A subject we've got to get right;Scottish Curriculum

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Alasdair Urquhart explains why an attempt to spice up technology studies in schools has failed and insists that it's. . .

When Standard grade technological studies was introduced in 1988, it was greeted with enthusiasm and eager anticipation. It was, after all, a brand new course, designed to prepare youngsters for this technological age and give technical departments a subject of intellectual standing. Even the name sounded sexy, exciting and relevant to the 1990s.

The Scottish Office Education Department pump-primed the course by giving local authorities extra cash to fund the additional resources necessary. Colleges produced open learning modular training courses and many local authorities invested in training staff for a degree qualification that would enable them to teach the new subject confidently.

Technological studies was designed to replace engineering science in schools. For many years it was felt that engineering science had too much overlap with physics, so much so that further and higher education establishments would not accept both. Technological studies would have no such hang-ups.

The next generation of young people needed to develop skills in teamwork and communication, be computer literate and aware of modern manufacturing methods. Technological studies had it all.

Everything in the garden was rosy. So what has gone wrong? A few teachers did not appear ready to teach technological studies. Despite intensive staff development courses, some teachers still felt inadequate in certain areas of the curriculum and so reverted to the didactic teaching style of engineering science. This presented a fundamental stumbling block to the success of the course.

Academically able students were not taking the subject in many schools. Because of the Scottish Office's insistence that the course be offered at all three levels of Standard grade (a major mistake), many schools used it as a suitable venue for the "less able", where "they could play with bits of Lego and join electronic boards together to make a loud noise". The dominance of less able students acted as a positive deterrent to bright youngsters who could really have benefited from the course. It certainly did little to attract girls. Shortening the title to "tech studs" didn't help either, but it was rather a mouthful in the first place. Perhaps in hindsight "technology" would have been more appropriate.

Equipment problems dogged many schools too. Missing Fischertechnik components, faulty pneumatic cylinders and not enough computers all sound too familiar. For the course to have been successful, staff required more technician time, more - and better - resources.

Nothing turns able students away from a subject more than poor results. The Higher, in many people's opinion, is too difficult. Standard grade results are not startling either, and so its presentation numbers have dropped steadily over the past four years, from 6,076 in 1994 to 4,897 last year. The number of centres presenting the subject is falling dramatically.

This is a depressing picture. We have clearly failed to attract students into the subject, and when these figures are compared to presentations for other Scottish Qualifications Authority courses, they make gloomy reading.

A radical review of the subject is essential if we still hope to have any students at all taking technological studies in five years' time. We need to go back to the drawing board and embrace the principles set out in Technology education in Scottish schools, the document published by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. This clearly sets out the main criteria for having technology in the curriculum. It should be the starting point along with the key features identified in the 5 to 14 report.

We need to find a way of appealing to the whole ability range of students of both sexes. All our pupils will grow up to live, work and play in a technological world. It is the one area of the curriculum which young people can guarantee to encounter in their adult life. Are we adequately preparing these young people for this brave new world, or are we focusing our attention too much on the small minority who will proceed to higher education courses in engineering?

Technology in all its aspects should be a "life skill" for all, irrespective of gender or career aspirations. We need to review technological studies so that students can, as the Yanks state in their Technology for all Americans project, "understand the nature of technology, appropriately use technological devices and processes and participate in major decisions on technological issues. We require a vision where all members of society have knowledge about the nature, behaviour and consequences of technology. The promise of the future lies not only in technology alone but in the ability to use, manage and understand it."

I believe the Americans are way ahead of us. Technological studies needs to become a course which is not only seen as attractive to budding young technologists or engineers, but as essential education for all young people growing up in this technological age.

Alasdair Urquhart, a former national development officer for technological studies with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum , is a freelance consultant

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