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Is there a Design & Technology worth returning to?

Discussion in 'Design and technology' started by robert_whitelock, Apr 21, 2019.

  1. robert_whitelock

    robert_whitelock New commenter

    I write this post as a teacher of Art, Design and Technology at an international school in Spain, contemplating a return to the UK and asking if it is wise to do so?
    Having left school in 1982, I trained, qualified and worked as an Architectural Technician for several years before making the choice to put myself through teacher training at Sheffield City Polytechnic. Although grants, burseries and access funds made this a more attractive proposition than today, with two small children to raise it was still a challenge not without risk. Particularly given the shortage of teaching positions available that time.
    I entered the profession at what was an exciting time for D&T, with the subject having been granted compulsory status with the introduction of the National Curriculum.
    27 years on I find myself reading about the current state of D&T in English schools in the same confused, bewildered way that someone who had returned to their birth place and found it did not exist anymore would.
    I read the latest D&T examination syllabus and vision a learning experience drier than an over cooked Christmas turkey with no gravy. 15% Maths? Graphics and textiles students forced to learn about mechanisms and the same old approach that despite new buzz jargon such as ‘Iterative’*, will continue to be assessed as a linear model by exam boards because that is the only way it can be marked. (Incidentally, for those new to D&T, Iterative Design is not a new concept but was first muted in 1990 by Professor Richard Kimbell - interaction of hand and mind.
    I ask myself on whose watch this took place and, having taught the subject for almost 20 years must share some responsibility. However, I believe it is the subject itself that is to blame or rather those charged with its management. Key protagonists, in an effort to make the subject important, were always keen to make D&T more difficult than it needed to be. This continues today - simply look at any of the D&T exam syllabus (they are practically identical anyway) to see where the people leading this once great subject have allowed it to end up.
    To me, Design and Technology will always be about designing and making. (Not the percentage saving of an LED lamp over a tungsten filament lamp).
    I purposefully called myself a teacher of Art, Design & Technology at the start of this post because that is where I believe the future of true designing and making lies.
    I have been fortunate through occasional returns working in industry to realise designing and making in the real world has retained its integrity.
    The nearest schools can offer to this is through an Art & Design - Three Dimensional Design approach. My hope is that Art & Design will welcome D&T teachers who recognise theirs is the best way forward.
    mary-sylvia and Geoff-o like this.
  2. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    Hello Robert. Like you I feel a great sense of loss over what DT has become. At GCSE, all the specialities, RM, Electronic products, Graphic products etc have all been merged under a single title that mixes a hodge-podge of bits from this speciality and that speciality with little overall coherence and little to get your teeth into in terms of finding the time in a content heavy course to do some meaningful practical work.

    Worse still, such is the diversity of the content that university graduates lack the skills to teach it without cramming up knowledge that they would not have encountered on their university or even school courses. I am firmly convinced that this shambles of a course had led to the collapse in DT teacher recruitment which stands at just 26% of target for this academic year.

    I had a year trying to teach this wretched course but absolutely hated it because I didn't have the expertise to teach the range of knowledge required, the content consisted of a lot of meaningless lists for the students to learn and it was unspeakably tedious to teach and to learn.

    Indeed, the Art and Design route may be the way to go to get students to be creative but as for DT, as a subject in schools it can only be described as moribund, clinging on in places by its fingernails but generally only a few years away from disappearing altogether.
    mary-sylvia and alex_teccy like this.
  3. Ex-teacher

    Ex-teacher Occasional commenter

    We've had this conversation before, haven't we Mr Shedman, and we whole heartedly agree with each other!

    It's sad, very sad.
  4. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    Yes we've had this conversation before and the more I think on it the angrier I get! I have a young pre-school grandson and when I think of what lies before him in the state education system I despair for him. A diet of English, Maths, Languages, Sciences and History or Geography. The drilling and practice for tests.

    Where has the love of learning gone and learning for its own sake rather than learning for a test score or exam? DT was one of those subjects that gave students an opportunity to think for themselves, solve their own problems and come up with something that was original and something they 'owned'. Schooling is becoming/has become the simple regurgitation of facts, a quest for ever better test results resulting in a soulless, gradgrind experience.

