Why the new D&T curriculum was so badly needed

The new D&T GCSE specification became available this term to allow teachers to prepare for the changes that will be implemented from September next year. Steven Parkinson explains why it represents a real opportunity.

Design and technology (D&T) is at a crossroads. One road leads off a cliff. At the bottom of the ravine lies a pile of broken stools, pencil cases and wooden bubblegum dispensers.

Another road leads to a bright, technological future, where D&T workshops are preparing today’s pupils for the world they will live in – a world not of homemade coffee tables (there is, of course, a place for woodcraft, albeit a heavily reduced one) but of robotics, 3D printing and iterative product design.

READ MORE: Why we should stop ability setting in schools

D&T departments will need to adapt or die. Departments are disappearing, a phenomenon not aided by the focus on EBacc subjects. However, where D&T is done well – capturing pupils’ imagination and preparing them for the world they live in – students are flocking to it in droves.

I spend half my time teaching and the other half showing D&T departments how to modernise. While I have worked with some talented teachers, there are others whose skills are not sufficient for the modern age. This is not only their fault: greater investment is needed in training, and the old curriculum was not fit for purpose. The recent overhaul represents a turning point for our subject, but it must be implemented well if we are not to be consigned to the scrapheap of history.

Here are five changes and why they are necessary:

“Coursework” starts with contexts, not briefs

In the past pupils have produced identical products in response to closed briefs, such as “design a chocolate bar wrapper”, that leave little room for creative thought.

Exam boards will now provide “contexts”, such as: extending human capacity; improving living and working spaces; or securing the future, to which students will be encouraged to respond with freedom and creativity. It won’t be unheard of for 20 students to be simultaneously designing 20 different products.

Materials chosen based on their appropriateness to the problem

Gone are the days when the entire class made everything out of wood, because they were taught by a former woodwork teacher.

D&T departments will need to work as teams and embrace all materials and processes to best equip their students with the most appropriate tools needed to solve the problem. After all, would a designer or engineer disregard a material because they had more experience with others?

The old curriculum was not fit for purpose

New and emerging technologies, many of them disruptive (eg, robotics and 3D printing) will be in great demand

Students must be given opportunities to explore digital technologies to solve problems – and teachers need to accept they may have a 12-year-old who surpasses them in electronics. With low-cost electronic programming systems such as the BBC Micro Bit, Crumble and PICs, the opportunity to explore new technologies has never been greater.

Iterative design to promote high-quality design thinking

Iterative design leads to high-quality products; four sketches on a piece of paper don’t. We’re transitioning from 2D drawings of superficial solutions – a storage unit with a trophy shelf here or there – to real-life prototypes and feedback. Whether using traditional methods, computer-aided design or 3D printing, the use of technology to photograph, screenshot and document constantly-changing iterations will develop higher-order thinking.

The exam is now worth the same marks as non-examined assessment (NEA)

One D&T exam, worth 50 per cent, will replace the previous material-specific papers (worth 40 per cent). And while students will be able to select materials for certain questions, the entire breadth of D&T will be examined.

A more balanced distribution of classroom time between exam preparation and NEA will thus be essential.

The new NEA contexts will be provided on June 1 of year 10, meaning that teachers will need to spend the earlier years laying the foundations of knowledge and skills, to create independent problem-solvers who are ready to tackle the NEA in year 11.

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  1. Wayne Stevens

    It is definitely an exciting time for DT. Creating not making solutions is the way forward, and embrace the technology that is available as closer links with industry and the ‘real world of design’ is surely a good thing. I am new to teaching, as I have retrained from a print / product design background, and my only concern is how to manage multi material projects at the same time… but I am up for that challenge! Bring it on.

