Intelligent Design [Technology]

 Hello everyone!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about one of my least favourite subjects and how I ultimately learned to appreciate it (don't get me wrong; I'll still avoid it at all costs!). This week, I am going to be exploring that subjects Irish twin (If I'm allowed to say that).

Design Technology involves all of the STEM subjects (and even art, if you want to make it STEAM) - Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths; what's more, children love it. Teachers... I'm not so sure about. I, personally, can't stand it. It's mess, there's a lot that can go wrong, it's time consuming and it takes up so much space. Plus, I find the physical act of interating an idea tresome and dull. Give me a digital project any day of the week.

thanks I hate it

And this is the first hurdle. If you as a teacher do not like the subject, you are not going to teach it as enthusiastically or as well as you could or should. I'll hold my hands up here and say that, like Art, I avoided DT sessions. I was pretty good at avoiding them, too. I would push them way, way back to the end of the term under the promise of 'allowing more time for the project.'

This isn't such a bad idea, two whole day blocks of two hours a piece is definitely better that two hours a week for five weeks. For one thing, you don't have to worry about storage. For another, you don't have to worry (as much) about things being broken or lost in the interim. Your classroom is in disarray for a much shorter time and the whole thing becomes just about bearable.

But there is a better way.

It all comes down to understanding. I just didn't understand DT. Let me give you some context so you don't think me a complete idiot...

My Secondary school was designated a 'Design Technology College' a year after I started. This meant that they had been given a grant to specialise in all areas of DT from home cookery to computing (except we couldn't call it 'cookery' any more; now, it had to be 'food technology). This further meant that every child had to choose a DT element for their GCSEs. Well, I couldn't have cared less about DT. If you've read my blog post about Art, you'll know how I feel about drawing and, to my mind, DT was just drawing with added steps. I went with cooking, sorry, food tech, purely because it meant I could eat in class and call it research.

For my final project, I had to design and create a savoury snack that would appeal to children aged between 7 and 12. I've discussed this with my wife and she became very excited at the prospect. Imagine her disappointment when, having asked eagerly what I designed, I told her that I rushed out three things because that was the minimum amount I was allowed. One was a essentially a baked beans toastie; one was a combination of a Twix and a Mars bar (which I still say would be a hit). This was disqualified because it wasn't savoury. When my teacher suggested I change it for the coursework, I refused and said I Would just write about how it wouldn't work. Yes, I was that nonplussed about the whole thing.  The third, which was the one I went on to create, was a Dr Seuss-inspired, Green Eggs and Ham Pasty.

I was asked how I would create this delicacy and when I said I would scramble some eggs, add some ham and stir in green food colouring, I was advised that it probably wouldn't be very successful as far as grades were concerned. Why didn't I use spinach extract for the green colouring? Why didn't I substitute the (at the time considered very unhealthy) ham for something else? Why didn't I, in fact, scrap the whole idea and choose something else?

These were all very reasonable questions but the truth of the matter was that I just didn't care. I remember my teacher sitting me down one lunchtime and asking why I was being so stubborn about the concept I had chosen and I told her that my choice had nothing to do with the food but that I had chosen a Dr Seuss-inspired dish because then I could legitimately write my coursework in rhyme, which is something that excited me a lot.

My Food Tech teacher was a wonderful lady with more patience than I deserved. She took in a deep, cleansing sigh, told me that I would have to do really well on the written exam element because my practical project would almost certainly earn me an F, and then said that she would only allow me to go through with the project if she saw me eat the monstrosity at the end.

I made the thing, I took a bite, I spat it out. It was not good. I took the written exam and, for a 15-mark question that asked me to 'describe, in detail, the bread-making process', I wrote 'no.' I'm not proud of my attitude and I ended up with a D grade (somewhat miraculously). 

I'm telling you all of this so that you can appreciate my dislike of DT even from a young age. I have never enjoyed building things, much less spending hours and hours designing and revising them. I didn't see the point. It was too hard to think of something and then imagine it in 3D and then draw out detailed plans in 2.5D and then make the dang thing only to have it not work. At all. Like, not even a little bit. Honestly, I could design a flyswat and it wouldn't work properly. I. Did. Not. Like. DT.

But that changed when a colleague of mine told me the secret to understanding DT.

