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Thoughtful design

Design and technology is the ideal subject for teaching thinking skills, says Gina White

Can you imagine taking a thought, an idea that might possibly solve a problem and, through considerable effort, beginning to build it, revising and redefining it, shaping it into a product that you can see and feel and smell? Design and technology teachers will recognise in this description the "imagineering" aspect of the creative design process.

There has been an upsurge of interest in the teaching of "thinking skills". They are, for the first time, illustrated and included within a national curriculum that also defines and challenges teachers to modernise the teaching of Damp;T. Research into how children think is part of extended research into how children learn, but very little is written from the Damp;T perspective.

Research about "thinking" tends in its jargon to exclude most teachers interested in thinking processes. It puts off all but the most persistent readers or insomniacs. A notable exception to this is From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classrooms by Dr Carol McGuinness where characteristics of high-quality thinking are identified. (Research Brief 115, DFEE Publications, 1999).

High-quality, innovative Damp;T requires students to:

* think creatively * solve problems individually and collaboratively * analyse * make connections between the vast range of information and ideas found in research * relate these findings to the initial problem * plan possible solutions.

A good strategy is brainstorming or "mind mapping", which involves pupils in writing down their thoughts, ideas, and feelings concerning the design problem. Connections are drawn between individual words and comments to evolve original lines of investigation and to initiate starting points for design ideas.

The units of work in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's National Scheme of Work for key stage 3 provide good vehicles for integrating the delivery of a range of thinking skills. In unit 8A pupils design and make a concept model for a new computer mouse. In the product analysis stage, the teacher assembles a range of existing products for pupils to handle and discuss, so that they can identify the properties of different materials and components and consider why they are used. The pupils identify possible design weaknesses of the materials and processes used. None of this activity is in isolation from the needs of the user; many opportunities for discussion and questioning are provided.

At Wirral grammar schoolfor girls, teachers have extended pupils' critical analysis skills in an activity called "dysfunctional design". Instead of focusing analysis on how a product meets the needs of the user by improving on what has gone before, the pupils searched for the opposite of all the successful product design characteristics. This "good design turned inside out" encourages an innovative approach. Bryn Healey, head of Damp;T at the school, says this type of exercise makes pupils far more confident in suggesting and developing solutions that are different or controversial.

Within the QCA units of work the focused practical task provides the teacher with opportunities to engage in questioning and "thought prompting". For example in unit 8A, before comparing and contrasting different kinds of finishing techniques, pupils may be involved in collecting information, possibly using the internet. They might be asked to present their research in a factual report or to learn and demonstrate skills involved in finishing materials. Within the design and make activity, pupils can extend their initial ideas. They look for other innovative ideas and apply imagination and critical judgments. They also compare finished products with their expectations and mental image. Last, they evaluate their product quality on criteria established at the beginning of the task.

Liz Torbet, head of Damp;T at Pensby high school for boys used role-play in evaluating initial ideas for products. Her strategy was based on Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats (Penguin pound;7.99). Each of the six "hats" represented a different way of looking at a problem or design idea. The class was divided into six teams and each team was given a "hat" and character role and a set of other students' initial design proposals. For example, the yellow hat group had to search for the good points and features in the design proposals and feed these back to the designers. The blue hat group had to reflect critically on the proposals and be informative, sensible and helpful in their feedback, and the red hat group had to be hot-blooded and passionate about ideas and designs and feed back to the designer what they enjoyed, hated or loved about various aspects of an idea or design.

Liz Torbet says this approach injected fun and a fresh, dynamic element to the vital process of evaluation.

Gina White is general inspector for design and technology and ICT at Wirral LEA, and executive member of the National Association of Advisors and Inspectors in Design and Technology (NAAIDT)

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