  2. Sounds great but the construction industry is clearly lacking any young people who have any practical skills. When I mean any I mean students who cannot shape and model materials to basic hand tool work. Meanwhile the construction industry is crying out for skilled workers. Resistant Materials will die out and more Product Design responses will be developed. I despair with it all as the true value of hand skill work does engage a certain non academic group of students. We are using the WJEC Construction and Built Environment Course after plodding our way through the NQF BTEC Construction course which was 20% practical and had A Level standard Science content for a C grade. It seems D+T is going very academic.

    • Nick it sounds like you have found one solution to achieve what you want to in providing a craft based education. Nothing wrong with that at all and I would applaud D&T departments providing a variety of different course to suit different purposes. Certainly, well qualified and experience D&T teachers should be able to teach them. But can we please not confuse the specific outcome of these in terms of a vocational qualification, manifest in the form of practical craft skills, (you refer specifically to ‘hand skills’) with the aims and purpose of D&T! The two are very different though I accept there is an overlap in that D&T does provide both a much needed opportunity to develop hand skills and the chance to utilise them in the production of prototypes. But lets be clear: D&T is not a vocational subject. It is part of a broad and balanced curriculum for all young people to study. Its outcomes can be wide and varied and I celebrate that. What is much more important than the craft or technological knowledge and expertise developed through studying the subject, is the knowledge, skills and understanding that can be applied to actively participating in an ever increasingly technological world. And that transcends acquiring making skills. I don’t see any problem at all with what you are implying in the use of the word academic. I see the intellectual skill and capability needed to work as a designer every bit as academically challenging as any other subject you choose to mention. If we are talking about worthy design challenges that is.

    • Whereas I would support everything Steven has said regarding the new D&T curriculum is concerned life is rather more complicated than this. Many D&T departments have traditionally been required to deliver more than just D&T. Many are required to deliver vocational courses and many would argue the need to also deliver life skills. Schools often select the band of students who will be able to continue with this practical subject post 14. How many will be able to access this new far more demanding subject remains to be seen. It would be a great shame if D&T became the academic pathway that is similar to Physics, for example. Whilst the nation requires creative highly technical designers and engineers we also need plumbers and builders, car mechanics and blacksmiths. In many schools I visit each year D&T has been a total failure. It is a subject in many schools which I would not choose if I was a 14 year old and certainly I would not pay for if I was a head teacher. It has been a subject without a true identity and we have allowed trainee teachers to enter this subject with few defined core skills and with a ridiculously poor CPD provision. We are in a total mess!
      So is there a lifeline for teachers who are faced with only having access to the lower ability bands of students? My concern would be that AQA’s Technical Awards offers a real and creditable alternative to D&T. I would suggest that this might actually be the biggest threat to the continuation of the subject in anything other than a minority route for gifted students. Having spent 40 years in the classroom dealing with designing and making I have lost count of the students who have found success through the “learning through making” routes previously offered. Students who could not cope with the “academic” demands but working with their hands could solve real problems and manipulate materials at a high level.
      I am a big fan of 3D printing but there should be a massive warning attached. We have already seen that laser cutting has provided an easy route to success and, in my opinion, a decline in making skills. How many students currently work with metals and make products that truly function? 3D printing could make this situation even worse and further alienate some students from the real world of being able to being able to put up a shelf or lay some decking.
      One of the major benefits of the Technical Awards is that students will need to put together a portfolio of core skills and competencies, one of which is team working. This government backed qualification at levels 1&2, which also counts towards Progress 8, could kill off D&T in many schools.
      So, as a HOD faced with providing a five year curriculum where would I go? Is GCSE the route which best suits the students and staff expertise available. If students are going to be able to suggest the best materials to solve problems at GCSE they will need to have skills and experience with using a wide range materials and processes. This is also true if they are going down the Technical Awards route. So how much designing actually needs to be taught and when? I would suggest that a Year 7/8 course which does no designing but teaches students to confidently manipulate a variety of materials might be a sensible route to take. Designing to contexts is fine in principle but if students can design for “a Manchester United fan which lives in my bedroom” and they can 3D print a decorative clock with the club logo on then we move no further forward. I believe that we should provide real briefs as that is what happens in the real world. These should be set by some of our high profile supporters such as Dyson, Hemingway, Powell etc.
      I have no problem with a 12year old who surpasses me in their electronics knowledge (actually not hard to do) but I don’t want to have to solve all of their construction problems for them. In my opinion, we missed the golden opportunity of scrapping the title D&T and substituting Product Design and Design Engineering rather than falling into the same trap of trying to wrap all our diverse skills and experiences into one subject. We did that back in 1990: Food at long last has broken away. I suspect many textile teachers will align themselves with Art & Design and before long we will finish up with a 3D printing course with embedded electronics. Some may believe this is a step forward but I have serious doubts. Exam preparation becoming a theoretical book/You Tube experience?
      I have never subscribed to the four ideas on a page philosophy and have always encouraged a “grow an idea” approach before Kimbell put a name to this iterative design process but I have considerable doubts about whether we are actually moving forward with this curriculum especially when I see the ridiculous iterative design models being suggested by many influential people. CPD is or biggest issue and I see no signs that there will be suitable providers or the finance to pay for this. Sorry I am not as positive as Steven.

