Echoes of a nearby future – where is (design) education going?

A well known on-line resource quotes ‘Design Education‘ as the ‘teaching of theory and application in the design of products, services and environments’

I’ve been away from my blog for a while focusing on Twitter and Pinterest. I’ve become a bit fed up and disappointed with education, sadly. My apologies….

I write this having come out of yet another summer of anxiety and uncertainty waiting for internally marked, but externally moderated, work for students studying design and technology in school. I’ve been in this game for over thirty years and until quite recently loved every second of it. Inspiring and supporting young creative minds to go on and study design at university and beyond (not this digital incarnation of the word – I mean the hands-on sketching, designing and manufacture of products that do, at times, employ or use various technologies as needed) has to be one of the best jobs in the world. Line managing thousands of folk over the years, managing significant budgets, overseeing and directing diverse and challenging projects, managing and leading teams of professionals in support of those students, marketing and branding departments to help facilitate investment and sponsorship…..and so on. Yip, the role of a design and technology professional was a wonderfully challenging and diverse job. But the joy has gone, and it has gone because of variables that, to put it quite simply, are out of my hands. I’ve thought about this long and hard, and the reasons are threefold.

Firstly, when you work with students for a number of years (two years at A-level or Diploma, or more if you include MYP/IGCSE etc.) you get to know them; their personalities, skill sets, weaknesses and strengths….you ‘know’ them well and you mark/grade/support/guide them as best you can and as they need. I expect internally marked grades to be more or less upheld as I believe I understand what is required and know the students – you attend exam provider inset/cpd and go to subject group meetings to ensure you are at least up to date. I also expect some moderation by the exam groups to ensure that my own visions are in line with the exam requirements…so a grade shift (up or down) by a small margin is expected. What I can’t abide, and I’ve experienced this more in the past five years of delivering design and technology, is a significant mark down because an element of the exam guide/rubric has not been clearly identified in the supporting portfolio, so the moderator has just decided that no mark can be awarded or attained EVEN THOUGH the work is very strong in all areas. As a lead moderator/team leader in the past it was my job to guide my team to see this – to see the bigger picture (if genuinely quantifiable) and give the marks based on the evidence clearly portrayed in the portfolio, not just decide that objective C, part ii has not been clearly identified. Common sense has gone out of the window.

Secondly, the subject has become dominated by the role of technology – specifically digital technologies and this is wrong in my book. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) has always been a part of our subject and arguably in the early and mid 1980’s design and technology led the way with CAD, systems and control in schools whilst CS/ICT became the whole school policy of IT departments. The situation has been exasperated by the coining of the term ‘digital design’ in the 1990’s, an American incarnation I believe, which has since clouded what design education is about especially in international circles. So within the MYP and Diploma programmes, for example, we have a mix of understanding and philosophy. In the UK, Australia, much of South East Asia, Design and Technology as a curriculum subject has embraced and used ICT and related technologies in the work students do to support their design ideas. As they use a pencil or pen. In the US and some other countries, it seems that the indoctrination with coding and so called ‘digital design’ has been done at the expense of manufacture and design (drawing, sketching, examining design history and culture, anthropology – arguably the foundation stone of good design). DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND ME, of course these technologies are of value and are needed BUT they cannot stand alone. Good Design and Technology education must include these aspects of systems and control, graphics, food/drink and textiles, manufacture, materials science, business and economics, languages, history, elements of science and maths, Art….so, we need to see this imbalance pulled back into equilibrium; the process of designing, manufacture at a bench, modelling and prototyping in resistant and compliant materials materials, sketching and drawing, reading up on design history, reasearching using other languages/culture (anthropology) MUST involve the use of Digital technologies, coding, CAD/CAM etc. but not be dominated by it. In my opinion of course.

Thirdly, the subject of design (and education as a whole) has lost its way. Sir Ken Robinson is spot on (see my blog entry Ken Robinson – creativity in education a decade on ) and the writings of the great Don Norman (How Design Education Must Change) are big influencers. Education is archaic and based on industrial ideals that go back 100’s of years. Schools have become exam factories and many parents want ‘results’ over education and substance. Many curriculums are antique and still revolve around the idea that algebra, Shakespeare and the dissection of a bulls eye are key to educational prowess and success. I’m not sure where the blame lies. Governments? Subject Associations? Universities? Political think tanks? Naive and inexperienced leaders within curriculum providers and subject reform groups? School Heads or curriculum leaders who fail to see the value of a subject that in their eyes is not seen as academic? Management by walking about, not just pinging emails, and experience based on service at the chalk face not just through theory delivered by a further degree. I don’t know, but suddenly, from a subject of significance in terms of wealth creation on a global scale over a decade ago (certainly in the UK), design (and technology) has suddenly become a second rate area of curriculum study in many, not all, schools. It’s expensive to run, difficult to get skilled staff who have the diverse range of skills required to manage and lead the subject and the new breed of educators are full of this digital technology stuff. Good design does not revolve around a ‘makerspace’ plonked in a library (!) consisting of a 3D printer (a CNC glue gun in effect and a technology that has been around for twenty years….), a bit of CNC kit with a CAD workstation attached and a soldering iron. Madness.