    Where are our future generation of British engineers and designers going to come from if there is no introduction to these skills in our schools?
    alex_teccy, BW12345 and Ex-teacher like this.
  5. Duke of York

    Duke of York Star commenter

    I attended secondary school in the 60s, when what was to become known as D&T, had a mix of around 10% technical drawing, 10% theory and 80% designing and making. I subsequently spent most of my working life in technology, quite a bit of that in high-tech applications for medicine.

    I had no idea when I was at school that the career I would end up in existed, that it would be more engaging, enjoyable and satisfying as well as lucrative, than any other career I might have embarked on, but I wouldn't have lasted five minutes in that career without the basic designing and making skills I'd learnt at school.

    It always gets overlooked that D&T if done properly, supplements the core subjects by making them relevant. I wouldn't have got far in engineering of any sort without a grounding in maths English and science. Nor I think it's true to say would I have understood the purpose of maths English and science so well, without being able to see applications for them, which D&T can provide in spades, if allowed to.

    But let's forget about careers for a moment and think about the advantages that a knowledge of design and technology can bring to everyday life.

    Just the knowledge of how to use tools enabled me to get through life when the chips were down by fixing stuff around the home and improving my homes. Whilst I appreciate art and music and can do both to a limited extent, they have never been as beneficial or rewarding to me or my family as D&T has been.

    I can say in all honesty, now that I've gained an insight into how my life could have panned out differently, had I never been taught anything about design or technology, that I would live my life over again exactly the same way.

    Finally, I'd like to suggest there are ample opportunities to give an inspiring insight into D&T without costly equipment, or even tools, by explaining in simple terms, how things work. Compare for example, the value of using a laser cutter to make pointless clock faces in a D&T lesson to that of an explanation of how the laser cutter is able to do it.

    From my own background in medical technology, I could describe how an ecg monitor or spirometer works, why hospitals use them and what diagnostic information is gleaned from them, without the need to have either in the classroom.
    BW12345 and Shedman like this.
  6. robert_whitelock

    robert_whitelock New commenter

  7. robert_whitelock

    robert_whitelock New commenter

    Thank you all for the interesting comments on this thread.
    I do remain positive for the future - not with the current synthesis of D&T but moreover at the prospect of how the subject could evolve from here. However, I must add a 'subject to' clause to my positivity - subject to the D&T 'experts' that have done so much harm to the subject over the past 29 years stop meddling in a bid to justify their own importance and stop trying to make the subject something it can never be. On my first teaching practice, a teacher claimed that education is like 'a wheel' - stay in it for long enough and you return to where you started. I tend to agree but I would hope that we learn from the bad judgments of the past. Let us accept D&T for what it is, a subject with its roots firmly embedded in designing and making and move ahead with the confidence that the subject has the strength to speak for itself but only to people who choose to listen.
    Ex-teacher and Shedman like this.
  8. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    Well said sir!
  9. Ex-teacher

    Ex-teacher Occasional commenter

    Fully agree, and wish all those left "in" the best of luck...
  10. Duke of York

    Duke of York Star commenter

    I'm not a D&T teacher, but know a lot about how stuff is made. I am sitting at a desk cluterred with all sorts of stuff, as my desks have always been.

    Occasionally when I'm on the phone, waiting to get put through to customer services or whatever, I pick things up to study all the processes that went into making them, consider why they were designed the way they were and whether the design could be improved.

    Over the years, I got to know quite a few D&T teachers and discussed with them the way their subject had been going. I've been to schools where D&T had been relegated to the art dept and all the time I've been asking myself what goes on in the minds of those who plan what the curriculum should provide, what is required to get GCSE grades and why so many young D&T teachers now lack even the basic knowledge of how stuff is made.

    Back in the early 90s, a neighbour who was good with his hands, skilled in most things you'd expect a D&T teacher to know, sufferred an injury that cramped his style as a self-employed man, so he went on a teacher training course for what was then known as CDT, Craft, Design and Technology. He left after a few months and described to me what a farce it was.

    He said that all the equipment he had expected to be using from his own school days had gone, because it had been deemed to be too dangerous to use.

    My next insight into D&T came around 2000 when I had joined a company that among many other activities sold laser cutters. I was approached by a school that wanted one. Shortly after I received lots of enquiries for them. It was the start of the laser cutter revolution in schools.

    Among the teachers I sold these machines to was one who knew exactly what the attraction of laser cutter was and explained it to me.

