Re-building D&T: Sound epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge; what we know, how we know it, and what it means to know something. Subject disciplines, both at school and ‘higher’ levels, are largely defined by a combination of the scope of knowledge they deal with and how that knowledge is established. Thus, to talk about design & technology as a subject means we need to be clear about the nature of knowledge in the subject.

Design & technology is rightly concerned with procedural knowledge (knowing how) but a neglect of the underlying conceptual knowledge (knowing that) has led to the subject being perceived as having less worth than other subjects in the curriculum and concerned only with skills. It is important to address this misconception and one way to do this is to clearly define ideas about design & technology (ideas that describe design & technology’s fundamental nature) and ideas of design & technology (ideas that form the conceptual knowledge underpinning of the subject).

We think of these as the Big Ideas in design & technology, and they are summarised in Figure 1, below.
Ideas about design & technology (its fundamental nature) might include:

  • callout-2Through design & technology people develop technologies and products to intervene in the natural and made worlds
  • Design & technology uses knowledge, skill and understanding from itself and a wide range of other sources, especially but not exclusively science and mathematics
  • 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
  • Technologies and products always have unintended consequences beyond intended benefit which cannot be fully predicted by those who develop them

Ideas of design & technology (its conceptual knowledge) might include:

  • callout-3Knowledge of materials
    • Sources
    • Properties
    • Footprint
    • Longevity
  • Knowledge of manufacturing
    • By subtraction
    • By addition
    • By forming
    • By assembly
    • With finishing
  • Knowledge of functionality
    • Powering
    • Controlling
    • Structuring
  • Knowledge of design
    • Identifying peoples’ needs and wants
    • Identifying market opportunities
    • Generating, developing and communicating design ideas
    • Evaluating design ideas
  • Knowledge of critique regarding impact
    • For justice
    • For stewardship

Our view is that “know how” uninformed by “know that” is not an appropriate epistemology for the subject. We believe it is incumbent upon us to identify and agree on a core body of knowledge, the learning and understanding of which enables young people to respond effectively through procedural knowledge to meeting the challenges of designing and making items of worth.

This is what we are trying to do by identifying and clarifying the Big Ideas for the subject. We hope that for most readers there is little to surprise here; what we have outlined reflects both recent and current national curriculum and GCSE subject content for design & technology.

The description of an epistemology for design & technology based on Big Ideas of and about the subject given here is, of necessity, at a high level of summary and lacking specifics. A more detailed description including some justification for its features is available as a separate Big Ideas Working Paper.

These Big Ideas are summarised diagrammatically below.


Achieving sound epistemology

callout-6Small-scale research in Australia (Williams & Lockley, 2012) indicated that science teachers relatively new to teaching had a clear and agreed grasp as to the nature of the subject they taught. This suggests that within the science teaching community there is orthodoxy about epistemology. The same research indicated that, in contrast to the science teachers, this was not the case for technology teachers. Subsequent parallel research in England revealed that in England, design & technology teachers also do not have an agreed understanding of the nature of their subject (Barlex & Steeg, 2013).

Establishing an agreed orthodoxy regarding the core of knowledge, understanding, skills and values that provide a sound foundation for the school subject design & technology is extremely important. Without this the design & technology community of practice will always be divided as to the fundamental nature of the subject. It was an awareness of this situation that led the Expert Panel (Department for Education, 2011), set up by the then Minister of Education Michael Gove, to advise that design & technology should not be included as a core subject in the National Curriculum in England. A major task for the design & technology community of practice is, therefore, to identify a design & technology subject knowledge orthodoxy that teachers, teacher trainers, and CPD providers can believe in strongly and use to underpin all the teaching, learning, teacher training and professional development that takes place. We emphasise here that it is important that this orthodoxy values both procedural and conceptual knowledge. We believe it is incumbent upon us to identify a body of knowledge the learning and understanding of which enables young people to respond effectively through procedural knowledge to meeting the challenges of designing and making items of worth. We also believe that acquiring procedural knowledge can be taught just as much as conceptual knowledge. The National Curriculum Programme of Study for design & technology and the new single title design & technology GCSE have been written with the aim of identifying this procedural and conceptual orthodoxy. There is no doubt that establishing this orthodoxy will be a challenge but it is one to which the profession must respond. We believe that the Design & Technology Association, under the direction of its new CEO, should address this task with some urgency.

callout-7We also emphasise that it will be essential not to confuse the identification of epistemological orthodoxy with agreement over the reasons why the subject should be taught, that is, its purpose within the curriculum. A pervasive orthodoxy as to what should be taught can be interpreted through pedagogy to reflect the several reasons for teaching the subject. In this way, teaching can be aligned to meeting the needs of different groups of young people without compromising the agreed orthodoxy of the subject. By taking this forward the Design & Technology Association would be showing much needed intellectual leadership at a time of significant change.


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 establish and promote an agreed orthodoxy regarding the core of knowledge, understanding, skills and values that underpin school design & technology.


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