      • Ryan Ball

        Agreed Brian!
        I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place choosing between Cambridge and Edexcel examinations, both of which I don’t care a deal for. I think there was a great opportunity that has been missed somewhat and I agree again with Brian regarding the rigor. I think teachers will find it hard also with the added content. I think I will end up ‘teaching to the exam’ like many other subjects I see, killing the whole point behind having the new specs.
        I completely agree with making useful items with real briefs, but we cannot produce earth-shattering new products each and every time (look at Apple!) and I am concerned that students will be assessed / concerned about the originality of the idea, concocting pie-in-the-sky ideas rather than a quality outcome from a brief that may be given to them (like in the real world)
        On the other hand maybe it’s just another change and it WILL be positive, but sticking the words ‘iteration’ and ‘programmable’ into sentences doesn’t make a solution and as Brian said, 3D printing will become another laser-cutter…. I hope it will all work out as no matter our thoughts / ideas on the specs it is true that we are all passionate about the subject and that we realise its importance in society and for students.

  3. Nick, you have ‘hit the nail on the head’. The new curriculum will meet certain design area needs and is becoming more academic, however, it is not going to meet all pupils or all Industry needs. The subject has been pulled around over the years to meet the Graphic/ Graphic product, Packaging, Product Design, Resistant materials, Engineering and the Construction needs. It is a subject that needs to meet all needs and sometimes meets no ones needs. I think the changes are good and important, however, the Ebacc is decimating DT departments in many schools, resulting in more able pupils being drawn to the Ebacc subjects and in many cases the weaker pupils being placed in DT. These weaker pupils are going to struggle with the new DT GCSE. The article talks about a new world in DT and the need to embrace technologies, cross material links and share skills. That’s fine if the school has the technology, the skills, the resources, funding and the staff to share this new approach, however, many departments are becoming very small, in some cases only having one person teaching DT. There is a hugh push towards the new GCSE, which I applaud and want to be part of, but it is not just the pupils that have to be engaged, it is also the staff, who are struggling in many cases with environments, resources, calibre of pupils, constant educational changes. If DT is not careful, staff will look to other exams to meet their pupils needs e.g Art and Design GCSEs with a specialism, AQA technical qulaification, to name a few. Following a number of subject websites and links through Facebook, teachers want to be up for the challenge, but there is so much they can not control and that includes the catchment they work in.

  4. Nick, I agree, D&T has fooled itself and parents for many years believing it is an academic subject. Focus on developing problem solving skills to find appropriate solutions. We need to ensure pupils understand materials by using them! The problem is that many wood or metal projects have stayed in the 1970’s, why??? Using 3D printers to design and develop is useful but they are just tools, for many years we have jumped on the latest trend. Good teaching is just that, we develop and we ensure that pupils have the opportunities to create (sometimes) unique solutions to problems. I am very concerned at these changes especially with the development of CS. I would like to see a focus on getting the basics right. Let us not forget, school is the start and some pupils will move faster and hit a level 4 level in some instances but let’s not dilute the learning process.

