As the deadlines for the D&T GCSE Consultations are this week, it seems a good time to remind people to respond and also to explain a bit more some of the thinking behind the responses that David and I have published and submitted.
But first, it is really important that anyone and everyone with an interest in D&T as a school subject does respond. I have heard it suggested that, as the D&T Association will be submitting a response on behalf of its members, individuals needn’t bother. I think this notion is rather dangerous. The D&T community has a good track record of producing high numbers of response to government consultations (especially in comparison to the responses from other subjects) and we have been told that this is noticed and increases the impact of these responses. We need the DfE and Ofqual to understand that a lot of people care about D&T.
We have made our responses to the consultations public precisely because we understand that constructing these things takes time that a lot of colleagues don’t have; so we encourage others to either use our responses to inform their own or, if very pressed for time, to simply to adopt our responses. The following explains how you can find our responses:
The Ofqual Consultation
This consultation focuses on how the new GCSE in D&T will be assessed.
The deadline for responses is this Wednesday, 19th November.
Full details on how to respond are in our post Formal Response to the Ofqual GCSE D&T Consultation along with the response we have submitted.
Note that, since that post, Ofqual appear to have removed the web-based consultation information, but the information is still available as a PDF accessible from the root consultation webpage.
The DfE Consultation
This focuses on the content of the proposed new GCSE in D&T.
The deadline for responses is 1700 this Thursday, 20th November.
Full details on how to respond are in our post Formal Response to the DfE GCSE D&T Consultation along with the response we have submitted.
So, why have we responded the way we have? To answer this I want to first summarise the recent history of the subject at the hands of curriculum reformers; if this stuff is familiar to you, feel free to skip this part. Secondly I want to explore why we think D&T deserves a place in the curriculum – because the recent history suggests that there is substantial and possibly widespread lack of clarity about this. Then I’ll see if I can tie this back to our response to the consultations.
D&T takes a battering
[David’s A lesson in curriculum politics for design & technology provided a fuller account of the events I summarise below.]
D&T is in a precarious position as a school subject and we are, frankly, very lucky to have entered this school year with a coherent subject at KS1-3. We are also indebted to the, quite small, group of individuals who worked hard behind the scenes to avert two near-disasters.
Near Disaster Number One was the Report of the Expert Panel set up by the new Coalition Government in 2010 to review the framework for the National Curriculum. In many ways this is good and thoughtful document but when it came to D&T they said:
…we are not entirely persuaded of claims that design and technology, information and communication technology and citizenship have sufficient disciplinary coherence to be stated as discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subjects’. [p24]
Footnote 58 expanded on the reasons for their lack of persuasion:
Implicit in this judgement is a view of disciplinary knowledge as a distinct way of investigating, knowing and making sense with particular foci, procedures and theories, reflecting both cumulative understanding and powerful ways of engaging with the future. In this sense, disciplinary knowledge offers core foundations for education, from which the subjects of the curriculum are derived. Some very worthwhile areas of learning apply such knowledge in particular ways or foreground particular areas of skill or competence – but have weaker epistemological roots.
As a result their recommendation was that D&T should be moved out of the National Curriculum (with nationally defined content) into the ‘Basic Curriculum’ (with locally defined content – thus sitting alongside PSHE, careers information etc.).
That the well-regarded individuals who made up the Expert Panel (I won’t name and shame here – they are credited for their work in their Report) could conclude that D&T has no clear knowledge-base of its own and simply applies knowledge from other subjects while foregrounding skills/competences was shocking for those of us working in D&T. But, we have to ask, whose fault was it that they were so ill-informed?
That report was published in December 2011. A bunch of rearguard activity from the D&T education community and its supporters led to D&T being retained in the National Curriculum along with work to define what the updated content should look like (recall that one of the key aims of the reform process was to substantially reduce the content specified in the National Curriculum).
Near Disaster Number Two occurred, just over a year after the Expert Panel’s report was published, in February 2013, with the publication of the DfE’s Framework document for consultation on the National Curriculum. This, to the astonishment of pretty much everyone working in D&T Education, reframed D&T as a mixture of craft and DIY with a focus on maintenance and repair. (If you missed this fun at the time, see p156 onward of the Framework document).
It became pretty clear at the time that Elizabeth Truss, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education, had drafted this document, ignoring the proposals drafted by folk like the D&T Association and RAEng. Again, it is shocking that a junior minister could imagine that it was within her capability to do such a thing. Her credentials for taking on this work? A PPE from Oxford, work for Shell as a commercial manager, for Cable & Wireless as economics director, then work as a qualified management accountant [source].
Another rearguard operation by the D&T community successfully saw this threat off as well and we ended up with the current National Curriculum, which builds in an evolutionary way from its predecessors. Though if all the information you had was from the Daily Telegraph, uncritically passing on what the DfE press office had to say, you might think the new Orders were something very new:
A senior Whitehall source said: “The new curriculum will give pupils the skills to design, make, and test their own products.
“Pupils will learn computer-aided design and electronics. 3D printers will become standard in our schools – a technology that is transforming manufacturing and the economy.
“Combined with the introduction of programming, it is a big step forward from Labour’s dumbed down curriculum.”
A big step forward? Really?!
Let’s revisit my earlier question:
Whose fault has it been it that so many key people are so ill-informed about the subject?
