Re-building D&T: Sound epistemology

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).
Ideas about design & technology 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 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

Taken together the ideas about and the ideas of design & technology are the subject’s Big Ideas (Harlen et al, 2010). These Big Ideas are summarised diagrammatically below.


Barlex (2014) provides a detailed justification for this approach to design & technology and for the content of the ideas about and ideas of design & technology education.

Achieving sound epistemology

callout-6Small-scale research in Australia (Williams and 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 indicates that within the science teaching community there is orthodoxy about epistemology. In contrast to the science teachers, the research indicated that this was not the case for technology teachers. Parallel research (Barlex and Steeg 2013) has revealed a similar situation exists for design & technology teachers in England.

Establishing an agreed orthodoxy regarding the knowledge, understanding, skills and values that make up 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 (DfE, 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. So, a major task for the design & technology community of practice is to identify a design & technology subject knowledge orthodoxy that the majority of teachers, teacher trainers, CPD providers can believe in strongly and use to underpin all the teaching, learning, teacher training and professional development that takes place. This will be no mean feat, but it is one which the Design & Technology Association under the direction of its new CEO should address with some urgency.

callout-7We 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 i.e. 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 nature of the subject. By taking this forward the Design & Technology Association would be showing much needed intellectual leadership at a time of significant change.

Recommendation to the D&TA

Establish an agreed orthodoxy regarding the knowledge, understanding, skills and values for school design & technology.


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