Re-building D&T: Good practice

The following sentences, derived from the writings of Jacob Bronowski in his seminal work, The Ascent of Man (1973), provide a powerful justification for teaching the subject that touches on all four of the arguments noted in the previous section (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 underlined words and phrases in the justification have considerable implications for the subject as shown in the table  below. These implications in turn inform the pedagogies that will be appropriate.


Four broad activities are generally recognised as being required to make up an appropriate pedagogy: designing and making, making without designing, designing without making and considering consequences.

Designing and making

This is often seen as the heartland of design & technology education, although it does not reflect the reality of technological activity in the world outside school, where those who design artefacts are usually not those who manufacture them.

The decision making that pupils need to undertake when they are designing and making has been described (Barlex, 2007) as involving five key areas of interdependent design decision: conceptual (overall purpose of the design, the sort of product that it will be), technical (how the design will work), aesthetic (what the design will look like), constructional (how the design will be put together) and marketing (who the design is for, where it will be used, how it will be sold). This is shown diagrammatically in Figure 2.


callout-17The interdependence of these areas is an important feature of design decisions, as change of decision within one area will affect some if not all of design decisions that are made within the others. It is the juggling of these various decisions to arrive at a coherent design proposal that can then be realised to the point of fully working prototype that provides the act of designing and making with intellectual rigour and educational worth and makes it an essential part of technology education.

The Nuffield Design & Technology Project coined the term “capability task” for designing and making assignments as it was through attempting such tasks that young people would develop and reveal their technological capability. The Project was very clear as to the need for this activity to be underpinned by two broad areas of knowledge: knowledge of the problem and knowledge for the solution. [See the Nuffield Project’s KS3 and KS4 materials.]

Knowledge of the problem

This is usually specific to the problem being addressed and needs to be found by exploring the situation in which the problem is embedded. It cannot be ‘looked up’ in a general design & technology reference text.

Knowledge for the solution

This can be more easily recognised and acquired, in that for any domain of design & technology it does not change as the design task changes. Gears, for example, behave in the same way, in terms of principle whether they are used in a child’s toy, a lawn mower or a motor car although the detailed arrangement and robustness of the gearing system developed to operate in these artefacts will be different.

To ensure that students had the practical and intellectual resources with which to be capable, the Nuffield Project devised a wide range of resource tasks which could be used to teach design strategies, technical knowledge and understanding and making skills. It is the learning through resource tasks that enables young people to make sound design decisions.

Making without designing

callout-18This also has a place in the pedagogy. Imagine an activity in which Year 7 pupils make (and then fly) a kite. The teacher has provided the plans for the kite and if followed faithfully they are known to produce a kite that flies well. What might a pupil learn from making a simple kite? They would certainly learn making skills involving textiles and resistant materials. Given the nature of kites there is the possibility of teaching about forces in structures as well as key aspects of health and safety. If pupils are given a choice of materials, there is the possibility of carrying out investigations into properties and using the results to decide on which materials to use – both for the fabric and the frame. So, this making without designing activity is very rich in learning Big Ideas of design & technology as well as acquiring making skill and almost certainly highly enjoyable for the pupils.

Designing without making

This approach was developed extensively by the Young Foresight project as the means to improve the ability to communicate design ideas, cultivate creativity and enable collaboration in design & technology lessons [See the Young Foresight materials]. The independent evaluations (Murphy 2013) of designing without making have shown that young people do not necessarily require ‘something to take home’. Pupils respond enthusiastically to working collaboratively to develop design ideas providing they know at the outset that that they would not be going to make their designs. In fact, this ‘not requiring to make’ was welcomed by the pupils as it released them from the constraints of the materials and equipment available in their school workshops.

An important feature of this approach is that pupils themselves decide on the need or want they want to address and make conceptual design decisions accordingly, which provides ownership and motivation. However, the pupils do have to justify their ideas in terms of feasibility, meeting needs and wants, acceptability to society and marketability.

Considering consequences

The opportunity for pupils to consider the consequences of technology and the impact this has on society in general and their lives is an important element of design & technology. Critique is one of the Big Ideas that underpin the subject. It is through learning to critique that young people will be enabled to partake in and contribute to on-going debates about what we do with the technology at our disposal.

callout-19A simple “winners and losers” analysis, to identify the impact of a product or technology on those who it might affect, is a very powerful way of engaging young people in considering consequences. Identification of “winners and losers” features in both the Nuffield Design & Technology Project and Young Foresight.
We note that it is fairly straightforward to assess each of these types of activity, providing the teacher is clear about the learning intentions underpinning the activity.


In summary, any ‘grand plan’ for a design & technology curriculum will need to give each of these four activities appropriate significance. Depending on the age and stage of the pupils the relative significance of these components may vary within each year of the course but there is a strong case that each should be present to some degree within each year.

Achieving good practice

callout-20Teachers are introduced to the features of good practice in their initial training but inevitably there is only a limited appreciation of what this entails. Once a teacher is in post, he or she develops further good practice through their day-to-day teaching and learning from colleagues. This is further enhanced through appropriate CPD. However, it is essential to realize that good practice cannot be achieved in isolation from sound epistemology and clarity of purpose. Any department wishing to develop good practice must first establish agreed statements on what it will be teaching in the subject and why it is teaching the subject. Only once these are established can a department develop an appropriate pedagogy.

Hence any CPD that is provided by the Design & Technology Association or others whose aim is to achieve good practice will need to take all three features into account.

Visually this can be represented as three vectors of ‘what’ ‘why’ and ‘how’ (Figure 3). If we imagine a school department’s journey towards better and better practice, these three vectors of activity need to be considered together in the planning and provision of appropriate CPD. Movement along any one vector will be dependent on movement along the other two vectors.


Given the confusion surrounding the epistemology of the subject and the purposes for which it is taught, it is essential that as much as possible of the CPD provision available in the immediate future should consider each of these three features.

As an orthodoxy about epistemology is reached and the variety of reasons for teaching the subject become more widely understood this requirement may be relaxed with concentration more on how we teach and a focus on those aspects of what we teach that are seen as necessary or relevant at the time. Developing Great Teaching (Teacher Development Trust 2015) provides a useful summary of research into what constitutes effective professional development for teachers and the DfE has published Standard for teachers’ professional development (2016) which reflects the research findings. Two key points are that professional development programmes should be sustained over time and must be prioritised by school leadership. In addition, recent summaries of research into effective teaching practices include those from the Sutton Trust (Coe et al, 2014) and Hattie & Yates (2013); good CPD will need to take these lessons into account.

callout-21The sort of professional development supported by research and envisaged by the DfE goes much further than providing a single day of advice about enhancing students’ public examination performance, for example (important though this is). Hence it is vital that design & technology departments are supported in creating a sustained and substantial professional development programme. Such a programme should support the individual needs of teachers within the department and simultaneously develop good practice across the department and contribute to the modernization of the design & technology curriculum.

It is here that we become torn between the ideal situation – regular, related CPD sessions over time with the opportunity to explore and evaluate the impact of changes in practice and the pragmatic reality of what most schools can afford, both in terms of the time available for teacher release and the finances available for CPD. One strategy to overcome these difficulties is for schools to collaborate through common CPD days as is done by some teaching school alliances and MATs. The Design & Technology Association has some key roles to play in promoting good CPD to SLTs and in providing CPD that meets the research and DfE criteria for effectiveness. A further important role for the Design & Technology Association will be in establishing non-governmental financial support to underwrite at least some of the costs of such high-quality CPD.

Recommendations to the D&TA

Promote and provide CPD that meets the research criteria for effectiveness.

Establish financial support for effective CPD.

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