    Someone high up had decided in the early 90s, that schools ought to be equipping the kids they taught with skills for the future, which was going to be CAD/CAM, so into the D&T curriculum went a requirement that schools taught this.

    At the time that decision was made, computer-controlled machinery was way beyond the reach of a school budget, but the companies that had originally been supplying machinery to schools saw it an opportunity to revive their fortunes and started producing low-cost Mickey Mouse machines that promised the earth so far as the curriculum was concerned, but failed to deliver. The main reason being that they were underpowered and took an eternity to complete a job.

    I learnt that they were too complicated for kids to use, that teachers could never get the time off teaching to be properly trained in using them, that it was common for the technician to run the jobs overnight and return the next day to find that the cutter had broken or become so worn that the stresses it imparted on the workpiece caused it to become adrift from the double-sided adhesive tape it was held to the bed by.

    The net result was that when I began installing laser cutters in schools, I saw lots of these machines gathering dust. What had been perceived about laser cutters was that their speed would enable to tick the box in the curriculum requirement that all the kids had some experience of CNC, even though the stuff they were making was naff.

    Call me old-fashioned if you like, but unless the basics of milling and turning are understood, it's ridiculous to imagine that you can teach anyone to use computer-controlled lathes, milling machines and routers.

    Call me old-fashioned twice if you like, when I tell you that industrial applications for laser cutters are relatively small and all the projects that D&T teachers invent for their use, would never be given the time of day in a real-life design and technology business.

    I know this because I sold loads of these machines to businesses. The vast majority of those businesses only needed them for about 1% of their manufacturing processes. The most successful businesses that used them as their main means of production made acrylic jewellery and wooden sunglasses, but I sold them to some of out most high-tech businesses too, who used them for things beyond the imagination of anyone in a school.

    An example of this is a company that manufactures high-tech, screen-printed, flexible circuit boards using inks impregnated with precious conductive metals. They were working on designs for car seats that would measure the weight of the individual sitting in them so that airbags in the car would inflate at a rate that wouldn't cause a passenger worse injuries than they'd sustain if the airbag wasn't there.

    I did some experiments for a leading F1 racing team in engraving encoders onto wheel bearing hubs to help with traction control.

    A company that makes most of the chips used in satelite navigation systems, including those used in ensuring missiles reach their intended targets, needed a laser cutter to separate chips produced in bulk on a single curcuit board into individual items.

    This is the real world of technology. It's not making silly clock faces or games. Until the education system gets a grip on what technology expects from it, you're fighting a losing battle.

    Call me a Philistine as well as old-fashioned if you want to. I'm afraid I can't get my head around what the point of inspiring kids to think about the Stark lemon squeezer is, when it's bleeding useless for squeezing lemons.

    Is all that British designers are capable of learning these days is style over substance?

    What's it all about?
    BW12345 likes this.
  11. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    An interesting read DOY. Actually, we got a lot of use out of the laser cutter at my old school but there again, it was a quality machine that the parents association coughed up for. The students would made nice laser cut enclosures for their electronic projects, the RM lot would laser cut chess pieces and boards and lower down the school the students would make spice racks and clock faces. It gave students the experience of using 2D design software and I think they learned a lot from it. They would be fascinated just watching the laser head cut out their design. Unfortunately the cost of maintaining it and replacing the laser meant that the machine fell into disuse. A great shame.
    BW12345 likes this.
  12. Duke of York

    Duke of York Star commenter

    I'm sure you did, @Shedman. Don't get me wrong, laser cutters can be very useful tools and are invaluable for certain industrial applications. My gripe isn't about schools owning them if they can afford them. It's about the nonsense behind why schools rushed out to buy them and how they allowed schools to pretend kids justified grades they hadn't really earned.

    On my travels, I met a chief examiner for D&T and spent a fair bit of time in his company over the years. He picked my brain a lot over how to get the best out of them and told me a lot about what he would regard as justifying a good mark for projects they'd been used in. He also told me about schools he'd visited where the kids never used the machine, or even saw it being used, as it had been deemed too expensive to let them loose on.

    I heard of other schools that couldn't afford a laser cutter but were collaborating with schools that had one by emailing files to have them cut out by the technician.

