Like chalk and cheese

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Art and technology make for strange bed fellows, but Douglas Blane finds out how it's done

With colourful smocks and chunky jewellery on one hand, and conservative shirt, tie and trousers on the other, art and technology teachers don't look as though they belong on the same planet, never mind in the same profession. And the differences go deeper than appearance, says Stephen Duff, principal teacher. "That does not mean, though, that the two sets of teachers can't work well together."

The proof was all around him in the school hall at Garnock Academy, North Ayrshire, last term, where the entire first year of 100 pupils was working on mini-challenges as the culmination of a five-week art and technology design project.

Design is an activity with which both sets of teachers are familiar. But they tackle it, as they do everything else, in different ways. "This year, we encouraged the pupils to look first at structure, shape and form," says art teacher Katrina Thornton. "It's a very `art and design' way of designing.

"When we did it the other way round, looking at function first, the kids came up with obvious, literal designs. If we gave them a country theme and a chair to design, they'd come up with an ordinary chair with a Mexican flag painted on it."

In 2008, the starting point was a set of themes with no obvious relevance to the design brief - a chair or lamp for a particular type of restaurant. "We gave them things like seeds and pollen, fruits and flowers," says Miss Thornton. "And we sourced interesting, often abstract, images."

In groups, the pupils worked from the images to develop 3D models of the shapes. "Only then did they ask if that shape could become a light or a chair. Once they had the interesting form, they used technical to think how they might make something useful from it."

This is not the normal design process taught in technology, in which form follows function. So some resistance to such an arty approach might have been expected from the technologists. But this is where Garnock Academy's departmental structure and choice of principal teacher lent a helping hand.

The distinct art and technology cultures in the school were brought together several years ago in one department, led by Mr Duff: "This new approach is an exciting way to work, and more creative than how we normally tackle design in technical. There's a big improvement this year, an increase in the creativity and maturity of the designs the kids came up with."

Another seemingly small change, with a noticeable impact on the pupils' enthusiasm and the quality of their designs, has been the stage at which the project was delivered, says Mr Duff. "We brought it forward to end of first year instead of first term of second year. The Journey to Excellence team wanted to film the project before the summer.

"Although it was only a few months' difference, we did wonder if the pupils would have the maturity to cope. That hasn't been a problem, and we've been pleased by two benefits we've noticed with the younger age group.

"They are more enthusiastic and they've been working better together in groups."

Group work is an aspect of school whch still features more strongly in primary than in secondary lessons. It's one factor, according to youngsters, that can make their transition from the more communal primary classroom to the individualistic secondary school difficult.

"Two things I really liked about this project were working in groups, and the designs we made," says Billie Waite.

"Everybody had ideas," says Sophie Dunlop. "So we took those and made them into one thing. There weren't any rules. It was good that we weren't told what to do and we got to decide ourselves."

The 25 groups of four pupils were selected by teachers at the start of the project. The biggest difference the pupils had got used to in primary was the speed at which members had to learn to get on, says Bethany Ryan. "In primary, you are with people you've been with for years, and somehow you all agree. With a new group, people have different opinions. That is harder."

"We were given different themes to choose from," says Connor McIsaac. "There was sea-life, plants, architecture and man-made structures and they gave us pictures of buildings, flowers, fish, plants and things. The whole thing was difficult. But not too difficult."

While the project took five weeks, within three weekly periods of art and two of technology, none of the pupils mention any difference in delivery by the two departments. The pupils seem to have seen it as a seamless project - which was, of course, the objective.

"We'll always have our own identity as art and technology teachers," says Mr Duff. "But in a project like this, there isn't separate input from art and technology. There is one project delivered by teachers.

"A Curriculum for Excellence is about transferable skills and people working together. If pupils can see their teachers working together in this way, it sends them a powerful message."


The aim of the project was to develop pupils' understanding and awareness of the design process and its separate elements: brief, research, initial ideas, planned solution and evaluation.

Small design challenges, as group members were getting to know each other, occupied the first two weeks. These were one to three-period exercises that introduced them to the use of everyday materials in unconventional ways. (One example: "Design the tallest self-supporting tower using four sheets of newspaper and masking tape.")

Groups then began the main design task and worked through the design process to a 3D scale model. Each group also produced a full design folio with contributions from every member.

Assessment was by continuous informal monitoring, where teachers interacted with groups and ensured every pupil was involved. Technical and art teachers used, for the moment, different 5-14 guidelines, but good communications allowed consistent grades to be given, says Stephen Duff.

On the final day, pupils assessed the designs and portfolios. "There is a real buzz. They take it very seriously and they do a great job."

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