I’m afraid the only answer I can give is that ‘we’ are; and by that I mean the whole D&T education community. That’s folk like David and me who provide in-service support for teachers, those (also David and me, a bit) who provide the initial education for teachers (be it in HEIs or schools), Heads of D&T Department in schools, teachers of D&T, the D&T Association even.
Before you start to shout at me….. I’m not suggesting that you, personally, dear reader, are doing your job, whatever it may be, badly or that you, personally, have a deficient view of D&T. But, it seems pretty clear to me that we have, collectively, failed to provide and proselytise a clear rationale for our subject either in word or deed. How else can it be that so many, from respected Education Academics, to government ministers, to journalists have come to be so ill-informed about the subject. I’m pretty sure I can add to that list of the ill-informed; many parents of school-age children, many colleagues in schools teaching other subjects, many senior leadership teams, many governors of schools, many HEI admissions tutors, many working in industries that might be thought to be related to D&T…..
We really need To Do Something about this state of affairs; we’ve been really lucky this time round to finesse a good outcome for the D&T National Curriculum (and I believe we can win a strong GCSE in D&T from the current proposals). But I think that, if we do not up our game significantly, we may not be nearly so fortunate next time. And there will be a next time; there always is….
So, why do we teach D&T?
Various reasons might be suggested:
- The pervasiveness of the designed world; citizens should understand how it came to be, how to intervene in it and be prepared to engage in debate about related policy questions (are robots going to take over the world…?)
- There needs to be somewhere to park the naughty boys
- The intrinsic interest of the subject
- It provides life skills
- The opportunity for modes of learning not available elsewhere in the curriculum
- It’s nice for kids to do something a bit less demanding in amongst all their academic work…
- The opportunity for pupils to experience a domain which opens up particular career possibilities
- The need of ‘UK plc’ for technically orientated workers
- It’s fundamental to our humanity
I don’t claim to believe all of these (!), but I’ll leave you to debate amongst yourselves which of the above might be relevant – and to add other grounds of your own.
I want to focus on the last point, as I believe it provides a primary reason for including D&T in the curriculum and establishes a foundational rationale for many of the possible justifications listed above (and, perhaps, provides a sieve to help us sort the better educational reasons from the weaker ones…).
David is often heard to reference Jacob Bronowski’s seminal TV series and book The Ascent of Man and, in particular, the phrase from it that:
The hand is the cutting edge of the mind
To illustrate this he often uses an image of a hand holding an Acheulean handaxe.
This extraordinary tool was introduced to me through the wonderful design podcast that is 99% Invisible, in the episode Genesis Product. These handaxes are the earliest known designed tools (as opposed to the use of unmodified rocks and branches etc. as tools). The oldest examples are from about 1.5million years ago and were displaced by more refined tools about a million years later (which puts your need to update your phone every two years into some perspective). The extraordinary thing about this is that modern humans are dated from about 200,000 years ago – so the design of tools predates the emergence of modern humans by about 1,300,00 years. And this means that design predates many other capabilities that are considered fundamentally human – like language, art or mathematics.
Timothy Taylor is Professor of the Prehistory of Humanity at the University of Vienna and author of The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution ( a cracking read…). Here he builds on the knowledge we have about the prehistory of technology to emphasise the key role that designing and making things had in our species’ evolution:
Instead of our becoming intelligent enough to invent things, the things actually allowed us to evolve into intelligent human beings.
Technology is at least as critical to our identity as our soft tissues.
Mark Miodownik is a Professor of Materials and Society at UCL and Director of the Institute of Making. In a recent article in the Observer, Why the story of materials is really the story of civilisation, (the introduction to a series of articles in the paper’s Tech Monthly magazine) Miodownik draws out why it so important that we understand about materials and how they can be used (in designing and making stuff):
The ages of civilisation are named after materials precisely because they transformed and shaped society. By distancing ourselves from the act of making, by buying and consuming stuff but never having any experience of their manufacture, the developed world finds itself not to be the illiterate society that education ministers fear, but an unmakerly society. In my view this practical ignorance is every bit as dangerous to a modern democracy as a lack of literacy. By swapping a material and industrial understanding of the world for one based on facts and information, we find ourselves uncivilised in a different way.
Making is not just an economic activity, it is the equal of literature, performance or mathematics as a form of human expression. By eschewing material knowledge we cease to understand the world around us.
This, I believe, is the core of the case for having D&T in the curriculum. Many of the other reasons listed above can be derived from this core, but without the core they lack robustness.
It is these ideas that we need to develop for the various audiences to whom we have to make the case for D&T in the curriculum.
David and I are hoping, over the next few months, to suggest a series of possible documents that schools can build on to make this case to their various audiences; parents, pupils, SLTs, governors, business links…
Perhaps there should also be a briefing paper for ministers, academics and journalists?
Back to the consultations
If you accept the argument above, then it is clear that what we teach needs to reflect the core place of designing and making in human lives – and this means accepting that the way we have approached GCSE teaching needs to change. David and I have tried to construct our responses to the consultations so that they will help build a GCSE that has a better chance of capturing the idea that “Making (…) is the equal of literature, performance or mathematics as a form of human expression”. There may well be better design solutions to this problem, but we do think that this particular solution is one that can be made to work successfully in schools.
Change is always difficult, especially in the current educational climate, and it brings with it risks. But I think the risk of carrying on as normal is ultimately higher. However, there are ways we can minimise the risks through the provision of well-constructed support for teachers and their pupils and this will be the next big challenge for our community. And that needs to be the focus of a different post.