The four cornerstones of design and technology part two: Competence

Paul Woodward
29th July 2016 at 17:50

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, The four cornerstones of design and technology part two: Competence

I suspect that the craft blog last week might have been considered relevant to the subject by all but the most techno hungry educators but I fear that this week’s topic will be a little more divisive. In many ways, this blog covers much of what is expected of the subject already but it is a word that perhaps has connotations of manual labour and ‘getting by’. Anyway, here goes: today I want to put forward the second C of design & technology: Competence.

Competence is defined as adequacy; possession of required skill, knowledge, qualification or capacity. The problem is that ‘competence’, like the word ‘adequate’ in that definition is what the kids call a bit ‘meh’ and someone of my years might call ‘wishy washy’.

We have such demands of our students and expectations of good and outstanding work that being ‘adequate’ is simply not enough, especially in OFSTED speak, but in a subject such as design & technology much of what is required, at least in the use of tools, ICT and machinery is just that; competence. Now, if the word was mastery it would likely be embraced by SLT as something aspiring to sit alongside outstanding but really, have any of your students mastered the use of the pillar drill, the Hegner or even pressing start/stop on the laser cutter?

Of course they haven’t (yet) but we are content if they are competent in the use of the tools and machinery necessary to achieve their objectives and produce quality outcomes. In this situation how does adequate or competent equate to high quality? If a student was to be competent in all aspects of design from planning to evaluation via design and manufacture, would that make their efforts only deemed ‘adequate’?

What is needed for clarity is to differentiate between aspects of the subject that can be developed and possibly even mastered and those that simply require a student to demonstrate competence. However, we should not simply relegate all technical procedures such as using basic machinery to competence, nor should we accept competence in areas where various levels of skill, creativity and craft could be developed. To cut a piece of wood in two requires competence but to cut a snug fitting wood joint requires craft and skill. We need to decide on those requirements of the course that simply need to be achieved and those that can be judged on their creative or technical merit. For instance, the production of a folder of work by the given deadline is an achievement but the quality of the work therein can be judged on quality and content. Has the student used the appropriate tools and machinery to make an artefact? If so they have demonstrated competency. Has the student designed and realised a challenging and well made attractive outcome? Then surely that is creativity and craft.

In the last blog I argued that the use of specialised machinery to produce a component or product should be considered a craft process as the designer has control of the process from conception to realisation and all the steps in between; the artefact has been ‘crafted’ with skill and dexterity using the appropriate tools and machinery. When that process becomes automated and repetitious, requiring no direct input from the maker, it becomes a production process.

Using a plunge router to produce an ornate pattern in wood requires a different set of skills to programming a CNC router but the resulting objects are similar; one simply has imperfections which cannot be repeated but who would necessarily want such imperfections in anything but a bespoke item?

In the written examination, multiple choice questions or single word responses require competence while design or drawn based tasks do challenge creativity and, to an extent, the knowledge of a craft based process.

There are also sections of the design folder that require competence more than creativity or craft and that rely more on how the information is communicated rather than looking for unusual and novel ways to solve the problem. The research section, for instance, needs to be completed thoroughly and effectively as a response to the design brief. I am sure we have all tried novel alternative methods of analysing and presenting findings but really, don’t we tend to fall back on the mind map, comparison table, specification etc? Similarly, the testing and evaluation rely on competence in testing, evaluating and offering modifications for some ‘imaginary’ future prototype.

The section of the controlled assessment that really truly benefits from creativity is the development of original ideas from the perfunctory research which then leads to the craft of manufacture. The Sainsbury review published a few weeks ago might throw yet another divide between the academic and vocational routes perceived within the subject relegating more competence based skills to vocational routes while designing becomes more academic within the A-level route. That, however, is a discussion for a later date. I am sure many RM teachers have completed the sections of the Candidate Record Forms while trying to write something imaginative and constructive with regards to the use of tools and machinery. With clear definition between creative skills and competence we should be able to assess students in a way that shows they have demonstrated the correct use of technology, tools and machinery; perhaps in something as simple as a check box, but in a way that will allow teachers to concentrate on assessing their craft, creativity and communication. I will leave you with that thought and the latter I will address in next week’s blog.



Paul taught Design and Technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty as well as teaching Art, ICT, Photography and Media Studies. He is currently taking a break from education to return to the design industry.

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