DT isn't crafted for survival
The rise OF Ikea, the Conran Shop and brands such as Cath Kidston mean that Britain is more design literate than ever before.
But pupils who study design and technology at school still spend months making coat hooks, steady-hand games and Argos-catalogue collages, according to a leading academic in the subject.
John Miller, who worked as a DT teacher before becoming director of design at University College Falmouth, has compiled a review of the subject for the RSA think-tank.
DT lessons, he found, vary enormously in scope and ambition. "Projects ... may be as ambitious as ... the complete design of a restaurant interior ... or even a working model of a solar-powered vehicle," he says. "Or as pedestrian as a storage cabinet for DVDs."
Equally, while some pupils are allowed to produce projects inspired by their own interests, others' input is constrained solely to the choice of colour.
In many cases, pupils spend months on projects that seem designed to facilitate behaviour management, rather than learning. Mr Miller says: "Project work that seems formulaic... where creative thinking has been squeezed out by the need to fill boxes with a prescribed number of 'ideas', or 'research' consisting of collages of the Argos catalogue... is all too prevalent.
"DT has failed to make an impact on employers as a compelling grounding in creative thinking, technological understanding and practical skill."
Mr Miller attributes this to the expectation that teachers provide a design-and-make project that can be completed during once-weekly lessons. "For a skilled adult to make a desirable product in five hours is a tall order," he says. "To do this as a child, and acquire the skills along the way, is most unlikely.
"The only sensible strategy is to present the class with a formula: a project file with 10 pages."
He offers examples: week one - collate pertinent ideas from catalogues and the internet; week two - divide the page into four, and put one design idea in each section.
The problem is compounded by the fact that many DT lessons are taught by former metalwork, woodwork and home-economics teachers. A 2007 Open University study of DT trainee teachers found that the acquisition of specialist technical knowledge was prioritised over design training.
"The overly formulaic approach to design... has been in part a response to the need to engage a workforce of non-designers to teach it," Mr Miller says.
"In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that staff will tend to over-rely on the curriculum requirements, transforming them into a technical model."
In addition, DT classrooms are often physically isolated so that staff from other departments remain unaware of what goes on there. This is compounded by the need for DT teachers to cover more than one specialism within their subject: they are therefore less likely to teach another subject outside their department.
Successful DT lessons require time to repeat and develop a task or technique: to make, fail, learn and make again. But with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, DT is likely to lose timetabled hours and resources to core curriculum subjects.
Mr Miller says: "If DT had ... provided a place for hands-on, creative, crafty and techie experimentation, and time for risk-taking, trial and error, then surely the subject would have been included in any progressive English Baccalaureate."
RSA - www.thersa.org
Design and Technology Association - www.data.org.uk.