Where art and science meet

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Design is much more than a narrow discipline, say Moira Fraser Steele and Eileen Barlex - it can bring depth to all other subjects on the curriculum.

Though design and technology became compulsory for all pupils in England and Wales with the advent of the national curriculum, primary and secondary teachers are still identifying lack of design training as a major problem. This concern was just one of the findings highlighted in a recent report, Design Focus in Schools, which resulted from the first stage of a nationwide consultation with educationists about the problems faced in teaching this subject in Britain's schools. It is being run by the Design Council's Education and Training Foundation, which in the second and third stages will consult employers and students.

Design is a fast-moving and increasingly sophisticated subject. Professional designers spend years perfecting their knowledge and skills. In contrast, very few teachers receive any formal training in how to teach design. Understandably, therefore, many teachers are not confident in providing support in pupils' design work.

The consultations also showed that there was a great deal of confusion among both primary and secondary teachers about what design actually is. Indeed the national curriculum itself seems in two minds: design is included in two separate forms - as part of art and design, and also as design and technology. As a result, teachers feel unsure whether design is an art subject or a science - or is it both?

There is no easy answer. Design is an activity that uses a wide range of experience, knowledge and skills to find solutions to problems. It involves the whole process of producing a solution from conception to evaluation. Children have to take risks, by making decisions on often incomplete information, formulating plans and carrying them out. This is design in action, both in the classroom and in life in the world outside school. Designing requires discussion, collaboration and taking account of other people's needs and wants. For instance junior school pupils designing and making toys for severely handicapped children are encouraged to consider the problems these children face, so that their own attitudes to them change.

The skills and methods employed in design can be applied to all other subjects, bringing freshness and depth and enhancing understanding in areas such as geography, history, physics or mathematics. For example, using mathematical rules appears like a denial of creativity, but this belief reflects the mistaken attitude that creativity can only develop when unbounded by rules. It also falsely implies that mathematics is solely the routine following of rules and cannot as a subject be creative. Design-related problems, on the other hand, generally have no single "right" solution and pupils become accustomed to working out radically different, but equally successful solutions to a particular problem. Could a design based approach therefore aid the learning and enjoyment of maths?

The Design Council is looking at the impact of design on mathematics and has instigated a pilot programme with the Open University to identify mathematical concepts found to be particularly difficult at key stage 3 and work with designers to investigate design-based approaches that might make them easier to understand. We hope this pilot will provide an exemplar and show that other subject areas might also benefit from a design approach.

Through "designing and making", pupils can be taught to reflect on what they are trying to achieve and to think how effective the chosen solution is. The design-related skills are every bit as "basic" as literacy or numeracy. Also, the discussion involved in any collaborative "designing and making", requires a clear statement of what is to be done and clear judgments of what has been achieved. Not only can this help to develop a broader vocabulary, often of a technical nature, but it can also develop pupils' ability to express themselves orally.

A typical example is one piece of work in which children made a cardboard model of a vehicle - of their own designing - and set out, graphically and verbally, what they had done as if they were devising a cut-out model, with instructions, for the back of a cereal packet. After moving from preliminary drawings to working models, including measurements, they then reproduced these to scale, with accurate instructions on how to cut out and assemble the vehicle. It was a useful cross-curricular tie-in of design and technology with English.

To help teachers counteract lack of understanding and relevant training in design, the establishment of quality design teacher training and support networks is vital. One of the suggested Design Council actions stemming from its Design Focus in Schools report is to support "designer in residence schemes" in schools, in a way that enhances both art and design and design and technology. This would prevent design teachers from being isolated from current design practice and innovation.

Trawden Primary School in Lancashire has a resident textile designer, Pat Southern, who is helping pupils develop different design skills. The quality of the pupils' work has been enhanced so much that a commercial manufacturer is now reproducing a range of the greetings cards and wrapping paper based on their designs.

The consultations have also shown there is a belief that design can have a much wider application and impact on the social fabric of a school and that design might be used to address a number of perceived problem areas of school life. This is especially so when pupils are encouraged to participate in "real-life" projects within the school.

The Design Council is currently running a two-year action research project to investigate whether a "total design policy" could be adopted by primary and secondary schools and provide exemplars. Four universities in London and Leicestershire are working with schools in their areas. The schools will be responsible for identifying their own problems as it is important that schools should have ownership from the start. The research should involve teachers, parents, governors, inspectors and local professional designers working in partnership with the universities.

At Trawden primary design was used in this way to create a better working environment and make the school more effective. Classrooms and teaching areas were reorganised more effectively. Colours were used to denote different areas of activity - blue boxes were used for storage and red lines marked out shapes on classroom walls which were filled with carefully mounted artwork. Coloured "bricks" were also made by pupils to stick over existing brickwork in the school hall.

These are just some of the concerns highlighted in the Design Focus in Schools report which the Design Council will be trying to address by facilitating change, in line with its mission to ensure that design is understood, used and valued in every aspect of our national life.

Moira Fraser Steele and Eileen Barlex are respectively assistant director and senior manager of the Design Council's Education and Training Foundation

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