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Practice without principles

Are pupils really applying what they learn in technology? Gerald Haigh reports on research into children's understanding of DT, graphics and electronics.

What exactly is "design", and how can you teach it? While you ponder this, consider some other questions - such as what it is that children are actually learning when they are making a circuit in an electronics lesson. Or how you can get children to use the skills they have learned in one area of technology to help them with tasks in another area. And on top of all that, try to work out the best way of using your technology teaching team so as to make the most of their various specialisms.

My guess is that there is not a technology department in the country where these questions have not come up: they are aspects of the continuing attempt to define the subject. The initial questions were not arbitrarily chosen. They were investigated during 1995 by four teachers working in the Technology Enhancement Programme (TEP) Schools for a research project called Supporting Change in Teaching Technology (SCITT). Each technology teacher chose a problematic area and studied it with the support of the Centre for Applied Research in Education at the University of East Anglia.

The project's published report makes fascinating reading, and interviews with each of the teachers involved confirms that the issues they raised ought to be of interest beyond the boundaries of the technology department. One common thread, for example, was to do with the suspicion - harboured by all thinking teachers - that pupils may not be learning what we think they are. It was John Chapman, at Thomas Mills High School in Framlingham, Suffolk, for example, who looked at children learning design. "I was interested," he wrote in the report, "in investigating whether pupils recognised their developing awareness of design skills and processes . . . or whether they only recognised the more explicit development of practical skills and subject knowledge."

This, of course, is an age-old educational conundrum, expressed to me at college long ago as, "You've taught him to do the steps, but have you taught him to dance?" As Chapman explained to me, while the teaching of skills is quite tangible, the concept of design is less easy to grasp. There's a flair that one child may have - something going on in their mind. The teacher's task, therefore, is to tease out what it is that they are able to do. He says nothing really has been written or researched about this, and yet it's becoming more and more important as the subject becomes more academic.

There are no immediate answers. John Chapman has looked again at his schemes of work, and re-adjusted his emphasis on the design process. He has also looked at using video case studies, to help students see how the same design principles can be transferred from one project to another. "We need videos of people their age tackling their kind of projects," he says.

There were echoes of Chapman's work in the investigation on graphics carried out by Kevin Morgan at Dagenham Priory School. He asked why good graphical skills evident in lessons where the skills were specifically taught were not being used in other lessons. "Good graphical skills were exhibited when the outcome was a graphical one," he wrote. "Poor graphical skills were evident when design and make projects were tackled."

This is another evergreen educational issue, and every teacher will recognise Morgan's description of the pupil who, having finished an excellent graphics project, produced a poor illustration of a vehicle in a history lesson. "Laziness is not the main issue here. It is the failure to associate and transfer skills from one subject area to another."

In technology, too, there is a specific problem in that many pupils do not associate good graphics with the planning process. "Most teachers know the pupil who says 'I know what I'm doing, I don't have to draw it'," he says. He points to classroom techniques for showing pupils that graphics are important in planning - letting a child explain while the teacher draws, for example. "In some cases the child will then pick up the pencil."

He feels too that it is important to raise the graphics profile across the curriculum.

"Adults and children rarely consider graphicacy as an important part of education, yet it is a communication method that pre-dates speech. It will need to be looked at as a whole school developmental area. Staff awareness levels need to be raised."

The nature of learning was also at the heart of Colin Muddimer's investigation into pupils learning electronics at Sudbury Upper School, Suffolk. What concerned him, quite simply, was that while pupils could undoubtedly learn how to make a working circuit, he was not at all sure that they fully understood the principles involved.

In this subject, pupils typically learn how to fit components together before they start to understand how they work. When I visited his department, for example, he was teaching Year 9 pupils how to solder components to a circuit board. ("The short leg is the one that's shorter than the other one!") Skills like this are fairly straightforward. But the underlying principles are not. "With electronics you can't see it happening."

To look more deeply at this, he tape-recorded some sessions in which pupils explained electronic circuits to a university researcher who had no specialist knowledge. The results were illuminating. In one case, the pupils, unable to understand the function of a particular component, decided that it had been put there to confuse them. "Because of this I've changed my teaching," Muddimer says. He also decided that a computer simulation electronics package was needed to show voltage levels changing on screen while the circuit is working. Muddimer enthuses about what the teacher can gain from having pupils explain their work to a non-specialist. Specialist teachers, he feels, word the questions in the same way as they did the lessons, and pupils can then work on contextual clues without true understanding.

"So if anyone wants to try this, I'd set up a video camera and get in someone from PE or English, who will ask the questions in a totally different way. It can be done in-house; it doesn't cost anything, and it is incredibly revealing. "

Deeper considerations apart, though, it was really pleasing to see Colin Muddimer at work, provoking interest and enjoyment so that the class worked hard. Particularly noticeable was that they were not afraid to fail. ("It's all gone wrong Mr Muddimer") More esoteric considerations seem less important when you see a class of secondary pupils gaining so much from the immediate task - and as Graham Brooks, Colin's head of department put it: "We spend too much time trying to do what we think other people want us to do."

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