Life begins at Forte

29th September 1995 at 01:00
The high-pitched screams of 20 metalwork files scraping in unison set the fillings in my back teeth ringing. Having managed to unclench my jaw I asked a girl in the Year 9 design and technology class what she was making. "A multi-functional nut-remover for a mountain bike," she replied. "Do you have a mountain bike?" I asked. "No," she said.

I asked her why she was making it and if I could look at her designs. She pointed to the clearly-dimensioned drawing, on the white-board, of a Halford's bicycle spanner with "focused task" written large in red pen over it. Her friend interjected that this was what the teacher insisted everyone must do because the Government had said so.

My visit to this department in a London school revealed some of the concerns about the direction in which the pendulum of DT education could be swinging. First, some teachers are interpreting the revised Order into very narrowly defined prescribed tasks and resurrecting projects from such workshop classics as the manual of the 1964 Industry Training Board for first-year engineering apprentices. Second, it has always been apparent that the revised Order does not fully address such challenging issues as continuity and progression of learning activities, how to develop pupils' skills, curriculum planning and methods of recording and assessing pupils' work both formatively and diagnostically.

For us, the solution to tackling such issues did not lie in the Norman Tebbit "on your bike" approach (and I, too, don't have a mountain bike), but rather the Forte Crest method. That is to lock a group of "volunteer" primary and secondary teachers, consultants and advisers in a hotel on the Al2 for a weekend, release them occasionally for a Jacuzzi break or to let off steam in the sauna, but make sure that as well as losing weight they produce an outline document providing down-to-earth guidance for schools.

This think tank produced a "curriculum model" of the revised technology Order which provides a framework for planning DT experiences for pupils in all key stages. It was expected that as pupils progressed through the key stages, teachers would acknowledge their previous experiences in knowledge, skills and concepts. The group believed that pupils need to be taught skills, but not in some mechanistic manner, as in the case of the spanner exercise.

What was missing from the revised DT Order was an interim stage before pupils encountered focused practical tasks and what the group termed "key experiences". These experiences are short activities through which specific skills, knowledge and processes are taught to introduce a new concept or idea; for example the use of hand tools such as hole punches, paper drills and automatic wire-strippers or mechanical and chemical ways of removing, joining or forming materials.

Pupils should have the opportunity to see, use and apply these key experiences in order to understand processes and techniques before the "focused practical tasks in which they develop and practise particular skills and knowledge" (revised DT Order, page 2).

A young child learns to ride a bicycle first through observing other riders, followed by a tentative foray using either stabilisers for support or the security of an exhausted adult holding on to the saddle. They then practise riding solo on a cycle pathway or quiet road. Pupils in DT also need these sequences in skill development, which allow them to feel secure and act in a safe, responsible way, while having freedom to develop their own ideas.

To assist with these two conflicting demands, the "Forte" group of teachers prepared working examples of key experiences, focused tasks and design-and-make assignments as well as exemplar curriculum arrangements to help primary and secondary schools with their planning. The group also mapped out progression and continuity across key stages 1 to 3, illustrating tools, materials, skills, joining methods and concepts. This was welcomed by those schools who carried out trials of the support material.

A detailed analysis of the programmes of study revealed that they fall into two types - process-based and knowledge-based. This helped the group devise a clearer and simpler way of structuring methods of assessment by stranding attainment targets by identifying elements such as materials, tools and techniques, quality and planning which were evident throughout many levels.

Underlying this work was our conviction that good DT activities do not happen in a vacuum. They need to be set in a context which pupils can investigate and evaluate to provide activities which are meaningful, rigorous and enjoyable.

This was borne out on a follow-up visit to the "spanner" school where the mountain-bike work, coupled with the support materials, had taken the pupils into new DT terrain. A range of focused tasks were explored and developed to include key experiences which resulted in portable light attachments, carriers for personal energy packs and multi-functional tools, reflective and luminous safety panels, a security gadget, a comfort seat attachment and even a novelty noise-maker.

is a school development adviserwith Essex education authority * Copies of the Essex LEA folder on non-statutory guidance for key stages 1-3 Design and Technology can be obtained from EDAS Wickford Centre, Alderney Gardens, Wickford, Essex.

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