At a recent conference I spent some time admiring a vacuum cleaner. In fact I was paired up with a high ranking official of the Department for Education to do a joint presentation on the wonders of this cleaner to the other members of my group, an exercise which finally convinced me that my early decision not to become a doorstep salesman had been right all along.
The conference, on "Products and Applications - Exploring Value Judgments in Design and Technology" was organised by the Values in Technology Education special interest group based at the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham. It arose from the need to help teachers with what the group's co-ordinator Ruth Conway described as "critical reflection on the interaction of technological problems with people's lives and the environment".
As a starting point, the conference brought participants into contact with a dozen or so commercial products including Clarke's shoes, Levi jeans and Dyson's vacuum cleaners. People from the companies were there to talk about product development and to discuss the way that value issues might be handled in the classroom. Those of us looking at the cleaner talked about its apparent efficiency and fitness for purpose, its appearance and the designer's intention to move away from the traditional disposable bag.
The point here, of course, is that there is a sharper focus on "Products and Applications" and "Quality" in the revised national curriculum. Pupils are asked to relate the way things work to their intended purpose, how they meet a need, how materials and components have been used, what users say about them, and what alternative products could have been made. They also have to judge the quality of products on the basis of fitness for purpose, whether it is an appropriate use of resources and their impact beyond their purpose, for instance on the environment.
The Values in Technology group, though, represents a strong and influential strand of belief which says that the judgment of a product (whether brought into the classroom or designed and made there) has to go much further than mere consideration of whether it is fit for its purpose. Those of us discussing the vacuum cleaner, for example, might well have asked about the environmental effects of its manufacture; or whether the work of making it was satisfying and life enhancing; or whether we should be using precious energy resources to suck up invisible muck in already clean houses. Significantly, we did not do this, concentrating instead on whether it was worth the fairly steep price tag, and its technical cleverness.
My group's failure to grapple with the broader picture neatly illustrates the problem facing teachers tackling products and applications - that there is hardly enough time to look at how products were designed and made, and the discussion of values must therefore fight for its place on the list of priorities.
Ruth Conway's view is that "values" is not an optional extra. "No technology should be developed in isolation from its implications and purposes. If you keep technology in its social context it's enormously motivating. It's so easy to take it from that context and limit it to the technical and economic criteria that are so much easier to handle. But if you do that, then you've lost it."
The issue of values was very much in the minds of the developers of the Nuffield Design and Technology Project, which has just been published by Longman. Project director Dr David Barlex, echoing Ruth Conway, feels that if the focus is solely on designing and making you can miss out. He promotes, as a teaching tool, the idea of "winners and losers" - trying to pin down and quantify the fact that any product will benefit some people and cause problems for others. Pupils are very interested in this sort of thing, he suggests, "and yet we're conscious that it will often require teachers to move away from their existing methods. They might talk to the humanities teachers who do it every day for a living."
The Nuffield project's in-service training guide also has a statement on values which is very much in line with Ruth Conway's views: "It is important to remember that raising awareness of value considerations is a subtle task without immediate concrete outcomes. Many pupils resist this in a desire to get on with the more immediate demands of designing and making, so it is important to give these activities the high profile they deserve."
What do schools do about "Products and Applications" and about the business of "Values"? At The Mount, an independent girls' school in York, the design and technology department cleaves very strongly to a values-led approach: the department's stated aim is "to give people the confidence and skills to be co-creators of a just, peaceful and sustainable society". Faculty head James Pitt say it is an ideal that springs from the school's nature as a Quaker foundation. "Although it sounds pompous, what we are trying to convey is that technology is not neutral, it's what you do with it that counts."
The aim is to reach the point where all pupils from junior age onwards see nothing unusual in looking at what technology does to people: "It's unpacking the phrase 'well-designed' and seeing it in a much wider way than just fitness for purpose." Thus, in looking at existing products, key stage 3 pupils at The Mount are asked: "Who benefits from having this around? What happens in bringing it into being: is there pollution? Should there be some sort of tax to offset negative effects?" The same goes for design and make projects, all of which have a very definite "deep values" slant at The Mount. One project is based on a kit produced by Intermediate Technology. The task is to design an affordable stove which is more fuel-efficient than the traditional Third World way of cooking on a pot resting on three stones over an open fire, it saves time spent searching for wood and saves trees - which are important for helping prevent loss of productive land through soil erosion.
