Designer success

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Practical and creative tasks can bring out the best in pupils of all abilities, writes Louise Davies

Adapting design and technology for pupils with special needs is a challenge, yet the subject adds so much to their educational experience that it is important to find effective ways to overcome difficulties. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority case studies reveal how inventive, resourceful and creative teachers can be. As a result, pupils with special needs make better progress in DT than in most other subjects. They enjoy the practical application and can see the results of their efforts easily.


Emma gets into a mess when trying to organise herself in a food technology lesson, relying on the teacher to help her every step. She finds it helpful during her snacks project to use a recipe to make a prototype. The teacher shows her how to make this a focused practical task. Prepared with an understanding of how the ingredients behave and interact, she is able to suggest her own adaptations.

There is a fine line between teacher intervention and taking over the pupil's project. Pupils with moderate learning difficulties should not merely follow a designing and making process with the teacher doing most of the thinking. They need well-planned, focused, practical tasks to help them address a design brief confidently.

Difficulties with Emma's planning are helped by showing her examples of how others have planned or allowing her to "plan retrospectively". At first, it is easier for her to give an account of what she has done, rather than what she intends to do. Or she can be given the main stages of the plan to put in the right order.


Adam needs to know what is coming next. His teacher keeps projects short and gives him regular feedback. Some pupils may be daunted by length and lack the confidence to get started. The teacher provides a supportive structure, breaking up the activity into smaller tasks with specific targets. For example, there is a tick list at the front of Adam's folder where he ticks off one or two targets each lesson which keeps up the pace.

Lists of targets can be divided into essential and extension. Rewards, such as end-of-project certificates that can be presented in assembly, make a difference.


Rifar, who is blind, makes mock ups with paper and tape when working on a design for a fabric wallet, to see how the pockets and flaps would work. He uses the modelling material, Wikki Stix, to create a raised sketch of his idea to refer to later.

Handling products and materials is important. Blind pupils may be unaware of the designing and manufacturing processes that are required to achieve an end product. During a project designing a new bread, tasks such as mixing and adding the correct amount of water are difficult. The teacher introduces the pupils to how yeast works and helps to set up an experiment with test tubes- one containing yeast, warm water and sugar, the other containing yeast and cold water, with balloons attached to the top. "Yeast needs warmth and food," explains Rifar. "I can feel how much bigger this balloon is. It's filled with C02".


Jack's emotional difficulties can lead to poor behaviour. He is designing a product from sheet material. He makes thumb nail models in card to explore and develop his ideas, bending and shaping the card to discover the material's limitations. This way, his ideas are more likely to be successful and he can take risks and experiment before he gets to his final product. He is working on a design related to biking. When he has difficulties expressing his ideas, the teacher supports him with keyword sheets, templates for flow chart and design-prompts with helpful graphics.

Jack only remembers a few instructions and has difficulty listening. The teacher avoids long introductions to lessons. He ensures that Jack has an overview, and then structures the task so that few instructions are given at each stage. The teacher provides a range of sources - worksheets, computer, classroom assistant and wall charts - so that Jack does not always need to ask the teacher. His work is regularly displayed around the school.


Lucy, who has cerebral palsy, uses a "scan and sew" computerised sewing machine to produce a good quality embroidered logo that she has designed.

She is proud that the quality of her T-shirt is as good as any that you can buy in the shop. For some pupils with limited motor skills, CADCAM guarantees success. Lucy responds well to lots of stimulus for the project, including a display of different design solutions, and visits by experts to the classroom. She likes the chance to clarify their ideas through discussion rather than relying on writing. The teacher allows opportunities for Lucy to have extra time for her project, during lunchtime or after school. When appropriate, Lucy is encouraged to use computer-aided manufacture, specially adapted tools and equipment, templates, jigs and patterns and other shortcuts to finishing tasks.


Further information can be found on and

Louise Davies is design and technology policy consultant at Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and chairs the SEN Advisory Group for DATA. She is author of Meeting Special Needs in DT (David Fulton)


* Pupils take part in the same projects as their peers.

* Units of work from the QCADfES Scheme of work are chosen so that pupils are motivated and achieve a good end product.

* The projects have clearly focused objectives.

* There are different expectations for individuals within a group from the outset, with planned extension work or peer support where needed.

* A full range of activities is provided: focused practical tasks, product evaluation and design and make assignments.

* Some aspects of the project are structured by the teacher, but there are also chances for pupils to take responsibility. The teacher allows as much independence as possible.

* Longer projects are broken up into smaller achievable stages.

* Designing is done actively and with real materials; there is less reliance on drawing and presenting ideas on paper.

* Cross-curricular links are used to save time and enable pupils to apply learning in other contexts.

* ICT is used to support learning and to provide a way of recording and presenting work quicker, so time is gained for other activities.

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