    • Ryan Ball

      Well said Jason. ‘Sometimes’ uniques solutions…
      Would maths’ students be expected to find new equations each and every time? Science students find new vaccines? Yes, DT should be about trying to be innovative and forward thinking, I get that, but what’s so wrong reacting to a brief? I imagine most designers do this. There are not many inventors / innovators that do a great job with this and I’m worried too long will be spent scratching heads looking for daft products / solutions when most of the time it is the simple ones that are the best…

  5. R Alexander

    Another article telling us how important it is for us to change without giving any actual solutions or suggesting where the money for this change will come from.

  6. Tony Montana

    I’m a trainee DT teacher and find the new curriculum exciting! Saying that, I do feel a lot of teachers who have been in the teaching bubble for decades, are worried and scared of more work to structure the changes. Like the comments above, DT has been neglected for decades. Children are still making storage boxes, key-fobs – which my parents made in the 1970s! The government does need to inject cash into this subject, not with fancy 3d printers, but developing teachers and departments to get up to speed; something that the rest of the world has been doing for a while.

  7. James Nolan

    I taught D&T for 10 years, I left for a variety of reasons one being the curriculum. I’ve since studied architecture and now work as an architectural technologist in a RIBA practice.

    I think this experience gives me a useful insight into teaching and the needs of industry.

    I believe DT should be about hand skills, about making, about drawing with pencils and pens, about handling wood, metal, plastic, understanding the commonality between the materials and the differences that separate them. It should equip children with the skills and knowledge to progress into design, make, construction careers if they want, and they don’t want that they should come away with a set of skills that mean they can fix a table at home when a leg falls off.

    I’ve no idea why some people think secondary school is about preparing people for industry, and even if it is, obsessing about cad/cam will not provide people with the skills industry needs.

    From studying architecture and now working in the construction industry I’ve seen that hand skills are needed. I’m in my forties and studied and now work with people in their twenties, many of them cant draw and even fewer can build. During practical build projects at university I was shiwingboeople how to use a saw, chisel, plane, mallet, all things I learned at secondary school.
    I’m working with a lad now, he’s 6 years into his architectural qualification and didn’t know how to lay out a 2d set of plans, sections and elevations, through his time st university he’s done everything as 3d cad then simply exported the 2d views into viewpoints. Again, i learnt orthographic projection this at gcse.

    There’s also an idea that universities want children who can use cad, it’ll definitely help a student through their course but will form little of no part in gaining access to a course. Most people I know that studied architecture didn’t do dt, they’re usually good at maths and or art.

    Finally the construction industry really does need people with hand skills, the new curriculum repels able students and compounds the view that trade jobs are for the less able, the end result is less than able students going in to the trades and people who would make excellent builders being put off and being funneled into some awful office job because they were bright enough to get 5 GCSEs.

    Sometimes I think about teaching and how I’d like to take that I now know and teach it in schools, then I look at what schools teach and console myself that I did a good job while I wax a teacher. At least there are some people around that will be able to fix a chair and know the difference between 1st and 3rd angle orthograohic protection.

    • Emma Lawn

      I’m interested in delivering a woodcarving project based around “The Mouseman” at a new school I will be teaching at in Jan 2021. I agree that students don’t understand the original techniques in RM by using the tools correctly instead they jump from design to a computer to a 3D machine.
      I’d like them to be able to draw, use graphic projection drawings (1st & 3rd angle projection), carve their product first then if needed also complete with a CAD CAM version and compare the results.

      Hopefully by doing this they will learn all the skills needed in one project.
      What do you think? If you have any suggestions I’m all ears.