Daily Telegraph Headline “Design and technology GCSE axed from nearly half of schools, survey finds”

We were pleased that the Daily Telegraph reported on the problems facing our subject. So, of course, we wrote to the Telegraph about it. We were less pleased when the letters’ editor told us, “Sorry there isn’t room on the letters page.” So here is an extended version of our letter explaining what a tragedy it is that the government has ignored the contribution design & technology can make to the general education of all pupils whatever their intended careers. Feel free to forward to all who might be able to use it for the good of the subject.

The recent piece in the Daily Telegraph newspaper (10-3-17) on the imminent demise of design & technology GCSE merits an urgent response. Amongst the factors that have contributed to the decline in numbers taking GCSE design & technology, we think two are key; the role of the EBacc and the DfE’s inability to effectively plan for a supply of new teachers into the profession. Unfortunately, the effects of these interact to create the dire situation reported. As far as teacher supply is concerned, UCAS reports that applications to train to become a design and technology teacher have dropped by 34% since last year (a year in which recruitment was already low, following a pattern of year-on-year decline), yet the government insists “…we do not consider that there is compelling evidence of a shortage of DT teachers.” The Telegraph’s article provides a clear explanation for this apparent paradox; in the face of recruitment difficulty, school leaders are simply not replacing design & technology teachers as they leave and instead are shrinking and closing design & technology departments. The financial pressure on schools gives an added incentive to take this path as does the EBacc, to which we now turn.

Our recent Working Paper ‘Re-Building Design & Technology’ has detailed the way that design & technology sits outside the EBacc, which inevitably puts it down the pecking order when it comes to student choices for GCSE. This means that there needs to be considerable clarity about the contribution design & technology makes to young people’s learning, particularly regarding its uniqueness (i.e., the learning it provides that is not offered by any other subject) and its rigour (both practical and intellectual). It seems to us that a high level of clarity about design & technology’s role in developing fully rounded young people is not always present (in schools or amongst parents and students) when discussions about GCSE options are taking place. Therefore, we would like to offer four arguments that emphasise design & technology’s importance in the curriculum.

An economic argument

A steady supply of people who have studied design & technology is essential to maintain and develop the kind of society we value. Design & technology is central to the innovation on which our future economic success as a nation depends. For those young people who achieve a design & technology qualification at school the experience may well predispose some of them to consider a technical career. This is important as our country faces a “STEM skills” gap.

A personal argument

The learning achieved through studying design & technology at school is useful in everyday situations, as it enables young people to deploy design skills and technical problem solving to address and solve practical problems at both the personal and community levels.

A social argument

In their communities, their workplaces, and through the media, people encounter questions and disputes that have matters of design and/or technology at their core. Often these matters are contentious. Significant understanding of design and of technology is needed to reach an informed view on such matters and engage in discussion and debate. For example, students designing and making robots in design & technology have to engage with both hardware and software design issues; these provide rich opportunities for them to consider some of the wider implications of robots in society such as their roles in elder care, in warfare and in displacing human jobs.

A cultural argument

Technologies and the design thinking behind them are major achievements of our culture. Everyone should be helped to appreciate these, in much the same way that we teach pupils to appreciate literature, art and music.

The sentences below have their origins in the writings of Jacob Bronowski’s seminal work, The Ascent of Man. We think they provide a powerful justification for teaching the subject that touches on all four of the arguments noted previously (economic, personal, social, cultural).

Envisaging what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create and critique that future is a unique human ability, which has led to the development of successive civilisations across history. It embodies some of the best of what it means to be human.Through teaching young people design & technology, schools introduce pupils to this field of human endeavour and empower them to become people who see the world as a place of opportunity where they and others can, through their own thoughts and actions, improve their situation.

The implications are that design & technology requires young people to be imaginative, develop practical skills, be thoughtful and develop intellectual skills, develop a positive attitude towards confronting problems, be both reflective and active, make judgements as to what is worth doing and understand the ways that design & technology underpins cultural and social structures.

If taken seriously, the arguments given above provide compelling reasons for teaching design & technology to all young people, whatever their career intentions might be, as part of a rounded, general education. We are utterly mystified that the government continues to marginalise the subject both through the EBacc and through its inattention to teacher supply.


As always comments welcome.


