Re-building D&T: Clarity of purpose

figure-2aHaving established the knowledge base for design & technology as a series of Big Ideas, we now turn to the question of why it is important for this subject to be a part of the educational experience of all young people.

We can envisage the school curriculum as learning composed of a jigsaw of different subjects where each subject makes a significant and unique contribution to that learning.

To become a rounded and successful member of society a young person will need learning from each of the pieces. If learning from any piece is marginalised or missing, then the young person will not have been given a fully rounded education and will be at a disadvantage
Note that this ‘jigsaw of subject pieces’ model for the curriculum need not be static. The individual pieces may change position and join with other pieces in response to particular teaching and learning intentions.


For example, the pieces for science, mathematics and design & technology may become joined in response to STEM leading to, for example, a consideration of bioluminescence as an alternative to LEDs.

Or design & technology might join with geography and science in response to a consideration of climate change issues to formulate an idea for a local community to reduce its carbon footprint.

figure-2dOr design & technology might join with history in teaching about the impact of technology on society to explore how lessons from the past might be employed in resolving current-day issues.

Hence the jigsaw piece model goes some way to mitigating the problem of subject silos.

If each subject is a piece in the jigsaw that overall provides a good education, what then governs the status of any single subject?

The contribution of mathematics, English and science to a young person’s overall education is simply not contested. History, geography, and second languages have established themselves as highly desirable and there is significant encouragement by head teachers and parents for pupils to study such subjects to the age of 16 years. Taken together these six subjects have been compiled by the government into a suite of subjects, designated as the EBacc. The government’s purpose is to provide information to parents, and others, about the achievements of pupils in a core set of academic subjects which are believed to enhance the chances of progressing on to further study.

callout-8To meet EBacc criteria, a pupil must have obtained a grade A* to C in English, maths, two sciences, history or geography(referred to as humanities), and an ancient or modern foreign language.

To be taken seriously by those concerned with young people’s education a subject outside the EBacc must be very clear about the contribution it makes to their learning, particularly regarding its uniqueness (i.e. the learning is not provided by any of the other jigsaw pieces) and its rigour (both practical and intellectual).  This is the challenge facing design & technology.

It is important, therefore to clarify and understand the possible arguments for teaching design & technology.

Following the terms used by the Expert Panel (Department for Education, 2011, p. 15), we present next four of these arguments which, it is important to note, are not mutually exclusive.

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 (Institute of Engineering and Technology, 2016).

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.

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.

callout-9Exploring these arguments

The economic argument is difficult to justify as a rationale for teaching design & technology to all young people, as the total of professional engineers, technologists and designers is only a few per cent of the whole population of an industrialised country. Employers might argue, however, that unless a high percentage of the school population is exposed to design & technology then not all of those who might be inclined to take up careers in this area will be reached.

Nevertheless, the foremost goal of a general design & technology education cannot be to train the minority who will actually “do” technology as a career.

The personal argument can be extended to a consideration of the personal qualities developed by being able to deploy design and technical problem solving skills. callout-10The creative activities of design and making, which are a major part of design & technology courses, not only give immense personal satisfaction but, importantly, develop a sense of self-efficacy which provides young people with a positive self-image about their ability to be successful. We have no doubt that these are important elements of a rounded education, and ones that design & technology is uniquely able to provide. Yet we don’t believe they are sufficient to justify the subject’s place in the curriculum. The expert panel for the 2011 Curriculum Review took a similar view arguing that design & technology did not have;

sufficient disciplinary coherence to be stated as (a) discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subject’ (Department for Education, 2011, p24)

(Fortunately other views prevailed and design & technology was retained as a National Curriculum subject at that time; we cannot be optimistic that any future curriculum review would have the same outcome.)

callout-11The role of education to produce informed citizens able to take an active role at various ‘levels’ in their community and able to engage in informed and rationale debate lies at the heart of the social justification for the subject. There seems little doubt that the pace of technological development is accelerating (some argue that it is doing so at an exponential rate (Kurzweil, 2005)). While new technologies have always created a degree of concern in certain elements of society, it is noteworthy that some of the worries being expressed about imminently widespread new technologies are coming from within the technology community itself (e.g. Achenbach, 2016). Even if one takes a reasonably sanguine view, many of these new and emerging technologies are likely to have significant impact on society, almost certainly being disruptive (Barlex, Givens & Steeg, 2015) to many current practices in people’s personal, social and working lives [see also our Disruptive Technologies Project]. There is clearly a need for an informed public discourse about the development and deployment of such technologies. This is the nub of the social argument: Enabling the public to contribute significantly and intelligently to such discourse.

