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


Build, Use, Damage, Mend and Adapt – an approach to learning through and about drones

A guest post by Ed Charlwood

What follows describes the work I’ve been doing in school that has led to me to set up a new Drones in Schools Google+ community for teachers.

A convergence of influences

As with much curriculum development, serendipity did its job at the outset of this endeavour, bringing together the opportunities offered by (1) the new GCSE and A Level specifications and their broader content requirements, (2) a growing dissatisfaction with a certain high-profile external “design / engineering” competition that really requires very little design and (3) the discovery of a very interesting little kit. Firstly, the long-awaited publication of the new GCSE and A Level specifications really was a wake up call that we could not continue to plough the same RM / Product Design furrow at either qualification level. I felt it important to embrace the specification in its entirety and that meant that at Latymer we would have to teach areas that were less familiar i.e. Systems and Control and Textiles. It also meant that we could fully embrace previously fringe areas that we had been pushing at for a few years but had been confined by old assessment criteria, namely the use of CAD, CAM and the circular economy. Secondly, I have seen our students be equally engaged and frustrated with external engineering competitions, they promised a glimpse into the competitive world of high level engineering but actually offered little real decision making, restrictive and difficult manufacturing processes and actually required a lot of luck and frivolous administration. I won’t name names. Lastly I came across a $99 / £78 kit from Flexbot, offering a 3D printable drone and the promise of an open source kit. A quick PayPal purchase later and I was the proud owner of a Flexbot Quadcopter (4 rotors), cleverly packaged, with a comprehensive and appropriate information booklet and a product that worked pretty much straight out for the box and could fly via an iPhone app. Bingo.

Drones are a great ‘hook’ for learning

Drones are popular in the media, comprehensible to most people and on a steep curve of becoming demonstrably better and cheaper at the same time. Currently they have the elusive “engagement factor” and this provides a ‘hook’ making them intrinsically attractive to students. Such a hook is, in my experience, vital. It is important to note that we are not coding experts, nor are we overly interested in programming. But we are interested in using electronics to do stuff. And it is here that the Flexbot Quadcopter meets our teaching intentions.

Our approach

Under the guidance of my colleague Nick Creak we handed the kit over to our students. They assembled the drone without difficulty. Then they had a play, crashed it and naturally broke it. They took the kit apart and made some key measurements, download CAD files from the Flexbot Wiki (SketchUp) and Thingiverse (.stl) and printed a replacement for the part for the one they broke. They then began to explore the files and started to design their own drone. Initially they did this by pretty much by simplifying and copying the existing design, a useful process in its own right to develop CAD techniques and collaborative skills.

A 3D printed Flexbot part

We then printed their chassis designs and used the slicing software to investigate various manufacturing options:

  • How long would the print take if it was “ultimate” or “low” quality?
  • What would happen if it had a low / medium / dense fill?
  • What were the implications of the design being aligned differently?

On average a “normal quality” high density print would take 2 hours. The booklet provided by Flexbot also has some interesting text comparing the economics of 3D printed manufacturing vs mass production techniques like injection moulding.

Students then could begin to design “iteratively” – a new key concept in the OCR interpretation of the new specifications.

“Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analysing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made.”

We also offered a number of design challenges: design a modular drone, alter your design to use as little filament as possible (make it cheap!) or to print as quickly as possible, design your drone to use a standard component – in our case this was a Lego axle.

Flexbot parts

The Flexbot circuit is robust enough to be shared between students and the batteries, propellers and motors are cheap enough to buy in bulk. If you do not have a 3D printer, jobs can be specified, costed and outsourced to a 3D print hub. The simulator (which is available once you have started the process of uploading parts for hub to print) shows it would cost approximately £6 for a basic chassis made from PLA by Fused Deposition Modelling. Some hubs even offer 25% student discount and most do almost next day delivery.

We additionally posed a number of extensions questions to our students, each eliciting a different design outcome: What is the effect of changing the alignment of the rotors? How big/small can the drone be? How much weight can it pick up?


Design Decisions Pentagon

David Barlex has produced a design decision pentagon to describe the decisions that students might make when they are designing and making. So I was intrigued to use this to explore the decisions that our students were making.

Clearly they weren’t making any big conceptual decisions – the sort of product had already been decided – a quadcopter drone. The technical decisions in terms of how it would work had also been decided – four electric motors linked to flexbot circuit, controlled by the Bingo app. But there were lots of possibilities in the constructional decision-making.

Not 90°!

One student changed the alignment of the motors so that they were no longer at 90o to one another which made the drone faster but harder to control. And I suppose you could argue that this constructional change did in fact change the way the drone worked. A key feature of the pentagon is that the design decisions featured at each of the vertices aren’t independent of one another hence the lines between the vertices.

Interference fit

Another student responded to the modular challenge producing a design with four separate arms held tightly by an interference fit to the central node, taking advantage of the high degree of dimensional accuracy of additive manufacture. This required investigation and was in itself was a valuable learning experience.

