Time to get back to basics

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Phil Thane believes DT focuses too much on the products and has lost sight of what it's all about

I've worked in DT for many years, first as a teacher and more recently in educational supplies. In fact, I trained to teach DT when most schools hadn't heard of it and were teaching woodwork, metalwork and home economics. One school where I worked in the 1980s still had "boys' craft"

and "girls' craft" on the timetable. I spent the first half of my teaching career waiting for schools and exam bodies to catch up with my training, and I'm the last person to call for a return to the "good old days" of training boys for apprenticeships that didn't exist and girls for motherhood and housewifery.

However, I can't help wondering if DT is losing its way by concentrating on "production values" rather than content. I believe we have allowed the sophisticated new tools available to us to take over and come between the student and the making.

Of course, DT teachers want to see their students make quality products, and, of course, new equipment can be motivational, but let's not lose sight of the fact that we are motivating students to learn about real design, which includes knowledge of materials and manufacturing processes. The learning is the important thing.

The magazines and other media aimed at DT teachers are not really helping.

Editors naturally prefer pictures of well made artifacts, so we see students creating fabulous new products which are kind to the environment, useful for the disabled and are "cool". But if you speak to practising teachers it soon becomes clear that the gap between this high-tech hype and their daily experience in the majority of schools is getting wider.

Part of the problem is that recent governments have embarked on a cycle of allowing schools to sink, starving them of investment and cutting running costs to the bone, then "rescuing" them with a vast injection of cash and a hurried makeover, before turning their backs again once the press releases are out and all the photo-opportunities have been exploited.

Consequently, there is always a fresh crop of "successful" schools, but a great many more who know that their time in the limelight is years behind them and the next a long way in the future.

There probably isn't very much DT practitioners can do about that, but we could - and should - stop collaborating in this PR nonsense and demonstrate that we value the ordinary work done by ordinary teachers and their students every day in schools all over the country.

The thing stopping us is that many DT teachers are themselves unsure of the value of what they are doing, and, in some cases, they are not sure what it is they should be doing, so they keep quiet.

Researching this, I have spoken to a teacher who is having great success with old-fashioned blacksmithing work with disaffected Year 10 students.

They will never do design portfolios for an exam, but they can sketch an idea on a cigarette packet, chalk it on the floor and start bending hot metal. They get a sense of satisfaction, some healthy exercise and stress relief. They learn that they can work with their hands and start to wonder if some sort of trade training might be right for them. That's a success.

Another teacher who had worked in a difficult school in a deprived area for many years was naturally delighted when the school became a technology college. While the new DT block was being built, all their old equipment and stock of materials scrounged over many years from local industry was put into storage, then lost. The new block is stylish but impractical, and the department is now short of materials, equipment and space.

Nevertheless, their students are keen and working hard, even if these days they mostly do graphics, textiles, card modeling and computer-aided design and manufacturing work. That's a success, too, despite local government mismanagement.

I know a school where, dismayed by media reporting of the nation's eating habits and public scorn of food technology, they dropped it and now run a key stage 3 module called, simply, "catering". They teach basic nutrition and cookery skills. That, too, is a success - their children may never get a design award for their work but they can feed themselves.

The key thing is to remember why we are doing DT. There's a statement on the DATA website which summarises its place in the curriculum: "to create quality products and prepare young people for citizenship in a technological society."

The second part of that statement is crucial, but there is a danger that the first gets all the attention. We should remember our "products" are the young people that pass through our schools, what they make is process not product, so take pride in what you teach them.

l web.data.org.ukdatasecondaryindex.php

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