callout-12The cultural argument forces us to ask, “What are the grand narratives of design & technology?” There have been moments in time when the outcomes of design & technological doing and thinking have had a profound effect on human history. For example, early in this narrative the development of cooking, the invention and development of simple tools from flint and bone, the ability to refine ores to produce metal, the ability to grow and farm crops and livestock, the production of shelters, and the development of clothing made huge differences to the quality of human life. Basic needs could be met more easily, leaving time and energy available to develop cultural identity through a wide range of creative and commercial activities. Subsequently there has been a succession of technological “revolutions”, the industrial revolution and the information revolution being among the most recent. These have all been enabled by humanity’s ability to envisage what might be and take action to realise these as yet unreached visions. So, any grand narratives of design & technology must consider imagination and intervention. Such imagining must of course be grounded in the realities of the physical universe; more and more the scientific understanding of the phenomena that constitute the physical universe underpin the interventions that result from the imagination. The variety and impact of the interventions are key components of the grand narratives. The interventions stemming from an imagined but not yet realised future reality might take many forms, with different degrees of success. And inevitably any intervention will have unintended consequences beyond its intended benefit. The story of humanity’s interventions, their variety and consequences both intentional and accidental provide the grand narratives of design & technology And they reveal the nature of the Big Ideas underpinning the subject:

  • Intervention in the natural and made worlds
  • How this intervention uses knowledge, skill and understanding from a wide range of sources, especially but not exclusively science and mathematics
  • That there are always many possible and valid solutions to technological and product development challenges, some of which will meet these challenges better than others
  • The worth of technologies and products developed by people is a matter of judgement
  • That technologies and products always have unintended consequences beyond intended benefit which cannot be fully predicted by those who develop them

These narratives can be explored through the history of specific technologies, through the lives of individual designers, engineers, architects, through the development of different civilisations, through investigating products as well as through the designing and making that children engage in.

callout-13We believe that each of these four arguments should inform a school design & technology curriculum. While an individual school’s circumstances may vary the relative significance of the arguments, to produce a curriculum that did not respond in part to each of them would be a curriculum that was lacking an important dimension. It seems to be the case, however, that too often the current justification for design & technology rests on the economic and personal arguments. As the above discussion makes clear, we have taken a strong view that these are not sufficient and, indeed, that relying on these two only puts the future of the subject at risk. By the same token, the cultural and social justifications seem underdeveloped in rationales for the subject. Significant effort needs to be made in developing these in ways that teachers can realistically use right from the start of the design & technology learning journey in KS1.

callout-14We further believe that meeting the totality of these arguments will be achieved by teaching children to achieve a combination of technological capability and technological perspective.

We define these as follows:

Technological capability is designer-maker capability, capturing the essence of technological activity as intervention in the made and natural worlds.

Technological perspective provides insight into ‘how technology works’ which informs a constructively critical view of technology, avoids alienation from our technologically based society and enables consideration of how technology might be used to provide products and systems that help create the sort of society in which pupils wish to live.

Finally, we note that to develop the cultural and social arguments within the design & technology curriculum is no small task. But, if we are right, then it is a task that cannot be left undone and the design & technology community will need to find the means within itself to undertake it.

Achieving clarity of purpose

Several eminent figures from industry have given their support for design & technology. Not surprisingly this support is often couched in terms of an economic argument. There are two dangers here.

callout-15The first danger is that the argument about purpose is often determined on the ground in schools through an assumption that the subject is vocational and, by implication, not suitable or desirable for who have shown themselves to be academically successful. So this narrowed focus has clearly failed to encourage these schools to see the subject as an important part of general education for all young people. However, if the other arguments (personal, social and cultural) that maintain that the subject should be embraced as a part of general education for all young people are successful, then they can be shown to support the economic argument: The more who study the subject the greater the pool from which industry may expect to draw young people into technical or design based careers. Hence it is important that those in industry who are advocates for the subject are aware of arguments other than the economic and use these arguments in their support of the subject.

The second danger is that limiting the number of academically successful young people who study design & technology means that many who go on to professional careers (lawyers, journalists, accountants etc.) will have missed out on the benefits of the subject. They may well be less sympathetic to the design and manufacturing industries.

There is a clear role for the Design & Technology Association here in the way it marshals support for the subject from the commercial world. It has the very important role of ensuring that the messages coming from influential and well-known figures in business and industry are not limited to economic arguments but include the other rationales, integrated into powerful and irresistible justifications for all young people to be educated in design & technology. This should not be thought of as the Association adopting a 1984 ‘thought police’ approach in censoring the views of business and industry but rather as an important opportunity to show the intellectual leadership the subject needs.


That the Design & Technology Association, along with key stakeholders in the d&t community, including those from the design and engineering industries, work together, including identifying the necessary funding, to marshal support for a broad view of the purposes of school design & technology to include personal, social and cultural as well as economic aims.

Previous: Sound epistemology

NextGood practice