‘D&T students need creative freedom, not courses that narrow their options’

Paul Woodward
26th January 2018 at 14:03

There's something of a bittersweet theme to this week's blog, as the recent loss of a family member has resulted in much of my free time being spent in the family home rooting through cupboards, files and other bits of history. Now what, you may well ask, has this got to do with design and technology? That would be a perfectly acceptable question. Perhaps it's not an obvious link, but I have spent most of my adult life as a student, practitioner or teacher of design and I have never really questioned where that desire to follow a career in design actually began. We often get wrapped up in our everyday lives and commitments and forget the little things, but wandering around my family home, collecting clues like some sort of nostalgic adventure game has reminded me of how I arrived at where I am today.

My earliest memories are of art. I loved drawing and was pretty good at it from a young age, even doing my older brother's art homework for which he regularly achieved an A (naughty, naughty). We weren't an affluent family and sketchbooks were unheard of outside of art college. My drawing materials were Biros and the backs of Christmas cards, which I filled with science fiction and fantasy creatures. Christmas meant Lego, Meccano and numerous kits and models that required building. Star Wars and the like fuelled my imagination in drawn and model form.

Broken objects would come my way and started a fascination with how things worked. I would take apart clocks and other mechanical items – and every now and again I would put one back together and beam with pride as it began working.

Options and the unknown

I performed reasonably well academically at school but my heart was in practical subjects: art, woodwork, music – even needlework and cookery – and thankfully I attended a school where they were all equally valued. I can't remember much about maths and science: it felt like I was just going through the motions and remembering facts. It was the creative subjects where my mind was opened up to possibilities, options and the unknown. Creativity has no certainties, no absolutes and that is what caught my attention, intrigued me and ultimately inspired a love of creative subjects which never left me.

A mathematical problem will often have one answer. There may be various solutions, but 2+2 will always be 4 – but a creative problem has no right or wrong answers. It offers a myriad of possibilities which can then be evaluated and judged against the problem that inspired the results. I believe it's this sense of "adventure" that makes the creative journey so appealing. Perhaps that is why I have always preferred adventure games to those requiring you to simply get from A to B and achieve the highest score.

Embrace creative freedom

Sadly, my early attempts at craft and design – the technology came much later as there wasn't that much around in the 1970s – are long gone back into the environment (or landfill) but the few snippets of artwork, doodles, designs and contraptions I discovered revealed a genuine love of art and design and one that was nurtured in an educational climate where you were encouraged to fulfil your potential even if that was in creative disciplines.

Tragically, students today are herded into EBacc subjects in schools who can afford an ever-expanding hierarchy of middle and senior managers yet apparently have no money to support creative subjects. They may be halcyon days that I am recalling and it wasn't all rosy, but I know of a whole generation of creative people in education and industry who were born from similar educational experiences and many of those have also managed to adopt the modern technology they have witnessed develop alongside their careers.

What they have, like myself, is a passion that developed from a playground of creative pursuits not limited to sharing on social media or through Instagram and Pinterest. We put our stuff in scrapbooks and boxes in the attic to be discovered later and remind us just how much fun creativity could be back in the 'old days'. My love for the creative arts continues and has embraced modern technology as a creative tool rather than a crutch. I only wish the students of today could experience a similar creative freedom with the amazing creative and technical tools at their disposal.

Equally, I wish the politicians and educational decision makers could open their eyes and see that the amazing technological world of today is very much shaped by the people of my generation who enjoyed such creative freedom. 

Paul has taught and led Design and Technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, designer, examiner, moderator and D&T consultant. Having taken a break from teaching to work in the design industry, he recently returned to education to lead a creative arts department