Attack of the clones

Paul Woodward
13th May 2016 at 16:16

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Attack of the clones

Let’s play a little game. Now I can’t see you so I will have to trust you on this one but could everyone who teaches D&T stand up. Good, loads of you, nice to see you all.

Now, remain standing if you teach resistant materials. Ouch, a good percentage sat down there.

Ok, remain standing if you choose the projects or tasks examination level students undertake.

Finally remain standing if your storeroom has an absurdly large collection of birdhouses/coffee tables/ipod docks (delete as applicable).

Anyone still standing?

I understand, I really do. I have worked in and visited schools where that is the standard procedure. You need to get, say 75% of your group a C grade or better and you have enough difficulty stopping them from stabbing each other with chisels so you certainly don’t want to risk them failing. Plus your annual review is due and without the grades you won’t get your pay rise. Let’s not even get started on ensuring that you contribute positively to the school’s Progress 8 scores, 4 or 5 levels of progress or even that you simply need to ensure the longevity of the department and your job by getting enough students to sign up for the subject! It’s not good and we all know it’s not ideal but such a learning environment is really not conducive to good design practise or our own professional development.

Picture this scenario; you devise a foolproof checklist of how students can meet the attainment targets and, over the years, you hone this to a set of worksheets, checklists and feedback forms all supported by spreadsheets. At the end of the year you look across the room with a sense of accomplishment and then you realise that nearly all of the projects look the same but you still need to differentiate between an E and an A*. You realise you can’t; they are all either A/B or D/E but you still feel obliged to spread out the marks. As you wonder how best to do this you feel your heart sink as you recall how enthusiastic you were while devising all those cool projects and schemes of work only to watch your dreams turn into a production line. It is no longer about teaching students to be designers or craftsmen, problem solvers or innovators; it’s about getting them swiftly through a course with the best chance of securing a C grade or at the very least the one they were predicted back in Year 7. Nothing wrong with your intentions at all.

Then comes the open evening where you need to put on a display of practical work so you get some of your A Level stuff from a few years ago when someone made that really cool project and you choose the best birdhouse/coffee table/lamp/ipod dock to put out with some good quality design sheets.

They all made a coffee table, someone comments, ‘Yes, but the plastic laser cut insert says ‘Johnny’, ‘Sheffield United’ or ‘Kanye’, you reply. Hmmm, you have successfully taught them to customise something. Take a look at the back of their exercise books; they have been doing that for years.

Your efforts paid off with success in the August exam results and as you wipe the sweat (or rain in the UK) from your brow with a sigh of relief you can now enjoy the remaining weeks of your summer holiday. But wait, the student you thought you would never see again, who relied on the technician to help make their project, and numerous intervention sessions, got a C grade and now they are full of bravado convinced they can be the next Jonny Ive. They also want to study at A Level but you now start to wonder if you have imbued them with the ability to work independently, to discover their own design problems and generate an innovative and commercially viable outcome before producing it to a high standard! Well, no, you probably haven’t. You may have herded them through a course in order to secure a grade and now you have a 2 year uphill struggle to teach them all the skills they should have learnt in the first place and explain to ‘Jonny’ how they got a pass at GCSE but now struggle to grade at all for their A Level work.

I paint a bleak and damning picture here and I doubt there is really anyone out there who actually does this (anyone still standing?), but if we do lower standards of creative teaching in order to just ‘get students through’ either for selfish or selfless reasons, are we actually doing anything for the benefit of the student? In the long term are we doing more damage by allowing them to think they have skills they really don’t or depriving them of the chance to learn by their own creative mistakes and failures? What is the real purpose of taking that GCSE if not to prepare them for further education or to provide them with genuinely useful skills for the modern world? There is little inspiration for the next potential year group if they think they are simply joining a production line making the same projects as the last year. That is certainly not a job they would rush to undertake in the real world so it’s really not the best advert for the world of design in a time when they still have the opportunity to learn and explore.

If and when D&T workshops become merely production lines, where will the challenge, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and creative risk taking be found? At the very least, are we content to accept our storerooms overflowing with unwanted birdhouse and wooden toy clones waiting to go to the skip each September? I would like to think not, but the pressure to maintain results in a time when our subject is already struggling to survive, may well leave us with no choice. It’s the fact that we have that dilemma at all, more than the sight of endless rows of identical projects, which really saddens me.



Paul has taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty. He is currently taking a short break from DT to teach photography and media studies.

His Subject Genius blog is shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.