Technology Education according to Neil Postman

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am a huge admirer of Neil Postman. I first discovered him early in my teaching career through his book Teaching as a subversive activity (if only!) and more recently through re-reading Technopoly which I blogged about on this site. Last week I managed to get a second hand copy of one of his later works The End of Education. It does not disappoint and what do I find in the last chapter a list of ten principles for technology education.the-end-of-education-and-technopoly-book-covers

Here they are:

  1. All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is a corresponding disadvantage.
  2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.
  3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Like language itself, a technology predisposes us to favour and value certain perspectives and accomplishments and to subordinate others. Every technology has a philosophy, which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
  4. A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige and a “worldview”.
  5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.
  6. Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.
  7. Because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different technologies have different political biases.
  8. Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.
  9. Because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different technologies have different social biases.
  10. Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases.

All this written was written 20 years ago.

Postman argues that through teaching technology according to these principles young people will know something worthwhile, have made sense of how the world was made and how it is being remade, and may even have some ideas on how it should be remade. I think that the Disruptive Technologies Project that I, Torben and Nick Givens are working on has significant resonance with Postman’s ten principles and that they form an excellent guide to what we have named Technological Perspective which provides insight into ‘how technology works’ informing a constructively critical view of technology, avoiding alienation from our technologically based society and enabling consideration of how technology might be used to provide products and systems that help create the sort of society in which young people wish to live.

It’s not that technological capability in terms of designing and making isn’t important, of course it is but to neglect technological perspective is to provide an education that lacks an essential dimension crucial to young people’s futures. Our challenge is to include both in the way we teach design & technology.

As always comments welcome

Re-Building D&T – the CPD!

re-building-dayWe’re really pleased to say that we’ve teamed up with the Regional Training Agency to provide a day-long workshop for schools on Re-Building D&T.

Full course details [pdf].

Initially we are offering two days, one in London on Friday 24 March 2017 and one in Leeds on Monday 27 March 2017. However, if the demand is there, we will be very happy to add further days either regionally or with clusters of schools who are interested.

Read more about our Re-Building D&T project.

Has Culture surrendered to Technology?

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

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

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

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

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

Envisaging what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create and critique that future is a unique human ability, which has led to the development of successive civilizations across history. It embodies some of the best of what it means to be human. Through teaching young people design & technology schools introduce pupils to this field of human endeavour and empower them to become people who see the world as a place of opportunity where they and others can, through their own thoughts and actions, improve their situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weapons of Ministerial Disruption (WMD*s)

Bryan Williams always makes me think. Just as I was getting enthusiastic about a five year course for the new D&T single title GCSE, starting in Year 7 underpinned by the teaching of BIG ideas that illustrates clearly the subject’s strong epistemology Bryan brings me down to earth with a bump! This is the conversation we had on Facebook Product Design Surgery.

Bryan wrote I wholeheartedly support the idea of five year (and more) approaches to GCSE. Just one thought, given the expected lifetime of any qualification is five year. It’s more important to ensure full coverage of content and approach, than worry about an individual exam board’s interpretation

I wrote The problem as I see it is that at the end of the road the candidates have to deal with the AO’s interpretation so it’s important to keep one’s eye on that ball from the start without letting it dominate and skew the learning.

Then Bryan wrote Probably more Ofqual’s interpretation these days David, look how difficult it has been for all of the Exam Boards to gain acreditation across a whole range of subjects. My point was that very few cohorts will benefit from five years based on the emerging specifications as they will change fairly soon, perhaps 2023? So Year 7 starting in 2019 might be the last group taking these GCSEs.

I thought Oh shit!

Then I wrote The question your comment raises is “Who is driving Ofqual to make changes?” The DfE, ministerial whim? I would like to think that it could be the views of the profession, which seeing the need for improvement lobbies Ofqual/DfE/the Minister with suggestions in mind. This teacher voice would in my view raise respect for the subject.

Bryan responded Sadly David it is the former, with sucessive Secretaries of State wanting to make a mark. Dangerous animals! Remember Gove and the completely unofficial introduction of the Ebacc? Now being put into legislation by Gibb, who has already dismissed any possible extention, thus providing a National Curriculum for KS4. Sadly I suspect Lord Baker’s Edge foundation recommendations will be ignored for the same reasons.

