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Why laying down the law fails us all

Steve Cushing looks at what has gone wrong with technology teaching in the UK, and what we can learn from abroad.

In Britain the technology experiment appears to have failed. Top-down curriculum change forced upon teachers by law has not worked. The experiences in Northern Ireland are like our own. Technology in Britain and Northern Ireland seems to have degenerated first into Star Wars defence systems for Britain and then artificial design-and-make tasks such as bird feeders.

Despite an enormous investment in Northern Ireland by each of the education and library boards' technology centres, "teachers are defaulting to where they were before 1989 and are more hardened and resistant to top-down curriculum change" (M Thompson, Industry Matters).

This might make sense if Northern Ireland was still a rural economy. But it is industrialising fast, with 88 per cent of the workforce in industrial jobs, many of which are high-tech industries.

Another country burdened by the British view of technology in the 1950s is Bermuda. Faced with a shift from manufacture to insurance and finance, the Bermudan authorities are restructuring their schools and re-writing the curriculum. Technology is one of their priorities and, influenced by the United States, "entrepreneurial" skills the goal.

The starting point is poor - rooms with no windows, little ventilation, and decor reminiscent of the British "craft" rooms of 40 years ago, prevail. Most of the rooms also contain outdated "craft" machinery that would, for safety reasons, be closed down in British schools.

But if the British experiment has failed, where in the world is technology working? Listening to the rhetoric, one could be deceived into thinking that American schools have moved ahead. Certainly, having recognised the need to improve the status of what at present is called "industrial arts", they are moving full forward in a way only the Americans could do. The research in the United States is excellent, with the federal government leading the way.

In practice, however, very diverse patterns of development are observable. Some states, notably Oregon, have moved close to Britain's original technology Order. Unfortunately where Britain has the three Rs, in the United States they have four Fs, a phrase coined by a teacher colleague on a recent visit to America. It stands for fine phrases and fancy footwork and was coined as we became more frustrated by words of good practice followed by avoidance when we wanted to go into a school to see it happening.

The German technology curriculum is often quoted as good practice. Close observation, however, shows it to be focused firmly in traditional craft skills.

It is in France that one can observe real movement and this is despite a centralist approach to education. Technology is part of a general culture, principally based on the notion of savoir, savoir dire et savoir faire. According to a report compiled by Rachid Rkaina (formerly professional officer at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority), French schools have moved away from the workshop-based education manuelle et technique to the new subject technologie, a broad-based way of thinking.

Both New Zealand and Australia are developing teacher-led technology curriculum projects. Neither intends to introduce technology by means of the law. The Australian and New Zealand curricula are based on the original British Order, food and all. But, unlike us, they seem to be making it work. How? by taking their time to develop the curriculum and by training teachers before its introduction. By doing so there appears to be a belief in the importance of the subject coupled with high teacher morale and a willingness to change. They have avoided the political battles that have almost destroyed technology in the UK.

What can we learn from these experiences? The real problem seems to be that many of our political masters use research as a drunk uses a lamppost, for support, not illumination, and often to support minority viewpoints. The truth is no amount of writing or re-writing documents will bring about good classroom teaching. The countries that invest in teachers by providing the best in professional development and the necessary new equipment will lead the world in the 21st century.

Further developmental work and research to enrich our understanding of the potential of this domain of intelligence for the benefit of our young people and their futures are urgently required - not more legislation.

Steve Cushing is project director for the National Design and Technology Education Foundation.

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