The bare bones of creativity
Peter Davison reviews a series for primary pupils designed to promote understanding of materials, mechanisms and structures.
Whenever we obtain something new - be it a car, computer, lawn mower or food blender - most of us have a tendency to explore and use the item immediately rather than study the handbook of instructions. There is a strong temptation to do something similar with this series of books. As each one contains a predominance of colourful, eye-catching photographs and sketches there is a strong possibility of diving in without first studying the broad outline of the scheme in the teacher's notes. This series is unorthodox in many ways so it's advisable to invest time in reading the guidance notes if the package is to be fully understood and used to advantage.
This series of eight books is intended for use with children aged between six and eleven. The aim is to promote understanding of different materials, mechanisms, structures and related health and safety. In so doing, the materials link closely with a number of aspects in the programmes of study for design and technology in the revised Order.
A particular strength is the emphasis on real life situations, the integration of investigative science and mathematics with technology and opportunities to use language to discuss and express ideas.
The first four books in the series are more suitable for younger children: Looney Tools (inventing technology), Clever Island (technology and nature), MisbuildingsUntransport (function and design), and The Paper Skyscraper (the technology of materials).
Looney Tools contains clear illustrations of a wide range of tools used by such people as carpenters, architects, cooks and dressmakers. Opposite pages show conventional tools and the same items re-invented in designs which seem unlikely to function.
These illustrations are intended to promote analysis of why such items have developed into their present forms. A new requirement of national curriculum design and technology is that pupils should investigate, disassemble and evaluate simple products.
In a unique way, which seems bizarre in some cases, this book will certainly contribute to such understanding.
Clever Island is more conventional in that it contains illustrations and questions which should encourage children to make things from natural materials such as coconuts, shells, seed pods, sticks, seeds and bones. The teacher's notes suggest ideas for specific projects - a raft, a clock, a quill pen, an umbrella, a flute, etc - which provide scope for creativity with found resources.
MisbuildingsUntransport will have a ready appeal to children, particularly the pictures which illustrate eccentric features of various types of housing and transport. This book relates closely to Looney Tools and contains tasks which will stimulate thinking about design and should also prove to be fun.
The Paper Skyscraper is essentially a puzzle book with illustrations and clues which promote thinking about the properties of different materials - paper, rubber, steel, etc - and how they are used in the world at large. Suggestions for possible inventions, such as an underwater bicycle from rubber, tend to be contrived and unrealistic for key stages 1 and 2.
The four remaining books are slightly more complex and suitable for older children. The Cat on the Chimney (solving problems with technology), Alone in the Desert (the science of survival), Toy Designer (technology and energy), What should I use? (the technology of simple materials).
The Cat on the Chimney contains a series of problems most of which will readily appeal to children's creativity. A good feature of this book is that, having worked through the problems given, it is suggested that children should think of new challenges themselves. Some lively ideas and discussion are likely to ensue.
Alone in the Desert follows on naturally from the previous book in so far as it suggests activities which provide opportunities for children to address challenging problems requiring practical solutions in order to survive. Busy primary teachers will find the "possible answers" given in the teacher's notes, to be helpful. There is also scope for developing links with mathematics, geography and science through most of the suggested activities.
Toy Designer provides ideas for a range of projects which employ different energy sources - jet propulsion, wind power, stored energy, electricity and solar power. Although the range of materials and components suggested for projects is basically sound, in some cases more sophisticated constructional techniques should be used. For example, the pencil held vertical in modelling clay to form the mast of a raft, or constructions involving screws and nails into styrofoam blocks are unlikely to instil a feeling for quality products.
In many respects, the activities in this book are geared more towards promoting understanding of scientific concepts rather than developing designing and making skills.
What should I Use? is presented in the form of a game for two or more players. Children will enjoy the activities and, furthermore, gain an understanding of how a range of basic tools, equipment and machines actually work, together with the purposes for which they are employed.
This series should promote fun and become a valuable resource for enriching design and technology at key stage 2. A broad approach to the development of skills, knowledge and understanding is adopted and suggestions are generally in the spirit of the revised Order. But it is important to use this material within the context of a well-planned scheme of work, otherwise experiences may become fragmented and fail to contribute fully to the progressive development of children's capability.
Peter Davison is senior adviser for Cleveland