Teaching Design . . . What can we do…



I haven’t worked in education long, but If I hear one more person class design technology as a non academic subject I may suffer an aneurysm. Where did this notion of design being less academic arrive? Does the notion derive from the days when design was arts and crafts and the subject became diluted with the ideal that if you make something nice with your hands that’s design. Make something pretty with felt and feathers and you’ve got yourself a crafty designer. The term design is so multifaceted and to explain design under one umbrella is tricky. Design infiltrates every aspect of our society. Everything we touch has been influenced by design. The very clothes we wear everyday are made by a designer. The carton of milk you use to pour milk into your tea or coffee has been through a design process. The coat you wear to protect you from the elements has been designed to fit a purpose for you by a designer. Designers use technology like nanotechnology to design more efficient working products. Design is a practical subject, which because of its hands on nature has been looked upon in schools as the subject to keep kids busy, but as teachers we haven’t helped this view, as constantly teachers focus on making projects, so kids have something to take home. This is where design is schools has gone wrong.

We cannot place all the blame for the way design in education is at teachers feet, as the problem of teaching design well in secondary schools has to do with the way it’s handled at every level and that includes leaders in schools. Too often we are shunned as a non-academic subject and pupils who are troubled, low achieving and hard to keep focused are put into tech (often against their desires). Tech can be seen as a dumping ground for the dropouts. Now, what I just said may come across a bit brash or mean, yet I believe in most schools there’s an element of that attitude. Tech is where people make, not think, so any pupils who struggle with that thinking malarky can go to technology where they just make something.

Making is a pivotal part of design but not the main part. Pupils have for too long come into lesson and made something alreadly decided by the teacher, which they must complete by the end of rotation to take home. Teachers often feel to keep pupils interest we must get them making sooner to keep them busy and stop teaching any theory, but doesn’t limiting the theory mean pupils don’t fully comprehend what they are making and why. From my experience limiting theory restricts pupils from creating truly innovative products. By getting the pupils to make without thinking, aren’t we just busying pupils and we reduce the subject to a crafts based subject instead of a problem solving subject. I have a real issue with how design is taught in schools and I still struggle with ensuring the delivery of design in education in my area is meaningful. To steer away from making mood lights with no meaning and clocks that allow for generic creativity class sizes need to be reduced. Teaching 23 pupils to problem solve a brief, so far seems to be an issue, as time to guide individual ideas and to facilitate the learning they may need to learn to make a innovative product means one teacher between 23 is spreading a teacher too thin.

I am currently working out the best way to teach to growing class sizes the principles of good design thinking, as that’s where we should be steering design ed; into thinking skills, as society requires designers that can think up the future not make objects of the past. Too often due to rotation lengths, class sizes, behaviour and assessment needs teachers stick with what they know will work and what is manageable in a classroom. Having taught Product Design for the last year I have felt the pressures of trying to teach to make all progress in technology and its hard, for these reasons:

  • Too many pupils & short rotations: Teaching pupils 8 weeks out of a year to design, think and make to a very good level of making is a tall order. To see progress in 8 – 12 (usual rotation length) weeks is naive. You will see some of their capabilities and be able  to introduce pupils to basic concepts, but for pupils to fully assimilate that information in their mind for application in real terms they need more than 8 weeks of a year. Half those pupils will miss a lesson or two, so that becomes 7 weeks + and some will even miss half. Time to make mistakes is limited.
  • Too little money. I don’t need to say much here, but the budget I was given this year for growing class sizes and increasing pressure to use electronic technology was laughable. I spend allot of time thinking how I can get away with cheaper ways to work and of course this impacts on quality and engagement.


  • Poor behaviour.
  • Limited indepedence.
  • Not enough time.

Much to your disbelief I taught the mood light project this rotation, but to make it more meaningful I made pupils design a sustainable mood light using eco strategies. I informed pupils that they had to conduct research through questionnaires to find out the type of mood light they would make. Many pupils were resistant, informing me that they knew what they wanted to make. Why did they have to do research. They wanted to make a mood light for their room. They informed me that making a product with a target market in mind was not how designing  worked. I would buy It would be their answer when I questioned the validity of their design in light of their research. I made allot of enemies. I made the pupils research lifecycle and they didn’t make for 4 weeks out of 12, as I made them do theory eg; research, identifying trends, identifying  their target market, understanding the lifecycle of products and analysing the sustainability of products. I was faced with angry pupils who informed me that they just wanted to make in the workshop, and this wasn’t how they should be taught. The pupils concept of technology was one that would of been taught in 1942 not 2015. In all honesty the project failed. Pupils hated the fact they weren’t designing for themselves and informed me that they had to take the product home so why would they design something they didn’t like. Informing pupils that my main intention wasn’t that they would take it home, was like telling them I had stolen all the presents from under their xmas tree. Informing them designers design for a target market was like telling them that santa is real. They didn’t belive me. They felt I was ruining their technology experience. I won’t ditch the project yet though, as in areas it did succeed. Pupils began to see the need to make products for people. I banged on about novelty design if they refused to design for sutainablity to make sure pupils designed something meaningful. That’s the angle I had to take in the end; novelty design. It was a small victory. I am still not happy with the learning that my project offers. The project is more meaningful than it was, but I still think the project limits pupils creativity, as they all revert to designing generic outcomes such as footballs etc. The reason I teach the moonlight project is because I have too many pupils to teach to if they are all doing individual projects for 12 weeks on completely different briefs.

