Is design and technology actually fun any more?

Paul Woodward
20th July 2018 at 18:05

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Is design and technology actually any fun anymore?

I teach design and technology (D&T) and, I imagine, so do you if you are reading this, or perhaps you are some way involved in its delivery or administration. Whether you are new to the profession or have been involved with it for some time, you can’t have helped noticing that it has gone through a lot of changes lately. Some, perhaps most, of these are likely to be for the best in terms of moving the subject forwards and away from outdated concepts of what D&T used to be. However, in moving the subject forwards there is an additional emphasis on academic knowledge and its application. Again, I see the importance of this in maintaining credibility when standing up against the big EBacc boys and girls, but I can’t help wondering if somewhere along the way we are missing something from D&T and teaching in general.

I miss teaching being fun!

I remember when health and safety, while clearly important, was not so restrictive and allowed for some experimentation and lessons to be learned "the hard way". (I’m talking about design and manufacturing errors, not accidents). Sadly, modern risk assessments have clearly been influenced by films like Final Destination, in which even a seemingly innocuous drawing pin can become a lethal killing machine. And let’s be clear, I am not suggesting staying safe is not important.

But it’s not just the removal of lathes, routers, angle grinders, welders and other "lethal" machines from the workshop; it’s the removal of that most important of things: it seems we no longer have the freedom to experiment, take design risks and explore our creativity and, with that, we seem to have lost the fun of the subject.

I have previously recounted the happiest of school days spent in hazy smoke-filled woodwork rooms in the late 1970s, but there was a sense of creativity and fun back then that continued through to university days and beyond. I still get a grin on my face when I walk into creative spaces at universities littered with little (and big) experiments, and yearn for that same sort of creative fun I brought to my own teaching of the subject back in the 1990s. My mind wanders nostalgically to summer days spent launching water rockets for fun, building trebuchets to see how far an egg could be launched or racing rubber band-powered cars across the sports hall. These were before the days of Stem when we just sort of knew the importance of engineering, design and a bit of maths…but we wrapped it up in a lot of fun.

But will the students enjoy it?

It’s not just the practical aspects of the subject either, although that is clearly something that many less "academic" students were attracted to. It’s this increasing pressure to cover so much theoretical material in departments where teaching time, resources and budgets are inversely diminishing.

A case in point. I have spent the past few years trying to produce a scheme of work that would span from key stage 2 to the end of sixth form; an eight-year A level. Now, with 16 weeks of D&T for each year group, I have cross-referenced it with the national curriculum and injected elements of the GCSE from as early an age as possible; even getting Year 6 students to use Solidworks! I have tweaked it to meet assessment strands and produced tracking spreadsheets that, in a click of a button, tell you how a student or group are performing against expectations. In short, it’s a "near-perfect" collection of planning, assessment and tracking materials supported by high-quality resources, design booklets and exemplar project work. If it performs as expected, it could see students attaining excellent standards across the whole of the department. Sounds like a dream, eh? When I put the final piece of the plan in place, I sat back and looked at it all with its pretty graphics, charts and supporting paperwork and my heart sank.

For in that moment, where I should have been delighted with my efforts, I asked myself, "Will this actually be any fun for the students?"

Yes, it's SLT-friendly and would no doubt wow an inspector, but what about the students themselves? Are they happy to be a cog in this data machine or will they vote with their feet at the end of KS3 and leave me with half of the plan redundant? Not such a great plan without bodies in a classroom to prove it works…

It’s a tricky balance and one I am struggling to pull off with aplomb. Anyone who does manage it will have earned my undying respect. Nevertheless, the reformed subject is what we have and we need to make the most of it. I believe there is still the opportunity to have fun in D&T but we need to ensure we strike the balance between meeting the needs of the school and providing the students with a meaningful learning experience. Hopefully, this will also be one that will inspire them not only to continue their design studies, but also to develop a genuine love and respect for the subject, and perhaps one day make their own creative contribution to the worlds of design and technology…and have a little fun in the process.

Paul has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools, as well as working as a musician, artist, freelance designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England