to the other, more knowledge-focussed, purposes for practical work. If so, it’s not hard to see how this might reveal itself in suspicion of the value of assessing aspects of practical work in NEAs.

As one would expect, Holman’s report is far subtler than the above suggests and the quoted finding was based on the views of expert witnesses (not teachers) outside England. So, the report certainly doesn’t claim that science teachers in England do in fact value the motivational purpose of practical science more highly than other purposes.

Implications for D&T NEA

It is absolutely clear that keeping an NEA element of assessment in D&T is fundamental to reflecting the nature of the subject (developing technological capability and perspective); if an aim of our subject is developing designer-maker capability then that needs to be assessed and the only valid way to assess it is through some form of NEA. In my view, the current approach of using a Contextual Challenge offers real strengths here. Although the challenge is set by the awarding organisations the context has to be explored by candidates to identify an issue/problem that they consider significant and worthy of responding to via designing and making. This is a far cry from responding to a design brief set by an awarding organisation. It gives both choice of the activity and ownership of the activity to the candidate and this should enable young people to develop a sense of designerly responsibility in the way they respond, as previously explored by David.

If the NEA was removed it would be inevitable that what is taught would evolve to match the demands of the written exam (however good the intentions of teachers, in the end accountability is king), and that would mean, at the very least, a diminished focus on practical capability. It would rapidly become a different subject, even if the name stuck.

The cynic in me is genuinely concerned that there is pressure ‘from above’ to minimise NEA. If so, we can assume that any evidence of malpractice will be seized on enthusiastically as an excuse to eliminate NEA – as we have just seen happen to CS; it’s not clear to me that, in the case of CS, any real effort was put into looking for ways to reduce malpractice, which would have been the case if the NEA was highly valued.

I do think that a Contextual Challenge will be much harder to game than the CS NEA was; while it’s not hard to envisage that many students’ solutions to a programming challenge in CS could look very similar (in fact it might be hard for them not to look similar), it’s very hard to imagine a similar situation emerging in response to a contextual challenge.

So, to avoid the possibility of losing our NEA, with its particular framing as a Contextual Challenge, as a community of practice we need:

  • To be on the ball about identifying attempts to game the Contextual Challenges.
  • To ensure that, if (or when – our young people are marvellously inventive when they need to be…) we do find evidence of cheating of this kind, we are very open about it and proactive in identifying solutions before an unwanted solution is imposed.
  • To make it the normal expectation that the artefacts that emerge in response to a Contextual Challenge will vary widely as pupils answer in their own ways the design questions that arise. Assuming that children in KS3 are also presented with open design challenges as a part of their learning journey towards GCSE, then we should have a similar expectation of diversity in outcomes.
  • To make sure that all D&T teachers are properly prepared to help pupils work in this newly open approach; this would be a very useful focus of support from the awarding bodies.

As ever comments are welcome.


Designing a Future Economy; there’s a bigger picture

Today the Design Council Published Designing a Future Economy,

…investigating the skills used in design, the link between these skills and productivity and innovation, and how they align with future demand for skills across the wider UK economy.

It’s an interesting report (well, executive summary; the full report will be released in January) and well worth downloading and reading. It focuses on three areas:

  1. the design skills required across a range of design-related jobs,
  2. the value of design skills in the UK economy,
  3. how design skills are acquired and developed.

It’s the third of these that I want to focus on here.

The report notes the plummeting rate of GCSE D&T entries (see above) and recommends that:

Education providers and regulators embed design in the curriculum:  

The traditional pathways into design careers – such as GCSE Design and Technology – are being eroded. The Department for Education, schools and academies should re-introduce GCSE Design and Technology as a priority subject in post-14 education to secure these skills in the short-term.

Anyone working in D&T education should be pleased that a body with some clout is both highlighting the worrying decline in D&T GCSE entries and banging the drum for D&T to have a higher priority post-14.

But…. I do worry about the constant emphasis on the economic reasons for including D&T in the curriculum. For example, just a few weeks ago, David wrote about a new report from the Institution Of Mechanical Engineers, “We think it is important but we don’t quite know what it is” The culture of engineering in schools; which argued, for economic reasons, that engineering should have a higher profile in schools.

