For all its many benefits, one of the disadvantages of the national curriculum has been to encourage convergence in thinking and practice; and the spread of orthodoxies rather than rigour and creativity.
Academies present an opportunity for innovation, particularly at key stage 3, which, although subject to inspection, is free from the convergence points of national exams and qualifications.
In my last job as director of design at the Royal Society of Arts I argued that learning design – let’s call it a structured approach to creative problem-solving – could help everyone to be more resourceful and self-reliant, both in their careers and in their day-to-day lives. It was basically an argument for universal design education and naturally led me to look at how design was taught in the universal context of secondary school.
Having worked as a designer and in design for 20 years, I was puzzled by what I discovered; how remotely design technology seemed to resemble the exciting real world of design that I knew so well.
I commissioned a pamphlet from the designer, academic and former design technology teacher John Miller, entitled What’s Wrong with DT?, and also a more academic literature review on the same theme from an education PhD candidate, Ian McGimpsey.
At the same time I formed a curriculum working group for the academy chain – the Creative Education Trust – comprising art and design technology teachers and ex-teachers, education policy experts and professional designers, architects and engineers.
In scrutinising the 2007 QCDA guidelines for design technology, and its counterparts for art and design and ICT, I began to formulate a set of concepts which both defined design and attempted to make connections between the pre-occupations of design and those of other subjects. I incorporated this into a redraft of those QCDA guidelines for our schools, which is what I presented to the curriculum group to get us started.
It may sound like quite a radical approach, but we made the decision that we should go back to first principles rather than tinkering around the edges of the subject.
Therefore, we developed a whole new framework of key concepts that form the nub of the redraft: Structure, Pattern, Meaning, Fabrication, Performance and Human Interaction replaced the QCDA key concepts (Designing and Making, Creativity, Cultural Understanding and Critical Evaluation).
Among the teachers we worked with, there was an appetite for a clear and unambiguous set of concepts to define design and determine the character of classroom activities.
We wanted not merely practical making exercises but conceptual challenges that constantly ask students: is this right or wrong according to the design principles (of structure, meaning, pattern, etc.) that I am using to design it?
This is quite different from using taste or market-led definitions of the consumer/user as indicators of successful design; or from simply following a prescribed “design process”.
We piloted six new projects in the Spring and Summer term at our schools in Rugeley. I worked with the teachers and other consultants, passing the schemes and lesson plans back and forth until we thought we had something workable, and then refined them further as the scheme progressed. These projects included the creation of a character out of found parts that could be animated electronically, the design of a puzzle based on a pattern element of the students’ devising, and the adaptation of a piece of clothing to change its gender.
We supplemented the lesson plans with a lot of visual resources to demonstrate the connection between the project and exciting things in the world – like Disney-Pixar and our own animation project; or between great, classic pattern designs and our own visual simplification exercise; or the traditions of Saville Row tailoring and our clothes-hacking assignment. I and other designers and consultants participated in teaching and got first-hand experience of how the approach was landing with students.
Teachers have responded incredibly positively to the concept framework for the design programme, although it was quite a change from the usual product-focused approach.
The key change in year 7 is from focusing on an outcome in the form of a completed product, to an outcome that’s based on conceptual learning: we ask, what will the students understand about how to make a structure perform, how to recognise and use pattern, construct meaning, and so on as a result of this project?
In order to embed this change in approach, and to get the teachers on board, we worked together to create some project exemplars. We have about 40 for year 7 (short visual and making tasks that link to the key concepts), a further 15 more complex design exercises for year 8, and half-term-long projects in draft for year 9. As the level increases, the projects become more holistic and draw together skills and knowledge from the wider curriculum.
We provide a huge supply of visual resources for these projects – information and images about all kinds of things in the world of design, construction, engineering, fashion, product development, technology and beyond to which the projects relate. Many of our lessons use these resources as a starting point, to demonstrate that this project is not just narrowly about the “product” task in hand, but a wider range of inspirations and connections; an adaptable concept and a transferable language.
Once we get started on the design challenge, we have found students get very absorbed by the visual and making exercises, and are generally well able to translate a conceptual principle into a physical task. Difficulties have arisen only when we have stated the brief in too broad and ambiguous terms, or when the teacher has not been able to get hold of the right materials to allow the students to be really creative. In all these instances, we constantly refine the scheme to make it work.
We have raised the game for design and recognise that this can be especially uncomfortable for some of our very good design technology teachers. But I believe the need to upgrade the design aspect of design technology, to rebalance the relationship of design technology, often by reconnecting with art, is actually widely accepted.
Teachers have commented eagerly on a number of things. According to their feedback, some of the most positive changes have been the focus on up-to-date inspirations for design, the switch from teaching decoration to teaching construction, opening up the assignment so that students do not all make the same thing, and a switch to concentrating on the thinking process as much as product.
On the whole, the programme is allowing teachers to teach design as a transferable life-skill rather than just a vocational trade.
Emily Campbell is director of programmes for the Creative Education Trust, which operates a number of academies across the West Midlands.
CAPTIONS: Grand designs: Inventor Jane ni Dhulchaointigh demonstrates her repair product Sugru to students from Fair Oak, a CET academy in Rugeley, at the V&A Museum’s Power of Making exhibition (above) and a Fair Oak student drawing at a Design Museum exhibition (top)