For some teachers, the trouble is that it's one thing to look at the vacuum cleaner and pronounce on its fitness for purpose, but quite something else to start down the road of finding out who is affected by, for example, the environmental effects of making plastic. Good though the exploration of broader values sounds, they feel there really is very little time or need to venture into territory usually occupied by environmental education, or RE.
James Pitt revels in the opportunity to go down other paths: "The fact that there are no boundaries is one of the strengths of the subject. In a sense it's not a subject at all, but an approach to learning. It will overlap with RE, and draw on science and maths and the whole purpose of it is to give people the sense that they can be creative and change things for the better." To those who wonder whether there is time to do all of this, he points to the popularity of the subject at The Mount, where about a third to a half of pupils do it at GCSE, and to the excellence of the exam results - more than half the entrants achieved A grades last year, a third of them "starred". Not all teachers would want to nail their philosophical colours quite so firmly to the "values" mast, though.
At Selly Park Girls' School in Birmingham, where there is a palpable sense of purpose and energy in what is a highly acclaimed design and technology department (it is treated as a core subject), head of department Jenny Jupe is much more concerned with the quality of designed and made products: "The most important thing is getting to know about materials, working with materials and acquiring skills to process them, and what drives all of this is the big issue of quality." Thus, under the heading of "Products and Applications", the department has an activity which involves hi-tech pens. "We talk about Bic and Biro, take them to bits and look at components and then make judgments about safety and durability."
There is, says Jenny Jupe, some discussion of the needs which brought ballpoint technology into existence, but not much. "With a 13-year-old, the question of whether we are getting value for money is about as far as we would go - because there are much more pressing needs to do with teaching knowledge and skills of handling."
Nevertheless, a look round the department soon shows that the wider agenda is there: Year 11 pupil Sophia Bokhari was well into the final stages of a project that was inspired by her work experience in a hospital pathology lab. Having seen the wiring diagrams for the expensive electronic devices which were used to keep blood supplies at a controlled temperature she determined to make something simpler and cheaper. What she has come up with is a set of controls, sensors and circuits that could be used in a range of settings and because of their cost might also be relevant in the Third World .
Mel Tennant, deputy head of the school and a teacher in the design and technology department, confirmed that values are always there in the background: "One of the girls here has made a bath warning device for a blind person, and going on from there is the whole question of whether society can do better for blind people. Other pupils are doing things to do with animals - a feeding device for when you leave a pet during a holiday. This brings up whether you should leave pets behind anyway, or whether we should keep pets at all."
He is quite certain, though, that the department simply cannot afford to get too deeply into these issues. "Within the time constraints you've got to touch on them - think about them, write them into your brief, be aware of them and then if there are things you can solve through design then that's OK. But you are not going to solve everything that's wrong with the world. Time is a constant pressure."
On the face of it, James Pitt and Jenny Jupe run departments with differing emphases, and it would be easy to go on about adherence to Quaker principles of personal responsibility on the one hand and Birmingham's tradition of craft skills on the other. But it's not really like that. Both schools' exam results speak of uncompromising quality, and it would be perverse to suggest that Selly Park's approach is mechanistic, given the relationships within the department and the work of students like Sophia Bokhari.
The fact is that technology is a new subject whose traditions and approaches have yet to emerge fully. It will surely become apparent that schools can cover the same ground and build similarly enviable reputations even though, in the best traditions of our heterogeneous education service, each chooses a different starting point in line with the school's overall mission.
* Ruth Conway, Values in Technology Education Group, co Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham B29 6LQ. Tel: 0121 472 2462 Nuffield Design and Technology Project materials, page IX Product applications and quality in a Third World context, page XII