So I wondered Well what to do if Mr Gibb proves intractable? I’m not sure that his boss Justine Greening will put much pressure on him to change his view whatever Kenneth Baker might say – she has other fish to fry which will keep her occupied but the plan must be to come up with a range of WMDs – weapons of ministerial disruption. If we can develop enough from different but respected sources all targeting the inadequacy of the de facto KS4 National Curriculum then we might be in with a chance. It certainly won’t happen by accident so as of now I’m recruiting for WMDs.

What should the D&T community do as it works to rebuild the subject? I think there are three targets for our WMDs.

The first is success in the new GCSE. This will not be easy, as it will require a significant change in the KS3 curriculum that leads to the new KS4 curriculum necessitated by the new GCSE. So a five year course which will be decidedly different to pupils’ previous experience will be the order of the day. Staff will have to work much more as a team than before. KS3 will NOT be an internal competition for focus area numbers at KS4 and block timetabling will be needed to create staffing flexibility across the team. But there is everything to play for here. A coherent, highly regarded course which has appeal across the ability range. This leads to the second target – maintaining and increasing uptake. GCSE numbers for D&T have been falling steadily since 2004. This trend shows no signs of abating and we have to contend with the very real possibility that a ‘change of diet’ in Year 9 at KS3 might well lead to those pupils who would have opted for the subject deciding otherwise. This has been reported on Product Design Surgery Facebook. The difficulty with increasing numbers is often the structure of the option choices. In many cases all the ‘creative subjects’ find themselves in a single option column in competition with each other accompanied by difficulties for those studying three sciences to take D&T. To counteract these difficulties and start to build numbers will require a significant marketing campaign demonstrating to both parents and pupils the value of the subject, arguing quite explicitly for its worth as an academic subject in preference to those against which it is competing in the option column. This will not make your department popular but it is an essential strategy. D&T finds itself in a Darwinian situation – prosper or decline. The third, contrary as it sounds, is to take a hard look at the GCSE we are promoting and identify areas for improvement. I hear the response – Oh FFS as if we don’t have enough to do! But it’s only by identifying possible deficiencies and their remedies that we can be proactive in dealing with the DfE and Ofqual.

So if the profession can be successful in launching our WMDs (success in the new GCSE, increase in uptake, and possibilities for improvement), and give them wings by endorsements from influential and informed stakeholders from industry, academia, MPs and the wider profession then it will be difficult, if not impossible for the minister to ignore the progress made and reassess his (or by then may be her) opinion of the subject. Who will take the profession forward in developing, launching and endorsing the WMDs? Surely it has to be the D&T Association and this must be a major task for the soon to be appointed new CEO.

As always comments welcome.

*The title of this article has been inspired by the quite brilliant book  Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

Preparing for the new D&T GCSE presentation at the Harris Federation October Conference


I had an interesting session at the Excel Centre for the Harris Federation October Conference on Friday presenting to 40+ teachers about Preparing for the new D&T GCSE. My key message was that it was essential to see the GCSE as a five year course. There was a lot to cover in the time available so it was a bit rushed at the end hence the PowerPoint slides are available here. Two interesting points emerged in the brief discussion. The first was that most of the schools felt that their SLT did not fully understand the nature of design & technology or the reasons for teaching it to as many your people as possible. This is worrying as the subject is entering into a new phase with the introduction of the new single title GCSE and its success rests very must on the support of key stakeholders which include SLT. So I hope the PowerPoint slides will help those who need to convince the SLT of the worth of the subject. The second point was made by a teacher who was concerned that the less able pupils should get something from the BIG ideas that underpin the subject. He felt that these should not be seen as for the more able only. I couldn’t agree more. He pointed to the disassembly of furniture as something his less able pupils enjoyed and learned from and I was struck how this could be linked to a critique of the way we use materials, particularly with regard to stewardship. Just imagine a small settee that was disassembled in front of a class as a demonstration with various pupils taking part. By the end of the disassembly all the different parts would be revealed – the timber frame, the fabric covering, various padding, any fixings, how these parts were held together would be apparent. And then some questions; about manufacture: how was this or that part made, what material has been used for this or that part, how do we get this that material, where does it come from, is it renewable, is it finite? What other materials might be used? How else might the parts be made? How easy are the materials to recycle? One could go on and on and it’s probably sensible not to ask too many questions. But there is no doubt to richness of the knowledge and understanding that can be revealed by disassembly plus questions, knowledge and understanding that can be focused onto considering the consequences of the way we do things with particular reference to stewardship – a key lens for critique. And of course this knowledge and understanding is the right of every young person we teach, independent of their so-called ability.