Design and Technology is not about ICT, apprenticeships or simply ‘making stuff’. It’s a significant, and much needed, diverse and challenging subject that drives global wealth creation, nurtures key skills (interpersonal and presentation) and embraces anthropology. It’s complicated, expensive yet thouroughly rewarding for all involved.

But for me, the fire in the belly has subsided. I’m being drawn to other industries that value the skill sets that I have built up over thirty years of delivering Design and Technology around the globe, all starting from a four year B.Ed Hons in the subject. No Masters this or PhD that….just solid delivery and experience. More mastery than any further degree can offer.

It’s sad. I think I’m a good teacher (two national and international nominations/awards support this) and I think I inspire youngsters. I get on well with parents and colleagues, know how to create and steer a vision…but I can’t deal with the nonsense of moderation and the apparent breakdown of my subject by folk in positions of responsibility who simply ‘don’t get it’. I’m also becoming disillusioned by education in schools – direction, curriculum and management. Seemingly, my professional skills in project, facility, budget and staff management, leadership and HR/PR are more valued by folk in other professions than in schools and education. These other professions also pay more for the same, or less, hours. Job satisfaction…? Maybe, maybe not, but until I try, who knows. A no brainier?

I do hope Design and Technology remains in schools. It’s an invaluable subject of application. A vital one. Education will be much poorer without it. Future generations of students, and consequently the world of work, will be poorer without it.

I hope I’m proved wrong.

Using MED’s in School (Mobile Electronic Devices)

There is no ignoring the onslaught of smart phones, tablets and laptops in schools today. Trying to ‘ban’ these MED’s or prohibit their use is like saying to students that they can’t use pens or pencils (because they might write on a wall or desk). We have to embrace them and learn how best to use them so that they support a student with their learning. Above all you must educate students to use them appropriately. Prohibition is definitely not the answer. Trust is key.


Really? Is this required?

The first thing, and I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, is getting teachers to change the way they manage their classroom/lab/studio. A few simple things can help make both the teacher and student so much more at ease in the classroom when using MED’s. I’ve been using laptops in schools for twenty years, smart phones and PDA’s for over a decade and tablets for five years or so and have dicovered many things by getting it wrong in the first instance then learning from it.

Laptop Classroom.
Don’t have your desk at the ‘front’ of class. Have it at the back (or if you want flip the students so that they sit facing the back wall where all your great visuals and resources are hanging/posted. Maybe not ideal to many but hey, a change is always good and it gets everyone thinking…). That way when students use their laptops they know you are behind them…they won’t fiddle on Facebook or watch YouTube videos on their favourite rock band because they do not know where you, or your eyes, are. I realise that this is not always possible (in a lab for example with tiered seating) but where possible, have a go at least.

You can see their screens as you wander around – simple ‘old school’ classroom management in the modern day (yet I am still surprised by just how many teachers still base themselves at the front of the class with walls of raised laptop lids facing them). Of course you move to the front as you need to engage with a whiteboard/-touch or what have you (although you can control many whiteboards from tablets and desktops). No good teacher stays static in a class nowadays – do they?

If you want full attention, get the students to shut the lids of the device. Work won’t be lost, the device just sleeps (do make sure they save their work every 5 minutes though just in case…)

Use software to help monitor screens – software such as are excellent and can be easily installed on your desktop, laptop or tablet so you can easily monitor each student screen at a glance from your own device.

IPads, Tablets and Smart Phones

Many schools have established 1:1 laptop/tablet programmes in operation and as a consequence many acceptable use policies (AUP) are already in place. MED’s are fantastic bits of kit that you don’t necessarily have to teach students to use (especially smart phones) as they teach themselves so you can simply crack on with teaching and learning using the MED as a tool in support of what you want to achieve. However, how you approach their use in your classroom/lab/studio is your call – you must be comfortable with it and obviously it must be in-line with your school policy on MED use.

At the start of the lesson get all students to place their phone (iPad or tablet) ‘screen up’ on the corner of their desk ideally in ‘airplane mode’ until you direct them to use them (all wifi and Bluetooth disabled) . That way, there is no fiddling in pockets, bags or texting underneath the desk or behind ‘stood up’ textbooks….and you can see at a glance if there is activity on the device as in most cases the device screen goes ‘live’ and lights up when a text, sms or call comes through. When you need them to access the www, use video or photo, calculate, record sound, use an app you’ve identified etcetera they simply turn airplane mode off and go for it.

Students will quickly appreciate that you embrace using the devices and that you trust them to do so appropriately in support of their learning and in line with your school MED or ICT user policy. A win win.

