Not the outsides but the insides surely?

clock-faceI’ve come across several requests for new projects to support a revision of current KS3 schemes of work. My usual response has been don’t start with projects, start with what you want the pupils to learn. But I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to start with an existing and somewhat limited project and revitalise it by considering what might be learned if it was extended in various ways. This led me to consider the designing and making of clock faces. Many schools get pupils at KS3 (or even KS4) to design and make clock faces, providing a bought in mechanism to move the hands. My impression is that they use this as an opportunity to explore the aesthetics of particular design movements. So we get Mackintosh or Memphis or Bauhaus derive clock faces. I’m not sure that this is the best use of precious design & technology time. Surely the interesting idea behind such work is that we can devise machines that can record the passage of time. Being able to tell the time has had a large impact on the way we live our lives. Before this was possible sun rise and sun set provided the boundaries on our days with inadequate and often poisonous lighting (oil and kerosene lamps) giving some respite from darkness. So understanding the impact of measuring time on our lives and how this can be achieved would seem to have great potential in a design & technology course that was concerned with both perspective – understanding the interaction of technology and society, and capability – designing and making things that work. So some questions to consider:

  • Why might we need clocks?
  • What do various people use clocks for?
  • Who wins and who loses when people have clocks?
  • What sorts of clocks are there?
  • When and where were different sorts of clocks invented?
  • How do they work?

The history of clocks goes back a long time, starting with sundials and water clocks. The use of pendulums and springs then allow the invention of mechanical clocks which include some very delicate and accurate components moving on jewelled bearings. Such clocks needed winding up using a hand turned key but this function was overtaken by the electric motor. And then we reach the quartz clock that uses an electronic oscillator regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time. Most modern clocks (and watches) now operate this way.

It seems to me that there has got to be some good design & technology in a consideration of clocks that goes way beyond what their faces look like. It will be no mean feat to derive a unit of work that looks at the insides as opposed to the out sides of timepieces but I think the rewards in terms of learning would be great. All the BIG ideas will be represented to some extent – materials, manufacture, functionality, design and critique. And such a unit of work could embrace making without designing, designing without making, design and making and considering consequences. I expect other areas of the curriculum would be interested – mathematics, science and history. So as we prepare for the new GCSE and start to revise our KS3/4 offerings consider what we might teach if we seriously revamped ‘the clock face’ project.

As always comments welcome.

Baddass Biomimicry Part 2 Science fiction becomes science fact!

skeeterHave you ever watched a dragonfly? They can hover almost as if frozen in space wings beating so fast they appear as a blur, land with delicate precision on a waving blade of grass, skim gracefully over a pond and fly off at speeds that defy sight. Surely a target for biomimicry and that of course is what has happened. A helicopter used by sea rescue services based on dragonfly flight would be wonderful. Hmmm, scaling up insects is tricky. The fossil record indicates that the largest flying insects existed some 275 million years ago had wingspans of only around 700 mm (28 inches). So may be a dragonfly based rescue helicopter is conceptually inept. So in this case biomimicry has to stay in scale. In which case if you could mimic a dragonfly or aspects of a dragonfly what would you mimic. Given the aerial dexterity of the dragonfly it’s not surprising that Animal Dynamics, an Oxford University spin off, has developed Skeeter a tiny flapping winged drone specially designed for covert surveillance. Weighing no more than 30g, and designed to cost less and fly for longer than other hand-launched drones, it could, its creators claim, help reshape urban warfare. Biomimicry transforming urban warfare! It’s not difficult to see biomimicry playing out in armaments developments. Should this be discussed in D&T lessons? On the grounds of the subject reflecting activities in the world outside school it is difficult to say ‘No’. But any discussion will move into tricky territory very quickly. A surveillance drone, even a tiny one, can easily provide targeting information and missile flight path data for larger weaponised drones. And without too much difficulty be developed into a lethal weapon in its own right. Some argue that the basic technology itself is has no moral compass. The guidance technology used in missiles can just as easily be used for autonomous farm equipment. Where does this leave the designer? And where does it leave the design & technology teacher? As always comments welcome.

Baddass Biomimicry

antEarly in 2013 when there was considerable debate about the government’s proposed National Curriculum Programme of Study for design & technology. Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, one of the UKs biggest companies, criticised the government’s proposal on the following grounds: The draft proposals for design & technology did “not meet the needs of a technologically literate society. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques, such as biomimicry (how we can emulate nature to solve human problems), we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in computer-aided design, we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control, we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.” The result of such authoritative criticism was a complete revision of the proposed programme of study such that it included the following statement under the teaching of design: To use a variety of approaches, such as biomimicry and user-centred design, to generate creative ideas and avoid stereotypical responses. Although biomimicry was a non-statutory example of a design strategy it was mentioned by name.