    Getting back to what the examiner regarded as worthy of a good mark, he cited an instance where a kid had taken a lot of trouble in her design to compensate for the kerf the laser produces. He also pointed to examples where the laser work wasn't everything about a project, as indeed it isn't in industry, but was the icing on the cake.

    The issue for me isn't about the tool, it's about the curriculum requirement to teach CAD/CAM when it isn't being taught in a representative manner of how CAD/CAM is actually used. It's also about the inequality where kids who go to well-funded schools can do better than those who can't afford the same equipment and what they miss out on learning about, thanks to the notion they have to do CAD/CAM whatever.

    I have a further gripe in that the issue of CAD/CAM opened the door to every charlatan salesman to make a killing out of schools, as they did with the Mickey Mouse CNC routers they flogged, but nowadays are rarely used or supported.

    At one point in my life, I shared a stand at the BETT show with a company that sold CNC routers, since they were interested in becoming agents for a product my company made. They had a router going through the motions of cutting out an intricate totem pole, i.e. the totem pole was in the chuck of a three-axis router and the machine wasn't actually cutting it, just following the final pass. It was interesting to watch, but completely pointless, apart from being able to sell the dream of what the machine might do. I asked the guy who was demonstrating it how long it had taken him to do the design and he admitted he hadn't designed it, but had downloaded it off the Internet. What a sham.

    The above is an example of what laser cutters are actually used for. It's a poor photo, but you see the black part in the centre, it's a piece of 0.002" mylar sheet. The item is a turbine flow transducer which you can get another view of here.

    The white part spins the air blown through it and causes the black vane to spin. An optical pair counts the number of times the vane passes them, which is proportional to the air flow. Mylar was chosen because it's light enough to be responsive to sudden changes and not have the mass to overrun significantly.

    The Mylar part needs to be accurately produced to get reliable results, but 0.002" Mylar sheet is a sod to work with unless you have a laser to cut it with precision.

    It's an essential part of the product, but amounts to about 0.0001% of the manufacturing cost. It costs more to have the Mylar screen printed black than the cost of having the parts cut out of the sheet.

    I don't know if you see where I'm coming from here. The product shown is something that was designed and developed by someone I worked with, who went to school at the same time I did in the 60s, had the arrse hanging out his pants like I did and went on to change forever, the way that lung function is both diagnosed and treated.

    He was once a kid who got shouted at for leaving the chuck key in the chuck when he turned the lathe on so it ended up clouting the teacher's hand as he went to light his pipe, but he never did it twice.

    That guy was the most inventive person I ever knew, went on to make millions when he sold his company and the last time I spoke to him, he said he was bored with his fortune and was back developing new applications for technology.

    So where are we now with D&T? Who forgot that CNC machines are driven by electronics, which few schools now teach?

    Who took their eye off the ball that being an expert in using 2D Design won't do anyone a favour in real life, since it's unheard of outside schools.

    What's the bleedin' point of that? Why not teach kids how to use design software that everyone uses in real life?

    I'll tell you why it happens. It's because this Mickey Mouse software was developed to flog Mickey Mouse machinery to schools so they could meet a Mickey Mouse curriculum requirement. If anyone thinks Brexit is a farce, they ought to look first at what's been done to destroy our schools' ability to produce talent to turn the economy around after the banks and our politicians have sodded it up for good.
    BW12345, ebaddo and Shedman like this.
  13. elksnow

    elksnow New commenter

    Joining this late, but to throw in my penny's worth... I am leaving after 15 years because of the new D&T GCSE. I see this as the beginning of the end and it morphing into an exam only subject. I have devoted most of my time - to the detriment to my family - to promoting the subject in schools and can proudly say that there are many young people at university and design careers because of my and colleagues' input. Sad times... avoid entering in to this if at all possible. On the upside there seems to be a shortage of D&T teachers so you'd get work!
    Shedman likes this.
  14. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    Hello elksnow, like you (see post #2 on this thread) it was the appallingly wretched GCSE course that saw me out of teaching and into blessed retirement. Trying to get through the content in a meaningful way meant there was little time for any worthwhile practical work and the students, who had been anticipating a good bit of 'hands on' work were instead sat in front of stuff on a whiteboard and learning lots of lists.