After my first rotation on the moonlight project I went back to my ideas board. I thought how I could make a sustainable moonlight project have meaning related to current technological advancements. That’s what we have to do as teachers to ensure these projects don’t become making exercises; we need to link it’s outcome to a real life problem or issue. National Geographic came to my rescue with an article on how people in Africa are now using solar lights to enable people to have electricity where they are off the grid. So, for the next batch of pupils I am going to steer the project towards creating moonlights that are solar powered for people off the grid in rural areas in Africa (or any other) that are off the grid. I am hoping this will make the learning more design centred, giving pupils the ability to think and solve a real problem.

To teach lessons that allow for designerly thinking and to be able to teach pupils to gain relevant designerly skills we all need continue to read and keep up today’s with current technoogical advancements and school leaders need to give us time to do this. Technology needs constant CPD to keep technology in schools relevant. The link with technology with schools and industry is lacking. Closer links with industry needs to be established. Other ways technology could be improved in schools are:

  • Link with companies: links to local companies could be created to help pupils in school see the value of design. Local companies could work with you to give design briefs to pupils for projects the companies are working on. Pupils could help companies design leaflets, posters and help promote local events. The opportunity to integrate community into school technology education is huge. Yet, time is needed to create and nurture these links to ensure they are success and beneficial to both parties. That time is something teachers very rarely or if at all get. I struggle with this at the moment. I want to do so much, but the time is not there and to avoid making myself ill I have to give up on some of those dreams. Sadly. Until next year, maybe.
  • Link with schools: schools need to commit to working alongside eachother. By linking schools, schools resources could be shared and CPD amoung teachers could where possible could be brought in house. Successful ideas on behaviour, assessment and teaching stratgies could be shared. Collaboration is vital for the future of CPD, as together we all have skills and knowledge that could be shared through the running of workshops in schools by teachers. I am not saying to get rid of CPD run courses from outside agencies all together, as outside agencies are of course vital to teacher development and skill set enhancement, but we need to use what we have in our schools better (teachers individual skills).
  • Longer or no rotations: rotations are too short in many schools still, restricting pupils from really understanding the learning. How teachers are meant to see progress in 8 – 12 weeks from pupils to me is (as I said before) naive. Rotations need to collapse into one another or schools need to select what technology they want to focus on. The idea of Textiles, RM, Food, Graphics etc is now an outdated format that needs reinventing. Should schools choose a specialism to focus on or should they teach a basic knowledge to KS3&4? The problem with collapsing rotations into one another is that teachers are not skilled in everything from sewing a seem to creating various electrical circuits and without training schools are asking allot of teachers to take on teaching all areas up to KS4. I am not sure what the solution is, but I do think rotations need to be longer and schools have to select specialisms to focus on.
  • Better classroom technology: Schools still lack behind in using technology well in the classroom. There is so much potential to create really engaging lessons with technology, yet training and support is not implemented well by many schools. Training on a new interactive whiteboard or IPad apps usually revolves around a 1-2 hour session, where nothing much is achieved at the end apart from the basis introduction of new technology to use, which ends up not getting used, as people are still figuring out how to use the last technology introduced last year or the year before that. Most teachers will give up on ‘New’ technology as there’s not the training to back up its effective implementation into the classroom and the time to really learn it for effective teaching.
  • Teach Meets: A good teach meet allows colloboration, reflection and sharing of teaching practices. I have taken a few strategies from teach meets and I have used them effectively in the classroom. I think every school should run Teach Meets as part of CPD for their staff, or teachers should organise them as part of their CPD for their schools and subject areas.
  • Competitions: Every year competitions are run by various organisations; linking these into the curriculum allows real time projects for pupils to navigate.
  • Outside agencies: Working with agencies to come into school to run workshops for design would definitely connect with pupils, as they would see the value of what you are trying to teach. Design workshops run by design companies would be beneficial to teaching relevant design skills to pupils. Wouldn’t it be great if design agencies had staff who would give up an hour of time or more depending on the subject to come into schools to inspire the next generation. Workshops could be run teaching design skills that are relevant to a design sector in industry.

Implementing the above will take time, which is not of abundance in teaching, but I believe if we can try the above, teaching in design will become more meaningful to some extent again. There are many schools alreadly doing this and we need to follow suit to save Design Technology in education. The problem we have is less pupils are signing up for technology, less teachers are signing up to teach it and schools leaders are focusing on STEM, so it’s up to us on the ground to make changes that will push change further up the chain. We all need to work together to change how technology is viewed in education to allow it to be seen as an academic subject and to fully rid it of that crafts label. Design is a thinkers subject and it’s time to think about what can we do to improve how we teach it.

What will you do?  Every little helps.


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