Trading points for pointers: is this what design and technology education has come to?

Paul Woodward
19th April 2019 at 12:00

A few days ago, a student asked me if I could help them with their project work – or the non-examination assessment (NEA) as it is now known. I instinctively walked over to them grabbing my pencil and sketchpad en route and sat next to them. I say instinctively as I was trained by artists and designers before following such a career myself, and then spent the last 25 years disseminating what I have learned to others in the pursuit of inspiring them to do the same. It seemed, like it always has, to be the best way to help a budding young designer find their inspiration.

However, I found that I paused and, against my natural instincts to teach, offered the following words of advice: "I can give you support but, if it’s not generic advice to the class, I may have to adjust your marks accordingly. Given that choice, do you really want the support?”

Now, I obviously went into more detail about the logistics of this statement, but I actually said those words and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why! I have studied the NEA requirements in great detail and I know why I needed to give that disclaimer but, as someone who aspires to educate children, it just didn’t feel right; like telling them I could lend them a textbook to learn from but if I read any of it to them I might be breaking some sort of rule.

I then found myself pointing at examples of work or making vague suggestions that I’m sure was quite an unreal experience for the student, who simply wanted an answer – not a mute teacher gesticulating like a bad dance move. Had he asked me what four plus four was, it was like my response was to offer both a reward and a punishment with the answer. Worse still, I found this was very similar to the sort of games that students play. Let me explain.

Some games require additional items for the player to progress. Often these come in the form of DLC (download content) or add-ons. Very often these are paid for items (it’s how those free games make their money). Other games tempt you with maximum points if you solve a puzzle without any assistance but offer hints for a reduced overall score. This, it would seem, is what teaching design and technology has come to. Work completely independently, and have the opportunity to gain higher marks, or have some support which is very likely to reduce your final mark.

It should be noted here that almost no creative professional develops ideas, products or content in such an insular and punishing way. I can see how such restrictions might limit the potential for, ahem, "cheating", but what we are talking about here is discussing an idea and sharing our extended knowledge and experience of getting past those difficult first stages before a working idea is formulated. We all know how difficult it is and even professionals hit that creative wall, which is why so many companies have brainstorming sessions and think tanks to break through those barriers that restrict creativity and progress.

Yet here we are doing this to students; some as young as 14 or 15 years old who are in the very early stages of their design education. What is more worrying is that this might well put them off further study or from considering design and engineering as a viable career. If that is the result, then what have we really achieved from this system?

I firmly believe that the skills we are teaching should be indicative of the world beyond the classroom; of industry, manufacture and innovation. This is a place where creative talent is nurtured and supported and where skills are demonstrated, learnt, evaluated and improved. Imagine if, fresh out of teacher training you were pushed into a classroom and, at the first sign of struggling and a cry for help, you were simply told: "I can’t give you any specific advice without reducing your salary."

Arguably, there are many things wrong about the new GCSE, but this is a particular grey area. Those teachers who stick to the rules are likely to really struggle and so will their students. If a teacher chose to "help students along" before, they are likely to do it again and simply not mention the assistance that has been given. This disparity and inconsistency could skew outcomes and results, not to mention undermine approaches to the NEA. The worst-case scenario is that the NEA will simply be removed as part of the award. Should that happen, there really won’t be much interest in studying the subject anymore and that is really not worth the risk no matter how tempting it may be to provide feedback.

Paul Woodward is an experienced head of creative arts and design and technology, currently working as a freelance designer, author and D&T consultant