It’s not hard to understand why these organisations focus on the economic justification; that’s where their institutional focus is. But it’s a case that has been being made for D&T for many, many years – years which have seen the subject decline. And I think the argument can be made that this dogged emphasis on the economic purpose of the subject has contributed to this decline.

Why? Well, because it positions D&T, in the minds of many stakeholders, as a vocational subject. This may well not be the intent, but it is the result and it has significant consequences.

In particular, schools, parents and government officials and ministers (etc.) mentally position the subject as ‘not academic’. As a result, in many schools it’s seen as a subject for weaker pupils (you know, it’s practical…).  Even where the powers that be are more enlightened, the fact that it’s not in the EBacc core (because it’s ‘not academic’) makes it very hard to create an options systems that encourages large numbers of pupils to select it. In any case pupils are likely to reason that, unless they have a vocational interest in design, the subject is not for them and many parents ambitions for their children will mean that they view the subject as of less worth, unless they are particularly well-informed.

When David, Nick and I wrote Re-building Design & Technology, we argued that the purpose of the subject needs clarifying and suggested four arguments for the place of D&T 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.

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.

If the fortunes of D&T are to be restored, then we need to adopt and advance this much wider set of arguments for the subject; they provide a strong foundation for what the Design Council wants; to “re-introduce GCSE Design and Technology as a priority subject in post-14 education” (which, of course, implies it is well-supported pre-14).

As a postscript I should also note what some readers will be screaming at the screen as they peruse this; which is that a supply of quality teachers is the other thing that is required to turn around the fortunes of D&T in schools. These matters are intertwined; its hard to attract good teachers when the subject looks so battered, but it’s hard to make significant change without those good teachers. I wonder if the Design Council and its partners could explore ways to improve the supply of teachers both immediately and in the long-term.

As ever, comments and discussion are welcomed.

Will this report make a difference?

It is generally acknowledged that the proportion of the future workforce with engineering and other STEM skills will significantly determine the UK’s future economic success. Yet the low visibility of engineering in our schools means that the nation is heavily reliant on a narrow cadre of young people, often from families with engineering heritage, to become the nation’s industrialists, manufacturers, innovators and designers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a technically-skilled workforce from more diverse backgrounds and with a wider range of interests and talents.

There have been a plethora of reports extolling the virtues of education for engineering in secondary schools in recent years. The sad fact is that they have made very little difference to the status of subjects that support education for engineering and the numbers of young people studying named engineering courses at schools has remained low. One can but hope that the new report from the Institution Of Mechanical Engineers, “We think it is important but we don’t quite know what it is” The culture of engineering in schools  will not suffer the same fate.

The report is the culmination of two research studies that explored perceptions and experience of engineering in secondary school education. The first study sought to understand how 11-14 year old pupils, their parents, teachers, school governors and school leaders, frame engineering. The second presented a deeper engagement with engineering through the experience of post-16 students, participating in bespoke engineering debating competitions run jointly by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Ideas. This report calls on Government, education practitioners and the engineering community to act together to ensure that more young people discover what engineering is, both as a creative intellectual process and a rich source of future career opportunity.

The report makes four recommendations

  1. As part of its industrial strategy, Government should situate engineering at the heart of schools education by:
  • Setting up a working group of leading educationalists and other stakeholders to review and report on innovative ways to integrate engineering into young people’s education
  • Appointing a nationally respected Schools Engineering Champion to provide a channel of communication between schools, Government and industry, and to advocate the wider cultural value of greater technological literacy alongside the economic rationale for investing in skills to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  1. National Education Departments should begin this process by ensuring that engineering is integral to classroom learning by:
  • Advocating curricula that better reflect the importance of the made world to modern society, and make explicit reference to the engineering applications of science, mathematics, and design and technology
  • Promoting approaches to teaching that emphasise and value engineering ‘thinking skills’ and problem-based learning
  1. Individual schools should adopt an engineering vision and strategy, with support from local employers and national governors’ associations, which would include:
  • Appointing a member of the school senior leadership team as an Engineering & Industry Leader to establish and communicate a vision for the school and to drive change
  • Appointing a dedicated Industry School Governor to work alongside and advise the Engineering & Industry Leader, and to embed employer relationships in school governance
  • Implementing a robust careers strategy such as the benchmarks set out in The Gatsby Foundation’s Good Career Guidance report, with special emphasis on embedding careers awareness in the curriculum
  1. The engineering community should present a unified narrative around engineering that will be attractive and relevant to a wider range of students by:
  • Stressing the creative problem-solving nature of engineering, its social benefits and relevance to individuals
  • Providing opportunities for students to take part in activities that explore the political, societal and ethical aspects of technology.

