Diplodocus isn’t a dinosaur OMG!!! Scientific truth is a function of time

Be warned this isn’t usually what I write about on this blog but this weeks (5 May 2018) New Scientist has a fascinating piece on dinosaurs which I feel impelled to share. I must confess to becoming interested in all things prehistoric since I attended primary school. Then, the latest educational technology was the radio, and a particular favourite of mine was first thing Monday morning – How things began. It was a weekly trip along the geological column starting at the Cambrian and travelling, over the weeks, right up to the Pleistocene and of course meeting the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic. Each episode involved the presenter travelling back in time, observing and reporting on the flora and fauna at that time and getting into a life-threatening scrape from which he escaped just in time. I was captivated by prehistory and particularly dinosaurs. My final primary school project was writing a short ‘book’ entitled Jurassic Age Dinosaurs.

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I maintained my interest and was particularly intrigued when the debate about dinosaurs moved on to consider whether they might be hot blooded and not at all like the reptiles we have on Planet Earth today. I taught about this in a general science course in the late 70’s as part of understanding how scientists use evidence to develop explanations. In more recent times I’ve been intrigued by idea that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs despite the existence of a small group of scientists which name themselves BAND – birds are not dinosaurs. The book Feathers is a great read if you’re interested in this debate. But what particularly intrigued me in the New Scientist article was the idea that dinosaurs as a group do not actually exist.

In 1887 Harry Selley identified two distinct sorts of animals from the Mesozoic: ornithiscian and saurischian depending on their hip structure and put forward the idea that as such they did not have a common ancestor and hence did not belong to the same group of animals. His idea was rejected despite this difficulty and the scientific community and the general public believed in the idea of dinosaurs. By 1984 both ornithiscian and saurischian were deemed to have a common ancestor hence dinosaurs were a legitimate group and this included present day birds. The evidence for this decision comes from cladistics which uses a wide range of differences and similarities to group animals according to their shared evolutionary history. Early in 2017 a reworking of the clade data put diplodocus outside the dinosaur group – the nation’s favourite not a dinosaur! Later in 2017 the data was revisited again and the dinosaur family tree was revised to include diplodocus. But there is still uncertainty. To my mind all this adds up to a wonderful story illustrating the nature of science; which is that, in the light of observation, evidence and interpretation, what is true today might not be true tomorrow.

As always comments welcome.

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The Curriculum: A design and technology perspective on the Ofsted curriculum survey

In June, Sean Harford, National Director, Education, Ofsted, gave a presentation in which he described Ofsted’s current curriculum survey.

We were unable to be present at the talk but the slides themselves got us thinking about the place of design & technology in the curriculum. Clearly d&t is of special interest to us and is, in our view, much misunderstood and, as a result, underrated. Hence we (David Barlex, Nick Givens and Torben Steeg) have produced a working paper, The Curriculum: A d&t perspective on the Ofsted curriculum survey, which reflects upon the nature, purpose and teaching of design & technology in the curriculum in the light of Sean’s presentation. We have shared this paper with Ofsted and, as ever, we hope it will stimulate discussion and we look forward to your comments.

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.