It's all about the three 'S's.

Design Technology is about creating SOMETHING that has SOME PURPOSE for SOMEONE.

I'm going to add my own S to this list: Some reason (inspired by the brilliant Start With Why by Simon Sinek (I guess that's 6 S's now?).

I was going about it all wrong. I was mad-professoring; I was Crazy-Old-Maurice-ing; I was putting the proverbial cart before the metaphorical horse. I was thinking of the how and the what but I was ignoring the why - the reason.

I don't think I am entirely to blame, the design briefs I had been given as a child (and later, as a teacher, by the DT scheme of work) focussed very heavily on the someTHING for someONE elements but they were never really clear on the some PURPOSE part. Yes, they would imply a purpose but it was never explicitly stated. And I needed it to be explicitly stated. I also needed to be told that the end product didn't need to be completely revolutionary. There I was, for years as a child, and then for years as an educator, assuming that the goal was to be the next Steve Jobs and actually, it was more about understanding how DT addresses needs.

If my GCSE brief had stated that I had to design a savoury snack for diabetics, or that would be cheap to produce but as healthy as possible, then I might have seen more of a challenge in it (I mean, I really hated anything that wasn't performing arts or academia, so probably not, but you get my point).

Let's now jump forwards to one of the last DT projects I taught. It was in a Year 5 class and it was to design and create a phone case. I still blocked the last two days of term out for the project because I think that's the best way to mitigate the mess and disruption. But... this time, we stated with WHY.

We brainstormed as a class why phone cases exist in the first place. I played Devil's advocate, as I am wont to do, and suggested that, since most modern phones have Gorilla Glass screens, there was no need for phone cases. This was met with so many arguments to the contrary, accompanied by real-life examples of phones breaking, being dropped in the toilet or being sat on accidentally that, in no time at all, we had plenty of mock-market research to start thinking about the PURPOSE of our design. But we didn't stop there. At the suggestion of one of the children, we went and did some actual market research by asking the teachers and children and even parents (after school) in the playground what they would like to see in a brand new phone case.

Even I was excited by this. The amount of difference a simple change from what to why was all it took. DT is never really about what your end product is. At least, not at the Primary school level. You know what you'll be making; you're told right off the bat. It's the why that makes it interesting.

So now, we knew the something - a phone case; we understood the some reason - based on the market research; we had worked out the purpose - for some it was to stop the phone getting wet, for others it was to protect the screen, for one child it was to make the phone less appealing to younger siblings; and we knew the someone because I had agreed that they could make it for their own phones. All of a sudden, I had a whole class of children who couldn't wait to get started.

But hang on a minute. We've forgotten about the most boring element of DT, the D. Designing and iterating; labelling and measuring until everything was just right. How did we cope with that side of it?

I gave the children a budget. They each had to tell me how much money they would need to create their case, and justify it through a presentation to either my TA or me. If we thought their ideas were solid, we would give them the money (I printed some out with a Monopoly money generator). If we thought that they were asking for too much then we would offer less and then they would have to go and fundraise from the other children. It was all very Shark Tank / Dragon's Den. 

Oh, they also had to show at least one of the DT requirements for the unit, which was joining things together. This could be through sewing or using a glue gun etc. Each child had to obtain a license for these things, which is how they obtained their grade (although they did not know this).

They loved it.

And I loved it.

And, at the end of the day, they succeeded and I could give them a passing grade at the end of the year.

Don't get me wrong. I still would rather teach Art than DT, and I do NOT enjoy teaching art! But I no longer dread the experience. 

If you're like me in thinking that DT should also contain an ON', and my little sojourn down memory lane hasn't convinced you, then I have something else that might help.

The D&T Association have some wonderful resources called Projects on a Page. They are just that. An entire DT project on one (double-sided) page. They contain step-by-step planning for the teacher; all the vocabulary you will need for the project, examples of related learning, tips for delivery of the lessons and even a breakdown of how the designing process works.

They're not free but they also not expensive. Have a look at the example below (kindly provided by the D&T Association), or download them here, and then persuade your DT Coordinator to buy the whole set for less than £50. Tell them I sent you!

Until next time, which will be in September because I need a break, look after yourselves and remember, you can do this: you're awesome!

Carl Headley-Morris

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