D&T teaching is often diluted down to those safe, tried and tested, observation and outcome friendly 'non-products' in order to show progress

Paul Woodward
1st February 2017 at 14:02

I have always found some of the terminology in design and technology to be confusing.

We have (admittedly not for much longer) systems and control technology, graphic products, resistant materials, food technology, electronic products, textiles technology and finally good 'ol generic product design.

Nomenclature aside why are some defined as areas of study while others purport to be based on products of some sort; one even sounding like an all encompassing subject that could quite easily contain the others?

Based on this I genuinely believed that the new design and technology curriculum would have been called "product design" as the subject does focus on the design and manufacture of products but what are these "products" we refer to and do we really make them or are we actually making "non-products"?

A product is defined as 'an article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale' so bearing that in mind how many of you can say that you designed a product, or rather how many of your students have? If not, how is it really a product or has it simply that it has been produced somehow?

Let's follow a train of thought that assumes that what we are aiming to achieve is for students to become confident and competent at designing a product. After all, I see no way for the syllabus to accommodate the marking of abstract concepts, suggestions or eureka moments. We may now use the term prototype to refer to a final assessable outcome, but really what is a prototype if not a pre-production err, product?

Let's rewind to the beginning and it all starts with the market; knowing who the product is aimed at and who will use/buy it. No one makes products for free. Simple.

Down the line, people are making money or using the "free" product as a marketing tool; a calculated short term loss of revenue designed to increase profits in the long term. Even humanitarian products involve a wide range of people most of whom will not work for free and certainly won't work at a loss.

Applied constructively the design process for a product will result in something that has the potential to be developed into a commercial solution as a result of identifying a need for that product or a gap in the market for a new idea to become successful. Yet, we still tend to wrap up skills based teaching into what we refer to as a product, with students still making variations on innocuous looking projects such as the desk tidy, phone dock, coffee table or bird house.

Taking these "outcomes" as metaphors for what you might refer to as a  "classroom made product", what was learnt from developing and making that bird house?

Has the outcome satisfied the brief which in turn was a document drawn up from a client's requirements or an observed gap in the market drawn from detailed market research?

Is it now merely in a prototype form ready to develop into a cost effective retail product that will improve life and make a healthy profit for its manufacturer?

Or is it a production line "project", tried and tested over years with various mixed ability classes to ensure a completed outcome in a finite time frame and give the student something to "take home" and to display on open evenings or in the school magazine?

Only you know that and I am sure most teachers avoid this where possible. As an (ex) teacher I know how hard it is to deliver such a wide range of skills in limited time with growing classes and diminishing resources.

This blog is not meant to damn your efforts but the teaching of the subject can often be diluted down to those safe, tried and tested, observation and outcome friendly 'non-products' in order to show progress, have something to assess and simply keep the subject going.

In the rush to cover the material intended, have your students really experienced the process of identifying, designing and making a product along with the satisfaction of seeing it develop into a commercially available item (even if that is just for sale at a school fair)?

What concerns me is the point at which students are eventually given this freedom and responsibility to define their own project briefs and the danger that, by this time, they may lack the confidence or experience to do so...or have given up on D&T altogether and chosen other options.

I have marked thousands of design folders over the years and many of these still follow the path of least resistance through a project; making up clients and tasks, imaginary customer profiles and even changing the project mid way as they are "bored" with it. The teacher often has no choice but to salvage the best they can in order to achieve some sort of assessable outcome, try and hit their exam targets and keep their job.

As long as design and technology lives in an isolated bubble of design/make/test/next group please, there will always be this problem of not really making "products" in the same way that copying out passages from a text book is not writing a novel.

I do hope that future iterations of the subject will acknowledge the importance of increasing not just the maths and science content, but the financial and market driven aspects of designing a product with commercial potential rather than such theory being limited to a video or poster in the classroom.

More than anything I hope that students will have the opportunity to see and experience D&T in a wider context in order to truly appreciate its relevance and importance in the modern world.

Maybe once they see this, education leaders will finally take their blinkers off and share the experience.

Paul has taught a range of creative and technical subjects specialising in design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools, including stints as head of D&T and head of a creative arts faculty. He continues to work within D&T as a consultant but is currently taking a break from teaching to explore design in industry.