Re-building D&T: Necessary but not sufficient

As noted in the introduction, this is the second version of this paper. We published the first version in December 2016 with an invitation to the design& technology community to comment. We hoped this would lead not only to improvements in the document but also provide a better representation of the views of that community. We are very grateful to those who made time to provide critique, in some cases of very generous length.

While all respondents had considerable sympathy with the structure and contents of v1 of the Re-building paper, several pointed to areas they felt had been omitted. Some of these omissions were deliberate on our part, as we wanted to maintain focus on the key features necessary for re-building and at the same time keep the paper as short as was reasonably possible. Some areas hadn’t been considered during the writing but, having had them brought to our attention, we still feel that we can’t give them adequate attention in this paper whilst maintaining focus and reasonable brevity. We do want, however, to both acknowledge the importance of these aspects of design & technology education and at least note their outlines here.

The key suggested additions included the following:

  • Assessment of the subject,
  • Initial teacher education and recruitment,
  • Capacity of the profession to respond,
  • Radical re-vision,
  • The possibility of political change.

In the sections that follow, each of these is considered briefly to ensure that they do not become forgotten in the wake of reactions to Re-building design & technology v2.

Assessment of design & technology

We deliberately avoided exploring assessment because we wanted to establish what to teach, why to teach and how to teach so that the assessment tail didn’t end up wagging the curriculum dog. It is obvious, however, that assessment is a key issue. We do believe that considerable progress has been made recently in assessment of design & technology without levels in relation to tracking progress and giving feedback to the key stakeholders, pupils and parents/carers. We also know there is considerable variation in the ways that schools approach this. We believe that it is important that methods of assessment are responsive to both what is being assessed and how this is being taught. It is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all-subjects approach across a school will be of benefit – and that not all school leaders understand this [See for instance https://dandtfordandt.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/tracking-pupil-progress-in-design-technology/]. It is important to note that the assessment for the new single title GCSE appears strong on assessing procedural competence regarding the Non-Examined Assessment. Developing robust assessment of conceptual knowledge in the written paper remains a challenge.

Initial Teacher Education and recruitment

We wanted to concentrate on re-building the subject and felt that dealing with Initial Teacher Education (ITE) and recruitment would distract from the key re-building features. This in no way lessens our view that both the nature of ITE and recruitment to it are serious issues. There is little doubt that ITE has become highly fragmented and the many and varied routes into teaching are confusing for potential applicants. Also, it is clear that a one-year programme provides insufficient time for trainees to acquire the breadth of basic subject knowledge they will need. This is clearly a cause for concern. It is noteworthy that in some other countries (e.g., Malta) the post-graduate qualification required to become a design & technology teacher is a full-time two-year Masters programme.

There is also no doubt that recruitment to ITE has been falling significantly for several consecutive years. But the government report that there is no shortage of D&T teachers. The presumed explanation for this apparent contradiction is that where design & technology teachers can’t easily be replaced, schools are simply contracting D&T departments – being under no pressure by current accountability measures to maintain the subject at full strength. This is clearly a huge worry for the subject. If, however, we can re-build so that there is sound epistemology, clarity of purpose, good practice and informed stakeholders then the status of the subject will increase, more parents will support it, it will gain wider status in industry, and more young people will want to study it. This will impact on both the nature of ITE and recruitment; what you might call a “market pull” argument. So we see re-building as an essential pre-requisite to improving ITE and recruitment. The recommendations relating to ‘Teacher trainers and CPD providers’ are relevant to these concerns.

Capacity of the profession to respond

We noted concerns that design & technology teachers and departments are under so much pressure from curriculum reform, the knock-on effects of national assessment policies such as the EBacc and recruitment problems that they may not have energy to grapple with re-building the subject.

We do have confidence that the majority of design & technology teachers and subject leaders in schools have the potential to rise to the challenge of re-building the subject. But they will not be able to do this alone or unaided. We strongly believe that given support, each design & technology department in every secondary school can contribute to re-establishing the subject as one of significant worth for all young people and reverse the trend in GCSE uptake. This is a task that will require schools to reform their curriculum from the beginning of Year 7, with individual teachers acquiring more extensive subject and pedagogic knowledge and sharing this knowledge by working much more collaboratively in teams. These changes will not be achieved without sustained and substantial CPD.

It is worth noting that there are many able, recently appointed heads of department who will be able to, and will need to, make a significant contribution to this CPD. It is important that these “young Turks” are identified and enabled to play a full part in re-building and taking on leadership of the subject. The recommendations relating to ‘Achieving Good Practice’ are relevant to these concerns.

Radical re-vision

We have noted in the Introduction to this paper that we see re-building as a pre-requisite to radical revision. We have deliberately adopted a pragmatic approach which we hope is both inspirational and realistic within the current educational landscape. This does not mean that we are averse to curriculum development that might lead to radical revision. We note that several respondents to v1 of the paper are keen to see a sketch of a future for design & technology that is more visionary, attempting to create a picture of a more ideal world of schooling. This is completely laudable and we would want to be involved. It will, however, only take place in the event of a considerable change in the political climate relating to the nature and purpose of schools and schooling. Which brings us to the final area of omission; the possibility of political change.

The possibility of political change

Neil Postman (1996) writes compellingly about the purpose of schooling:

[S]omething can be done in school that will alter the lenses through which one sees the world; which is to say, that non-trivial schooling can provide a point of view from which what is can be seen clearly, what was as a living present, and what will be as filled with possibility. . . . What this means is that at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from making a living. Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it, and our commerce despises it. Nevertheless, it is the weightiest and most important thing to write about. (p. x)

This view of schools and schooling is, we think, inspirational, but is more than a little removed from the current situation in most secondary schools in England. The importance of qualifications and the performance of schools in enabling their pupils to gain them ride high, almost to the exclusion of all else. And it is this exclusion of all else that has such a debilitating effect on both teachers and pupils. It’s not that qualifications aren’t important. Of course, they are. Yet as far as the overall purpose of schooling is concerned they are necessary but not sufficient.

There should be, as Postman indicates, so much more to schooling.  Design & technology has to operate effectively in the current political environment and in response to the prevailing requirements. But it is important that it does this in a way that is true to its intrinsic nature and does not lose sight of the part it could play if political change took place and schools were viewed differently. Keri Facer (2011) has presented an interesting and radical vision of the school and its place in the community. Her vision would place design & technology at the very centre of schools’ relationships with their local communities. Hence it is important that all members of the community of practice are prepared to respond positively to such political change, should it arise. It is for this reason that we made the recommendation relating to ‘wise men and women’ and the need for regular, well-informed strategic advice.

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