For those of us who support education for engineering these recommendations will seem eminently sensible and that the various bodies charged with taking them forward should do just that. But will this be the case? Who will act as agent provocateur with those agencies and organisations called upon to take action to ensure that this report, like so many before it, does not sink into oblivion? So I’m asking that Peter Finegold, the Head of Education and Skills at the IMechE uses his influence and that of the engineering community to galvanise action with regard to Recommendations 1 and 2. Clearly all the professional engineering institutions, the Royal Academy of Engineering and employers have their parts to play with regard to Recommendation 4 although I think it will be necessary to identify a focus for this support if it is to be effective. As to Recommendation 3 I think design & technology departments in individual schools can and should support an engineering vision and strategy. Readers will have noted that I have used the term ‘education for engineering’ not ‘engineering education’. I firmly believe that teaching young people design & technology at school is much more likely to open their eyes to worthwhile technical careers in general as well as engineering in particular than named engineering courses. Such teaching will not only predispose some young people to consider a career in engineering but will give all young people studying the subject a positive attitude towards and appreciation of the contribution designers, technologists and engineers make to our society.

The report argues that ‘the made world’ should have a much higher profile in the school curriculum. In response, my message is simple – if we want more young people to understand the made world and engage in STEM careers then we need to “BIG UP” design & technology and make sure the new GCSE is a huge success.

As always comments welcome and I’ll be happy to forward these to Peter at theIMechE.


You may consider the youtube video Slaughterbots  a piece of science fiction but that would I think sell it short. I prefer to think of it as a thought experiment with regard to how swarm robots coupled face recognition software might be used as autonomous killer robots. That is robots who can decide for themselves when to kill a human target when the face recognised matches a ‘threat’ identified by those who own and control the deployment of the swarm robots. It’s easy to see this as fanciful but many serious folk are taking the possibility of autonomous killer robots very seriously. From a government’s point of view deploying robot soldiers as opposed to human soldiers has many advantages, not the least the lack of human casualties. At the moment robot soldiers of various kinds operate in collaboration with humans who have the ultimate ‘say’ with regard to a ‘kill decision’. This was explored effectively in the film Eye in the Sky Face recognition software played a significant part in the human decision to initiate a lethal strike. So Eye in the Sky to some extent endorses the thesis in Slaughterbots of the near reality of autonomous killer robots. The use of swarms of killer robots reduces the research and development costs significantly – each bot is cheap and mass manufacture is relatively inexpensive and the software guiding swarm behaviour is not that complex – as indicated in the youtube video. Where is this issue taken seriously – look no further than the Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons website This provides a call to action and links to a campaign to stop killer robots

This is an important issue facing society and the question for us involved in teaching young people is to what extent should such an issue be explored in school? One of the justifications for teaching design & technology as part of a general education for all young people is that it introduces them to such issues and gives them the intellectual tools to think about them in a critical yet constructive way. I look to the day when such issues feature in the written examination of the recently introduced D&T GCSE. Would this be too much to ask of a GCSE introduced to reinvigorate the subject?

As always comments welcome.

Let there be science

The book Let there be science  by David Hutchings and Tom McLeish explores the case for Biblical support for scientific activity. I found it a fascinating although in many places I think they conflate science with technology. Rather than seeing this as a weakness I think it provides an opportunity to extend the consideration of Biblical revelation as to the nature and purpose of technology and what if anything this might have to say about the teaching and learning of design & technology in the secondary school. With these thoughts in mind I have written Let there be science – considerations from a design & technology education perspective as both commentary and critique.

My friend and colleague Torben Steeg, the very opposite of a ‘faith head’, has read the piece and raised the following comments and questions:

On page 5 you write

Those without faith might see the universe as being ‘ordered’ in this way as a result of its intrinsic nature and not through its being created by God but that seems to me to be just as much an act of faith as believing in God.