Clearly it’s possible to set particular design challenges around constructional decisions e.g. making it more crash worthy.

Aesthetic decisions could also be made. Indeed changing the alignment of the motors could be seen as an aesthetic as well as a constructional decision. Devising light-weight covers that can be 3D printed or perhaps produced from nets that have been laser cut from thin sheet plastic might give the drone different ‘personalities’ and this may be seen as a marketing decision, changing the appearance to have appeal to different users. Marketing decisions can also be made with regard to how the drone gets to market – via a kit in a shop or on line, or via digital files for home or hub manufacture in collaboration with a circuit board/electrical motor supplier, related to this, deciding whether the product is open source or not is also a marketing decision. And just who the drone is for will make a big difference to what it might look like and additional features. And taking a step back how will the design decisions overall be affected by requiring drones to be part of a circular economy?

There is, of course, a “purer” engineering challenge, to design and make racing drones, where there are already a number of competitions with related rules and constraints.

The next area for us to consider is that of the consequences of drone technology, and its close cousin the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) many of which have some more sinister applications; bombing, surveillance and smuggling as a counterbalance to the positive aspects; photography, delivery, surveying etc… each is a rich seam for discussion as well as the wider issues of automation, disruptive technologies generally or government regulation and control.

Far from this being a proprietary endeavour I want this to be a collaborative, open source one, so I invite you to join the Drones in Schools Google+ community to share your experiences, ideas and resources or add your comments to this post.

Ed Charlwood headshotEd Charlwood

Head of Design & Director of Digital Learning at Latymer Upper School, London

I am a passionate advocate of Design education who believes in the power of learning through analysis, designing and making. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator (class of 2013), a Google Certified Teacher (class of 2015) and the DATA Outstanding Newcomer to Design and Technology Award winner (2008), a particular focus of my work is to exemplify the notion that innovative and appropriate use of technology can redefine the traditional teacher-learner relationship and transform educational designing and making experiences. My vision is to inspire and empower students to make the things they imagine.

The Disruptive Technologies and D&T newsletter #2

This is the last time I’ll clog up this blog with stuff about the Disruptive Technologies and D&T newsletter. But just to show it wasn’t a total flash-in-the-pan, the second edition has just been posted

You can sign up for the newsletter and read past issues from the newsletter archive.


The Disruptive Technologies and D&T newsletter

[Update 15-15-17: the first newsletter has been posted. If you haven’t already signed up for it, you can view it (and choose to subscribe) here.]

Early next week I’ll be launching a newsletter focussed on Disruptive Technologies and D&T. What I want to do here is explain a little bit why I’m starting this and the kind of content that it will contain.

The first edition of the newsletter will be published next week – some of what follows is sampled from it.

You can sign up for the newsletter on the newsletter’s sign up page.


David Barlex and I have been working on a project that focuses on making a range of Disruptive Technologies (DTs) accessible for classroom use and discussion. The DTs we have chosen to emphasise are:

We think these technologies provide a really powerful context to help pupils learn about technological perspective (this idea is developed in our recent Working Paper Big Ideas for D&T), while at the same time introducing pupils to technologies that  are likely to have a significant impact on their adult lives. The DTs we have chosen are at very different levels of development with, for example, additive manufacturing being something that many (most? all?) schools have at least some access to. In contrast, synthetic biology is advancing surprisingly rapidly as a technology in industry but has, so far, made minimal impact in schools and programmable matter remains largely a R&D project in some universities and other research institutes.

We also realise that there are other technologies ‘out there’ that have the potential to be disruptive and, also, that it is possible that some of our nominated DTs may turn out to be more of a disruptive whimper than a bang. That’s future-gazing for you.

This is an ‘in our free time’ project so inevitably develops more slowly than we would like.

However, I read a lot. (Well, David and I both read a lot – but I should probably emphasise that I take responsibility for what appears in this newsletter.) And I’d like to share the fruits of this reading with colleagues in D&T because I realise that not all have the luxury of time that I do to wade through quite a lot of content to find the useful and interesting nuggets.

This is probably my age talking, but Twitter seems to me to be too ephemeral for stuff that might actually be useful (if you’re lucky enough to see it fly by you probably won’t find it again when you need it…). And I don’t want to clog up the blog on our website with this kind of stuff. So, I’m trying out a newsletter for size; it will take at least six months for me to decide whether it is a success or not – and I’ll measure that by how many folk have signed up to it.


I’ve deliberately called this ‘The Disruptive technologies and D&T’ newsletter rather than ‘The Disruptive technologies in D&T’ newsletter as this gives me a bit of elbow room to wander over wider issues related to D&T education. Mostly it will contain links to recently published material on-line with a degree of commentary on each item. I’ll make no attempt to cover every DT every time. And I’ll also mentions books that I’ve read that seem to me to be useful, relevant or interesting. Sometimes they’ll be all three.

