What is designing in the classroom really about?

Paul Woodward
7th June 2019 at 10:40

Design in the classroom

For as long as I have had an interest in design there have been numerous attempts to define what it is. Ironically, it’s been discussed for so long that what it is has ultimately evolved making attempts to define it even more difficult…and so it goes on.

Conundrums aside, people's perceptions of design are likely to be very different depending on where they are in the design, manufacturing and consumer chain. For the average consumer, design is likely to suggest labels and names of famous celebrities. For a design and technology teacher it will very much depend on their age, training and background. If trained as a D&T teacher, concepts of design might be very much based on what has been taught to deliver in the classroom at that time and the curriculum model delivered. A trained designer, or anyone who has studied the subject in greater depth, may have very different approaches to design and different concepts of what design is and how it should be delivered in the classroom.

Definitions of design that we can relate to often refer to the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object or a drawing produced to show the look and function of an object before it is made. A designer is therefore someone who produces such drawings and plans, but they often do much more.

Design, holistically, is the process of advancing from one situation to another. Often the first situation is not an ideal one, devoid of a pleasing or functional resolution or that simply needed putting right or improving somehow. The second situation (which may only be the second of many) sees a number of those issues resolved, improved or addressed. Bear in mind that, although a creative process may have taken place to make that transition, it may not necessarily involve drawing, CAD, modelling or any other "mark/image-making process" we often associate with design and technology.

Design as a process usually has a user perspective and is driven by the needs of the consumer but the process varies greatly depending on the project, field, function or numerous other factors. It is not always consumer driven or industrial and it’s here that design can often be derogatively referred to as craft. Again, it’s hard to define what design is and even more difficult to convey that to our students in a way that makes sense while also being relevant to the world they inhabit and will ultimately inherit.

As a result, design in the classroom can be a mixed bag as it is based on a national curriculum that assumes relevant aspects of industry, mixes them with global and environmental issues that were topical when it was first written and then puts these all into a process that is manageable within the resources and timeframe perceived to be available in all schools (phew, take a breath!). Weaved into this are potentially "outdated" materials, processes and skills and then it’s all wrapped up in a package that has left many teachers scratching their heads about exactly what needs to be taught and how.

The world of design is also vast with more disciplines that we can imagine, and new ones being introduced regularly. When I made a choice of a design course to study back in the late 1980s it was a much shorter list than you see offered by universities nowadays. The word is also thrown around so much that I wonder if it really has any meaning any more.

So, what does this mean for design and technology education? Well, we are ultimately led by the curriculum model we need to follow and, choice of awarding organisation aside, a syllabus that we need to follow if we want our students to achieve successful outcomes. We are limited in terms of what aspects of design we can teach, and this might explain why some teachers are struggling with the iterative design process. For those who have trained in design, worked in industry or have been teaching a long time, it’s simply an element of the design process we have always followed but that doesn’t mean that it can easily be transplanted to the classroom.

One problem is that students who have not been introduced to the "new" process prior to GCSE or A level are finding it akin to learning a new language; very difficult! This is something for each school to consider in their key stage 3 planning now they have had "hands-on" experience of the new syllabus from introduction to final assessment. Many schools have looked at providing a three-year GCSE while others are looking at five years or even more. It is this forward planning that will set students up for GCSE and beyond, but it could be a good few years before we see the dust settling on the new DT GCSE.

So, we have come full circle to the question of what design is, or rather, what design is in the classroom? Perhaps a more important question is: should design in the classroom be any different from the design in the real world of industry and, if it should, why would we want to teach any other approach to design to our students? I know some will argue that this is school, that these are just 15-year-olds and they are not working in industry, but for some of these students the next step they take could very much affect the route their working life will eventually take.

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