Uncertain crossing

20th October 1995 at 01:00
There is a stark discontinuity between primary and secondary technology teaching methods, Richard Kimbell reveals.

Technology has had a troubled launch into the national curriculum. And the problems stemmed largely from the fact that it grew (during the Seventies and Eighties) from the practice of teachers rather than from an established body of knowledge.

There were few "standard" courses and no "standard" textbooks. We drew on and modified all kinds of material from quasi applied science to quasi visual arts and we built it around a model of learning that placed the pupil at the centre of decision-making. There is a very real sense in which - during these formative 25 years - we were making it up as we went along. It is gratifying to know that many parts of the world (including the United States) are desperately trying now to emulate what we have succeeded in creating, but that has not made our current task any easier.

Anyone who understood this history would not be surprised by the difficulties we have encountered in the past five years. No one had formerly attempted to write down the sum of what we mean by design and technology. And committing it to the national curriculum required that all design and technology teachers (rather than just the enthusiasts of the Eighties) should be able to teach it. Moreover, all primary teachers needed to be able to teach it. Taken together, this represented a massive expansion of our activities.

Warning bells were ringing as early as 1988 when the National Curriculum Working Group for Design and Technology took on its task. It was readily acknowledged that there was a desperate lack of research to inform decision making: "Design and technology lacks a research base in pupils' understanding and learning such as is available in the cases of mathematics and science. " (Department for Edcuation and Science, 1988); "Craft, design and technology stands out as the most under-researched area of the curriculum. The literature of the subject barely exists." (Penfold 1988).

We are now seven years on from that point and there is still painfully little research to inform us about how we might shape and develop our design and technology curricula. There is plenty of anecdote and prejudice masquerading as research, but there has been far too little real research.

In the Technology Education Research Unit at Goldsmiths College we have just completed one such piece of research funded by the ESRC. The project, Understanding Technological Approaches (1992-95), was built around the assumption that to understand a process-centred study like design and technology, it is necessary to observe the process in action as pupils pursue their design and technology projects.

The highly unusual feature of this project, however, is that we used the same observation and recording schedule for pupils from Year 1 to Year 11. We derived the schedule partly from our previous research for the Assessment of Performance Unit (1985-91) and partly from a series of school trials conducted in 1992. Once refined, we used the schedule to monitor every minute of the technology projects conducted by 80 pupils across all four key stages in 20 schools in the greater London area.

We had planned the data compatibility in order to document and reflect on the development of technological capability, and it rapidly became obvious that we were not observing a steady incremental growth. Rather we saw each key stage developing a different model of design and technology.

Cultural technology is characteristic of key stage 1: "Technology is part of life and is all around us." Projects tend to be topic-centred across the whole curriculum (for example "explorers") and technological activity derives from within the topic, involving perhaps the "covered wagon" transport system of the early American explorers.

Problem-solving technology is characteristic of key stage 2: "Can you make it work?" Projects again often spring out of other class work but are more focused on solving problems; making an elastic band powered and controlled vehicle or a fairground roundabout.

Disciplinary technology emerges sharply at key stage 3: "You need to know about this knowledgeskills)." Projects are designed to teach a small specified range of skill and knowledge. Pendants (to teach metal fabrication and enamelling), alarms (to teach simple circuits and sensors), rock cakes (to teach ingredient mixes and processing).

Simulated technology emerges at the interface of key stages 3 and 4: "This is how real designers work." A gradual move to individual projects - identified by the pupils themselves and therefore generally having some reality - within which they are expected to be rigorous in the application of an abstracted designerly process and the development of a portfolio that reflects it.

To some degree this evolution can be regarded as a natural and proper shifting of the focus in teaching and learning. This might realistically be claimed of the transitions between key stages 1 and 2, and keys stages 3 and 4. However, the data suggests that no such claim can be supported for the transition from key stage 2 to 3. At the Year 6-Year 7 boundary there is a total reconstruction of the most basic features of teaching and learning.

In the space of a six-week summer holiday, children leaving key stage 2 have to completely transform their view of what they will be doing in the classroom; what the teacher is for; what they expect or don't expect.

However, what might seem a horrifying discontinuity in children's schooling is actually quite understandable. The evolution of design and technology in the secondary curriculum has allowed secondary teachers to develop a set of repertoires that were seen to be more or less appropriate to the perceived needs. But in primary schools, design and technology has made a much more recent appearance and in many schools did not exist before the mandatory stipulations of the national curriculum in 1990.

In this circumstance it was almost inevitable that primary schools would develop a model of design and technology that reflects how primary teachers habitually behave in the rest of their teaching. We should certainly not be surprised when we discover a mismatch between this developing primary repertoire and the more established secondary repertoire.

What we have uncovered is the need for specific kinds of professional development for teachers of design and technology. If we are concerned to provide children with a coherent programme of activities bridging primary and secondary practice, then we need to enable key stage 2 teachers to interact with key stage 3 teachers - both in formal courses and in their respective classrooms. Only in this way might we expect to ameliorate the stark divisions that currently exist.

This is by no means the only far-reaching conclusion from the research we have just completed. The work is shortly to be published by the Open University Press: Understanding Practice in Design and Technology (Richard Kimbell, Kay Stables, Richard Green). We would welcome comments from all those whose interest lies in the further development of design and technology in schools.

Professor Richard Kimbell is director of the Technology Education Research Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London Year 7 Projects o specialist teacher - secondary trained (often male) operating in a design and technology workshop o children working individually o task - specific brief set within design and technology lesson o designing - carried out in advance on paper o materials - specified by teacher o manufacturing processes - common to all o task time - specific to 'timetabled' design and technology o time - half term units (average = 12 hours plus homework) o teacher input predominantly directive of what it was felt important to be learned Year 6 Projects o generalist teacher - primary trained (often female) operating in a general classroom o children working in small groups o task - from class topic; open ended and negotiable; fed into other classwork o designing - carried out through using materials o materials - that which is available in school o manufacturing processes - as appropriate o time - no stated limit (average = 8 hours) o teacher input predominantly supportive of things pupils sought to do

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today