    During the consultation on the content of the new single title DT GCSE, I told them straight that such a diverse, content heavy course would lead to the death of worthwhile DT in schools but my view was given little heed. DATA (Design And Technology Association for the uninitiated) fully backed this disastrous course and was heavily involved in the course content and structure to it's eternal shame. It has basically destroyed DT in schools turning DT into just another classroom based subject full of dreary fact learning leaving students ill-prepared to attempt their final project which now has to be an iterative process with I assume involves making and refining multiple prototypes which are whittled down to a final product. Where exactly the time and the resources for this type of process will come from I know not.

    Recruitment to DT teacher training courses has collapsed to 26% of target this year, experienced teachers like you and me are leaving in droves and there is no university course that teaches the range of knowledge and skills required to teach this abysmal GCSE course so where are the graduates or mature entrants going to come from to be DT teachers of the future?

    RIP DT in schools.
    Geoff-o, BW12345 and elksnow like this.
  15. elksnow

    elksnow New commenter

    Shedman, very well put- I completely agree, this course has bored both the kids and me. Masses of theory with no depth to any of it, topped off with a disappointing make.
    Roll on 5 years and they'll be wondering why we have no inventors, designers & engineers. Personally though, I've had to move on for my own sanity. Marking my very last A level folders this weekend and feeling end of termish about that at least.
    Geoff-o, BW12345 and Shedman like this.
  16. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    Good luck in your new career outside of teaching elksnow. You take with you a multitude of skills that future employers will really value and hopefully you will be far more fulfilled than you were in the teaching results ratrace. Every best wish.
    BW12345 and elksnow like this.
  17. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    BW12345 likes this.
  18. Ex-teacher

    Ex-teacher Occasional commenter


    I do wonder if some of the drop is due to some schools not being able to recruit the staff to offer the courses anymore... rather like a chicken and egg scenario.... no staff, no course, entries fallen, no need fro staff..., rather than purely students not choosing the subject, although I fear in future years when the new syllabus is understood by students this will happen further.

    For instance, in my leafy part of the country down south, all 4 of the nearest schools are advertising for d+t teachers, 1 through retirement, the other 3 from staff being "poached" by other schools, nearer to where the teachers live. Management has made no effort to retain these staff, and now wonders where they will get replacements from. Answer, I fear.... they wont and so the subject will be dropped...
  19. Duke of York

    Duke of York Star commenter

    I suspect there's an element of that, but I'd urge everyone in education to spend ten minutes listening to this Point of View episode https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b08bbpr5 and ask themselves how easily the effective teaching of technology fits in with the tick box approach of assessment and grading so beloved of schools these days.

    I had a very rewarding career in technology. I enjoyed it mostly because it gave me the opportunity to be inventive and creative. Not ticking any boxes, but thinking outside the box. I was able to do so, partly as a consequence of being exposed to a myriad of making skills that sadly are not being covered in schools these days.

    In the many visits I made to D&T depts all over the country, I saw little to enthuse students to believe that they too could one day be the designers of the technology of the future.

    Talking with their teachers, most of whom will have been educated themselves since technology became an undervalued and underskilled subject, I wasn't particularly impressed by the depth of knowledge they had about how anything is actually made in real life.

    Everywhere I went I saw gadgets of one sort or other that had been purchased in the hope that adding style over substance might warrant an extra mark. Kids are not stupid. They know that adding a sublimation print to a piece of pointless tat only, at best, results in a prettier bit of pointless tat.

    It's no surprise that entries are falling.
    Shedman likes this.
  20. Shedman

    Shedman Star commenter

    For most subjects taught at secondary level, the name of the subject gives an indication of the degree required to teach that subject - English, Maths, History etc. OK, many maths and science teachers have degrees in engineering or other related subjects but the knowledge required to teach the subject is part of the degree content.

    However, for the new technology GCSE courses, the range of content is so diverse that no university course covers a sufficiently large part of the content for new graduates to feel confident in teaching DT. In addition, as I have reiterated many times on these forums, the amount of content and its tedious nature does little to inspire new teachers to take up the subject. The running down of school workshops and technician support along with a content heavy, list learning GCSE specification is closing down opportunities for meaningful and engaging practical work for the students.

    Chickens and eggs? Well, lack of practical opportunities and diverse and tedious subject content may be putting new recruits off leading to a dearth of new DT teachers which leads to a decline of the subject in schools with less practical and more classroom based instruction which leads to an even more tedious DT experience for students and so on.

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