My aim is to produce a reasonably (but not too) frequent edition with enough content to be interesting but not overwhelming. I’m thinking that perhaps 3-4 issues a month, during term-time, might be about right, with a slower rate of publication in school holidays. I will rely on feedback from you to tell me whether both the frequency and length are reasonably manageable.

If you think that such a newsletter might be useful, please both sign up to receive it and forward this post on to colleagues and, if you work in ITE in any capacity, to your trainee teachers.

Click to subscribe to the Disruptive Technologies and D&T Newsletter


Re-Building D&T v2

Re-Building Design & Technology v2 is now available here. It has been informed by the responses we have had to the first version. We have taken many of these responses into account in rewriting the original eight sections and have introduced a completely new section Re-building – necessary but not sufficient.

Prior to publishing v2 of this document we sought the support of the D&T Association. To this end, we had a very productive meeting with Julie Nugent, the new CEO of the D&T Association and Andy Mitchell, the deputy CEO, at which they welcomed v2 of the Re-building paper and looked forward to working with stakeholders in responding to the recommendations. However we want to reiterate here what the paper says:

Our recommendations all carry implied costs, in some cases relatively modest and in others significant. These costs are beyond the current budget of the Association and it is really important that the whole D&T community works with the Association to help the realisation of these recommendations with both practical and financial support.

If you would like to discuss the provision of either practical or financial support with the D&T Association, you can contact them via their website; we suggest that you mention the Re-Building D&T document and it may be helpful to note that your message is for the attention of Julie Nugent, CEO.

In addition we look forward to receiving any comments you have on v2 and would welcome indications of how you might be using v2 of the document in your school, your initial teacher training or in the provision of CPD.

As ever, you can comment on this post or contact us directly.

Are you using biomimicry in D&T?

A guest post by Rebecca Mallinson

Fish Gill Design used to remove trapped air from water pipelines

Fish Gill Design used to remove trapped air from water pipelines

Biomimicry is the manufacturing of materials that imitate the phenomena of life’s natural processes. From 2014, biomimicry was introduced as a design methodology within the UK Design & Technology curriculum with the aspiration to align the subject more greatly with design outside education.

Burrs are the most widely known biomimic inspiration - responsible for velcro

Burrs are the most widely known biomimic inspiration – responsible for velcro

As an anthropology researcher at the crosshairs of Material & Visual Culture, Sustainability and Education, my interest lies in how this directive is technically interpreted and taught for Key Stage 3 students. How is such a complex subject understood, embraced and employed to create artefacts where ‘thought is made concrete in design’? In abstracting nature’s properties, are we teaching a re-assertion of our own power over it, or fostering an apotropaic (harm-averting) closeness with our increasingly vulnerable environment? Is there an immateriality – a spiritual rather than physical quality – to embedding biomimicry within a design curriculum?

Beijing National Aquatics Centre inspired by bubbles

Beijing National Aquatics Centre inspired by bubbles

I would love to be able to explore this for my masters dissertation at UCL but to do so, I need to find D&T teachers willing to be interviewed. This could be via email/Skype/phone or in person depending on your location.

Anyone is welcome to contribute their perspective whether they have:

  • Embraced this element of the curriculum and found innovative ways to articulate it?
  • Examples to share of how students have employed biomimicry within their artwork from the most mundane to the most spectacular?
  • Experienced creative, strange, fascinated or confused responses from students?
  • Felt skeptical about its inclusion within the curriculum entirely?

If you would like to know more and/or participate, please email Rebecca at before Friday 28th April.

Rebecca MallinsonRebecca Mallinson

Working with the Creative Directors at London College of Fashion, Rebecca has coordinated industry projects with Microsoft, United Nations, SHOWstudio and Cass Art alongside the design/organisation of catwalk and exhibitions. Her previous experience encompasses Research & Policy at the Crafts Council plus supporting researchers at Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Textile Futures Research Centre which each stimulated her interest in the potentials of design embracing natural technologies.

Big Ideas for D&T

When we published the Re-Building Design & Technology Working Paper, one of the core things we suggested was that the D&T community could agree on some Big Ideas that should underpin learning within D&T.

We didn’t think these Big Ideas were particularly radical; they already mostly appear in one form or another in the current KS3 Orders for D&T as well as in the new D&T GCSEs.

We outlined some of the responses to the Re-Building paper in an earlier post, and, as we said there, some correspondents disagreed with the idea of Big Ideas and others felt they’d like to hear more detail on how these Big Ideas had been developed, so that they could understand our argument better.

We agree that this would be helpful and we hope that our second Working paper,  Big Ideas for Design & Technology, serves the purpose of explaining where the Bg Ideas we are advocating have come from.

As ever, we hope this paper will stimulate discussion and we look forward to your comments.