The Design and Technology Association ran inset sessions to help teachers understand what was for many a new idea. And many teachers have since taught pupils at both KS3 and KS4 about biomimicry, particularly how designers have used it as a creative product design tool. At its most basic the development of webbed gloves and flippers to aid swimming (biomimicking a frog) and more sophisticated the use of corrugated card for a cycle helmet based on the bone structure in a woodpecker’s skull. And of course it’s possible to view the circular economy as a systems approach based on biomimicry that can be used to move the world away from a destructive linear economy.

Kill Decision CoverUnderlying this appears to be the idea of biomimicry as a benign design tool; one that can only be used for good with few if any harmful consequences. But this view misrepresents nature and the constant struggle between and within species for survival. This was made very apparent to me when I read Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. It’s a rollicking good read but I won’t go into too much detail as this will spoil the story for those who haven’t yet read this excellent piece of science fiction which borders very much on science fact. A key element of the story is to use biomimicry of weaver ants to develop swarms of lethal quadcopter drones that once unleashed can operate without human intervention and control. Weaver ants are able to communicate with one another by laying down and following pheromone trails which indicate the task to be accomplished be that foraging or territory defense. In the case of territory defense the trail will lead more and more ants to the sites where defense is necessary and even large intruders are soon overcome by the multitudes of smaller weaver ants that converge on the site. The brain power of individual weaver ants is of course very small but the colony achieves highly effective defense by getting large numbers in the right place at the right time to attack and kill the intruders. So imagine using biomimicry to transfer this ability to a swarm of drones, each drone with highly limited AI and equipped with simple but effective weapons.

Noel SharkeyThis led me to ponder the role of design strategies in general. In themselves they might be considered neutral in terms of being intrinsically good or bad but their use will of course depend on the intentions pursued by the designer. So the buck clearly stops with us humans. The case of robots and the intention to use them in warfare has led Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics & Public Engagement University of Sheffield, to urge extreme caution and argue for international conventions to govern their development. So as always with design & technology we find ourselves in territory where values are as important if not more so than knowledge, understanding and skills.

Maker Assembly Manchester | 12th November

Maker AssemblyMaker Assembly Manchester is just a couple of weeks away; If you’re interested in making contacts within the Manchester maker community – or simply finding out more about making in and around Manchester, then this is definitely for you.

In particular, if you are interested in how makers and schools can work together – please come along and join the conversation.

Further information

Maker Assembly – produced in association with V&A Digital Programmes and Lighthouse – is a critical gathering about maker cultures, which launched a year ago at the V&A.

makerassembly_1_b48283887c11a8faa67e341c71a1af0cSessions have taken place in Belfast, Sheffield and coming up next is Maker Assembly Manchester, which will take place Saturday, 12th November at MadLab, in conjunction with the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift innovation conference.

The event will explore international maker cultures and what the UK can learn from them; the relationship between making and manufacturing in the UK and the role of makerspaces within the sector; as well as making and humanitarian relief, discussing the role making can play within responses to humanitarian challenges. We have some great speakers joining us, including; Justyna SwatFelipe FonsecaAdrian McEwen, and Paul Sohi.


The Incomplete and Crowdsourced History of UK Maker Culture. 
Maker Assembly Sheffield 31 August 2016. Photo by Dan Sumption

Maker Assembly brings people together to have critical conversations about cultures of making – their meanings, politics, histories and futures. We encourage everyone to participate by combining short talks with contributions from the attendees. The event is peer-to-peer, informal and conversational.

What do we mean by “making”?

We’re talking about people who craft, design, manufacture, tinker with, engineer, fabricate, and repair physical things. Art, craft, electronics, textiles, products, robots. Hi-tech and low-tech, amateur and professional, young and old, with digital tools or by hand. Historical perspectives, what’s happening here and now, and how things might change in the future.

Tickets for Maker Assembly Manchester can be booked here:

Maker Assembly is supported by the Comino Foundation.

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.

Humble Bundle deal on Make: titles

humble-bundle-10-16Humble Bundle is currently offering a wide range of books from the Make: catalogue. At the moment over $300 worth of books is on offer.

The offer expires in 7 days.

The deal is you pay what you want, over a very low limit, some of the money goes to charity, some to Make: and some to Humble Bundle; you can choose these ratios.

What you get is DRM-free e-versions of the books in pdf, epub (Apple iBook) and mobi (Amazon Kindle) versions.

There is a number of (IMHO…) highly recommendable books in the offer. What more can I say?