I think one might argue that it’s been the exploration of science/scientists that has revealed that the universe does appear to be ordered – for whatever reason. In that case it’s a working assumption that could be falsified; but I guess it’s a bit circular since without such an assumption the enterprise of science wouldn’t make much sense. So you could label that ‘faith’; but I don’t think it’s the same kind of thing as religious faith. (Though I’m sure some scientists operate from a faith that is more like the religious type…)

On page 6 you write

And it is echoed in the writings of Robert White (2014) a prominent geophysicist.

Natural processes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and the natural greenhouse effect are what make the world a fertile place in which to live. Without them, it would become a dead, sterile world and no one would be here to see it.

(page 10)

But… if you wanted to push this, why couldn’t an omnipotent god create a world (an the underlying science) where a fertile and rich environment wasn’t dependent on such things?

In your discussion of Chapter 10, (pages 8-9) it occurs to me that the notion of precautionary principle is useful – with practical examples being the original and the recent Asilomar conferences on, respectively, genetic engineering and AI.

On page 11 you write

However, the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1 – 9) by which humans could reach heaven was confounded by God through the creation of multiple languages so that those building the Tower could not communicate with one another. This can be seen as a denial of technological activity when it is being used to thwart God’s purpose.

It seems to me that the Tower of Babel story is of dubious relevance; if she’s an interventionist God, why the arbitrariness of when to intervene or not? For example, why not intervene when torture or gas chambers are being built – or is she only concerned about threats to her own domain…?

But then I do think that there is a tendency for religious types to assume that God’s interventionist aims align with their own (though they would probably say that their aims align with hers…) – as when all sides in a war (or election…) pray for victory.

Nick Cave captures this nicely…

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

(You can watch/hear the whole thing here)

I have heard it argued (persuasively to me) that the second of the Ten Commandments (You shall not use the Lord’s Name in vain) refers not to casual ‘blasphemy’ but rather to the use of phrases like ‘It’s God’s will’ to persuade folk to the opinion of the speaker.

You go on to say that:

Hence it seems that God is placing the responsibility on humanity to use technology in ways that are consistent with the covenant between God and his creation, in particular our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it.

But this responsibility is given without, it seems, very clear guidance; my, admittedly casual, observation is that Christians seem to disagree about a lot of things that relate to “our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it“.

Rev. Colin Davis, Rector of Carrowdore & Millisle, Church of Ireland has also read the piece and made the following comments:

It can sometimes be a popular misconception that science and faith (mostly Christian, but I guess others as well) are in opposition and yet in reality, as Tom and David indicate, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible teaches that God created order out of chaos and although the Earth can often seem a very chaotic place, in fact it ‘operates’ by very definite ‘laws & principles’. Science rather than being a ‘spoiler’ (removing the mystery from nature through explanations that are arid and lacking in wonder) helps us to understand more of how things work and provides greater insight that we can use to appreciate the wonder therein. We can see Biblical writing as exploring and revealing the relationship between God and humanity and in revealing something of the nature of science and our obligation to pursue scientific activity also reveal something of the nature of God.

We know from experience and history that gifts can be used for good or ill, and seeing science as a gift from God places on us ‘the burden of responsible use’. The story of the Tower of Babel points very much to a warning for humanity to use God given gifts, including science and technology in the light of this burden rather than for us to raise our own sense of achievement without regard to God’s wishes putting humanity in the position of challenging or denying God. The futility and arrogance of such challenge/denial is captured well in this anecdote I remember from my days when training for the priesthood.

A group of successful scientists were so accomplished and confident that they thought to challenge God and create their own human being. God accepted the challenge and taking a handful of dust he created a human. The scientists bent down to grab some earth and God stopped them saying, “Get your own dust!”

God, in creating the Universe including the Earth and all creatures living on the planet wants a special relationship with humans. God loves us and wants us to love Him/Her in return and to love one another but in doing this takes a huge risk. We have a choice as to whether we love God, one another or not. The way we live our lives, treat one another and use the gifts of the creator will be determined by the choice we make. For the Christian St Paul sums this up in Chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans:

3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

4 For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function,

5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.

6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith;

7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching;

8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.

It is not too much a stretch of the theological imagination to envisage another verse along the lines:

Or she that is scientific or technological to pursue this with due humility and regard for consequences.

As always further comments or questions welcome.

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.