Design and technology - how hard can it be?

Paul Woodward
2016-02-08 16:23

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Design and technology - how hard can it be?

If you are a D&T teacher reading this you probably already know the answer to that question but this is where I mount my carefully crafted soapbox and make the argument for design and technology being a true multi skilled subject and one that is vital to modern society.

Imagine a week at work where you switch on your computer to find you have a design brief and just one week to complete it. You have to learn then use a range of 2D and 3D CAD software along with image editing software and a range of office applications. Next you have to be able to plan your time and employ a variety of methods to research this task before producing a product design specification. Wow, hard first day. Now you have to be able to draw competently so you can communicate your ideas and become a model maker, lateral thinker and problem solver. Over the next few days you need to produce a range of ideas before developing them using all the tools in your inventory. You have to learn how to cost the project, sequence the manufacture and consider quality control methods. For the last few days you have to be a carpenter, a metalworker, a paper engineer, electronics systems or packaging specialist in order to get the project made. You need to be aware of health and safety regulations and use power tools and machinery including expensive laser cutters and 3D printers. You need to understand the properties of a wide range of materials and industrial manufacturing processes of which you have little or no experience. Once you have made the project you need to test and evaluate it before putting together a record of the project in a portfolio before you can leave on Friday night. By the end of the week you feel burnt out and then your boss tells you that you will be sitting a two hour exam on Monday.

Sounds like a lot of work? Well, that’s pretty much what is expected of a student undertaking a design and technology course. Admittedly, that is spread over a school year but it’s still a similar amount of ‘man hours’ as a full week at the office.

The notion that D&T is somehow inferior or less cerebrally challenging than more traditional ‘academic’ subjects never fails to amuse me. What other subject, taught comprehensively, requires all the skills above as well as some knowledge of media and business studies, art, ICT, science, history, English and maths? The diagram below is my own interpretation of how D&T reaches into many other curriculum subjects.

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Design wheel diagram

If there are two words that could succinctly define modern society they are design and technology. We can hardly exist without either and they affect every aspect of our lives but consumers rarely care for the science or maths behind them. Although they are important factors they need to be condensed into a tangible outcome that consumers will be attracted to and buy; the design and the technology.

While the subject can provide the T and the E in STEM it seems that it just cannot compete with the S&M (please don’t read that the wrong way!). Design as a career is as lucrative as many of those that EBacc subjects might allude to with architecture and engineering still considered high profile careers which often result from studying design and technology. Yet, articles often refer to STEM before proceeding to discuss the importance of science and maths.

I talked in an earlier blog about how we have become passive users of technology. We also once cut down trees without a care, happy to consume without replanting. If we now fear for the environment enough to care where the new trees are coming from, what about ensuring a new generation of designers and engineers can provide us with the technology we will need in the future. After all, designers need to be trained and to do that they have to be inspired to want to contribute to this wonderful world of design.

I have always believed that design and technology is one of the most important subjects in the school curriculum and to some extent I still do. Aside from the skills and knowledge required it is adaptable to a range of abilities, offers a range of routes through the course with no two projects being the same and can provide a therapeutic break from being buried in academic text books. So why isn’t it appreciated more in many schools and, more importantly, by the government who seek to marginalise creative education. Perhaps the examination results achieved balanced against the cost and resources needed to run the department are the problem. If design and technology was the highest achieving subject in school would it still be considered for removal from the options regardless of the cost to run it?

Food for thought but there is definitely a need for change in design education as well as attitudes to the subject. Whatever design and technology was for the last 27 years is soon to be behind us and I am hoping, like so many of you, that the reformed design and technology will be fit to take us into the next generation and once again regain its popularity and importance in the curriculum.


Paul Woodward has been a teacher of DT for 22 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of Faculty, qualified to MA level and an examiner and moderator of Resistant Materials for the AQA.