Running out of time

Paul Woodward
4th November 2016 at 16:24

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Running out of time

Readers relatively new to the profession may have simply taken for granted the controlled assessments in design and technology and the 45-50 hour time limit on the task. Older teachers however will remember the subject before such a time frame was imposed; where students were free to take their projects as far as they could within the class time allocated to them. However, not everyone had the same view of ‘available class time’ and therein was the problem.

Whilst my memory is good, I may be corrected on the exact details, and there was always a suggestion of what was a reasonable amount of time to spend on the ‘coursework’. However, like placing a pile of money on the table and asking people to take what they thought was a fair amount, it was open to perhaps too much interpretation.

Let me give you an example of why the time limit needed to be imposed. In one comprehensive school candidates were given less than three hours of DT a week which, when they allowed for theory/exam practise etc. to be covered often equated to less than an hour of practical DT a week. That school may have had perfectly good teachers and resources but the outcomes would inevitably be limited by the access to the facilities.

In an independent boarding school students loved their DT. So much that you could hardly keep them out of the workshop. Dinner time, evenings and even weekends they were in there happily working on projects.

Now, you won’t be surprised to hear who achieved the better grades at GCSE but did that simply reflect the student’s ability or the fact that one school may have allowed for almost 200 hours of access while another managed less than 50? Again, I think we all know the answer to that one.

But it wasn’t just the level of detail in the projects from the independent school that far exceeded the work of the comprehensive; it was in the level of demand of the projects themselves. We are not talking about coffee tables with one centre using that extra time to incorporate intricate veneer work or carving. The projects themselves were much more demanding in terms of the design briefs and what they set out to solve through the design process and this is where I find the time limit to be somewhat restricting.

You may think that I actually have a gripe with what the independent school did but I really don’t (although 200 hours is way too much). Quite the opposite actually, and anyone who thinks I may hold a grudge against the independent system, I have spent two decades teaching in independent schools. This is not about the type of school; it’s about the opportunities afforded in each.

In the independent school the subject was popular enough for pupils to want to give up their free time to be creative and make use of the facilities. Although it may have been a boarding school they could still have filled their free hours playing football, watching TV and playing Xbox but they chose not to. Without strict time limitations they were able to think in much greater depth about the problems they wanted to solve and developed ideas and prototypes to a much higher standard. Isn’t that what we would all want to do? More importantly isn’t that what we should strive to do?

It’s a nice dream but the simple fact is that it comes down to the time available and there really isn’t enough for most of us. It’s also a case of ensuring equality and for assessment to be fair, when schools vary greatly in the range of staff and resources available, there has to be one constant. The one thing we can all have in common is time so that was the logical constraint to place on the coursework; now renamed as a controlled assessment, and with it came more control of monitoring the process itself.

So now we are all on a level playing field with the idea that a bright, well motivated student will achieve more in 45 hours than a less able and motivated student regardless of the centre in which they study. While that seems fair, and who would want to return to the previous system of ‘do as much as you want’, I do worry that creativity is being capped. After all, how many of us can really think on demand? Certainly we can produce something but is it really our best when we are asked to produce output in short timed bursts each lesson?

Where are the Eureka moments if there is no bath in the classroom and how can you daydream wonderful ideas when the clock is ticking away? I have no definitive answer to the problem but I would make an analogy between the work of a commercial designer who has a deadline to meet each month and has to adjust other aspects of their life around the job in order to keep organised and meet their deadline.

Perhaps the time spent on a project could be logged and submitted with the assessment material so it can be taken into consideration when providing a fair assessment of the student’s work without actually limiting their creativity. We are already obsessed with ticking boxes and matching assessment criteria but what damage is done to creativity and ambition when great ideas are compacted down so they fit in a space of time? If we only allowed an athlete to train for a few hours each week we would be accused of limiting their potential so why should it be different with technical or creative ability? If a student wishes to give up their free time to advance their skills and ability or realise a dream I really don’t think we should be turning them away for fear of exceeding a prescribed time limit.



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.