It has to be said that the bird box has had a rough old time of it lately. Despite being an obvious response to a "wildlife" themed CA task for several years, in recent months it has been repeatedly held up as a metaphor for a lack of challenging design in the subject. I know because I am guilty of doing it myself on several occasions – and I am equally guilty of designing a similar project to deliver a range of practical skills at key stage 3. The term "bird box" slips off the tongue easily, but could just as easily be an iPod holder, coffee table or fidget spinner taking the flak. So where did it all go wrong for the innocuous little bird box (BB)?
If I am honest, it's never been a great project to teach the design process. It is often chosen as a theme for lower ability students, although I have also seen some rather impressive results from students when they took a more lateral, commercial or industry-led approach to the problem at GCSE level. Therein lies the real problem: how many of you can put your hand up and honestly say you have seen a BB that challenged the design and making skills of a student? The argument that a pupil was not that "able" does the subject a disservice.
It's not the fact that a student, or even a whole group, took on the challenge to design an animal home, it's the fact that they couldn't envisage the outcome as anything more challenging or varied than a BB. And in doing so, it has become a symbol of the quality of D&T education and one that has crept into the public eye. There is a reason many people still refer to the subject as woodwork and the BB doesn't help its cause one bit. More than just demeaning the subject it also represents some rather poor teaching but then again so do a whole range of "cigar box" projects and other more "craft" based outcomes.
Deliver skills in D&T
If you feel that it's reasonable for 30-plus students to each make an identical BB then line them up in rank order from D to A* based on slightly more demanding wood joints or a better finish, you may be missing the point of this great subject. Where is the innovation in a production line like that? What was the reason for making all the students do that project: easy to manage, done it before, safe project? Woodwork and "craftwork" left the building many years ago and iterative design, client-led projects and innovative prototype outcomes are the expectations for the future. If a BB can address those requirements in a new and innovative way then that is fantastic but if not, why even bother choosing it as a task?
What has been discussed on occasion, and has more credence, is that projects such as the BB can be used as a vehicle to deliver a range of practical skills at KS3 but the question remains as to whether or not these skills are still considered important. I can recall the pride and joy in taking a completed project home and holding it up like a trophy to show my parents or the practicality of taking home the results of the home economics lesson for that evening's tea. Used as a task to deliver practical skills at KS3, the BB, like the key ring, desk tidy and the like, will likely remain a family-friendly "take home" project for years to come and one that makes its way home like a business card for D&T.
If that is your motive to continue this type of project then that is great. However, if the choice of pursuing that theme at GCSE is because it involves a range of skills the teacher is comfortable teaching in order to produce a safe project they have marked and standardised for years, then it is likely to prevent the subject from developing as it needs to. Should that happen, D&T will likely end up consigned to the same vault as woodwork, home economics and needlecraft. It deserves better than that and in a world entirely reliant on technology and design, it's too important a subject area for us as a collective to let that happen.
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.