Key points:

  1. Make sure your school has an Information & Communication Technology (ICT) Acceptable User Policy (AVP) in place
  2. Make sure you have an MED policy in place (could tie in with above)
  3. Make sure your school E-Safety document has been honed in collaboration with your students, colleagues and parents so it is an inclusive document. Getting whole school buy-in is crucial so that everyone feels that they have ownership of it (and most importantly everyone knows what it entails).
  4. Experiment with classroom layout and establishing what works for you. It’s your class/lab/studio so be in control but do get student inclusion in the thought and planning process. It helps.

Above all, embrace the use of MED’s in your classroom and look at the positives NOT the negatives. Not always easy to do but trust, and clearly defining the school AUP to the students, is crucial to establishing a clear and successful culture of MED use in your classroom.

You won’t look back from my experience.

The Layout and Design of a Modern Classroom


I have been intrigued by some of the articles that have circulated recently about the ‘design’ of the ‘modern classroom’ as a consequence of ‘on-line’ learning. Well, I hate to shatter anyone’s illusions but the so called ‘on-line learning’ layout of a modern classroom goes back over twenty years to when the first lap-top equipped environments came to the fore in schools (in Australia I believe).

I was lucky enough to be involved in the design and build of a school back in 1998 which at the time was the first fully lap-topped school in the Northern Hemisphere with every child from age 4 to 18 had a lap top.  How we designed and laid out the classrooms was not simply ‘technology dependent’, but looked carefully at how a teacher and pupil actually interface – work with each other. It also looked carefully at the ergonomics of the desks, chairs and tables in relation to keyboard and screen use.

The first thing you notice with many teachers and their classrooms is that there is still exists the perceived need to have the teacher’s desk at the front with waves of pupil desks facing forwards. Then, you notice that many teachers plaster the walls at the back of the classroom with all sorts of vibrant and informative subject related material – wonderful. Except that none of the pupils can see these fantastic resources because it is behind them (and if they turn around to look they will invariably be in trouble with teacher).


During my teacher training and subsequently over the past 25 years of teaching, I have seldom simply stood at the front of a class and ‘Chalked and talked’. I like to move around and to be honest the place I liked to be was at the back of the classroom. Why? Pupils behave more (they don’t know where you are but can still hear you) and when you do need to emphasize something or write on the board you move to the front and address the class ‘old school’ style.

Move forward to 1998 and with a laptop equipped classroom the layout was even more appropriate. The only addition to this was that my desk was now at the back or side of the classroom because the technology meant that my notes/presentations are projected onto a screen at the front (wherever that may be). I have control of my presentations via a small handheld presentation remote (with laser point to pick out key points as needed) and all the pupils desks face forward or inward depending on the situation BUT they have adjustable swivel chairs that allow them to adjust to the correct height for them and also move to face different areas of the classroom or indeed me. I can see all their laptop screens so it is easy to see if anyone is ‘surfing’ or somewhere that they shouldn’t be (although I also had software that allowed me to see all their screen images on my own master screen if I needed to) and the pupils are on task simply because they don’t know exactly where you are so can’t take the risk of misbehaving.

Fifteen years on my classroom is still very similar except that in addition to my electronic white board/screen I have a flip chart and a wipe clean white board to doodle on.  Also, laptops are ‘old hat’ being replaced with tablets and other devices. But I adapt accordingly. I don’t tell a pupil off for using their mobile/cell phone in my lesson if it is being used to support what I am doing with them – be that taking a photo of a design or prototype, surfing for information or talking to an industrial contact in another country.  But I am rapidly discovering that I am the exception rather than the norm.

It’s quite scary – normal learning spaces have remained the same for centuries: a rectangular box filled with rows of desks facing the teacher and writing board. As a result, today’s students and teachers suffer because these outmoded spaces inadequately support the integration of the three key elements of a successful learning environment: pedagogy, technology and space.

Change begins with pedagogy. Teachers and teaching methods are diverse and evolving.  From one class to the next, sometimes during the same class period, classrooms need change. Thus, they should fluidly adapt to different teaching and learning preferences.

Technology needs careful integration. Students today are digital natives, comfortable using technology to display, share and present information.

Space impacts on learning. According to Tony Bates of Online and Distance learning Resources:

more than three-quarters of classes include class discussions and nearly 60 percent of all classes include small group learning, and those percentages are continuing to grow”.

So where are we heading in 2013? What is the ideal classroom layout for a school? Flexibility is key.

I strongly believe in the statement that ‘we shape our environments, and our environments shape us’. Providing teachers with a flexible, well-designed learning environment is likely to encourage major changes in their delivery and method; stuffing them into rectangular boxes with rows of desks will do the opposite.

What is clear is that schools and teachers need to do some hard thinking about online learning, its likely impact on classroom teaching, and above all what kind of school experience we want pupils to have when they can do much of their studying online.