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.

Creativity in Schools – A Decade on from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk

Creativity in Schools – A Decade on from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk

Creativity in Schools – Sir Ken Robinson

So, what has happened almost a decade on?

The first of a series of iconic TED talks about how education needs to ‘shift paradigms’ occurred almost a decade ago back in June 2006 (yes, that was ten years ago this year). Sir Ken Robinson set the ball rolling with his TED Talk about how ‘schools kill creatively’ – a talk that still tops the ‘all time viewed’ lists with 13 million views in 2012…and over 37 million views as I type this in February of 2016.Sir Ken

Sir Ken has his critics who say that it’s easy to be seduced by his words when there is no action plan to apply (read his books and there are plenty of sensible and useful words of wisdom as to how we can improve things….). Personally I totally agree with Ken (and in fact saw Ken give some similar insights earlier in his career when he was professor of education at Warwick University in the UK).

So, a decade on, where do we stand?

Sadly, given all the hype and constant gossip about how wonderful Sir Ken’s vision is, we (schools) seem to be achieving very little in terms of creating (no pun intended…) a genuine shift in approach to how education is responding to the needs of business and enterprise, cultural and social anthropology and a rapidly changing modern world.

We know that schools are notoriously slow on the take up of most things. Actually, that’s not quite true. They are often quick to buy in to an idea but then lack the strategy and vision (planning and money) to see it through. I remember on one of my first teacher training experiences at a school in Edmonton, North London (around 1983) seeing a white van back up to the Design department to unload fifty brand new BBC Master computers with screens. This was the age of change and technology…this would transform what we were to do. My Head of Department was grinning like a Cheshire cat…but quite quickly I discovered that not all was well. I was asked to give some INSET on their use to all teachers (two weeks in to my first teaching practice aged 19 or so…) and thereafter all but two machines ended up in a locked cupboard. I had one BBC Master to play with and one other was taken to the front of school for administration staff to play on.

And there is the rub.

Staff had no time to ‘play’ and many believed that these contraptions were the devils spawn (and to be honest many struggled with the Banda copy machine in the staff room let alone any other technology above a hole punch and stapler). Government gave high end kit to schools to help stimulate creativity and technological change without offering time and budget to allow it to happen. Things stalled and ground to a halt. I remember re-visiting the school for another training period about two years later and the BBC masters were still in the same cupboard….although a couple of Atari ST machines had entered the department now with their ‘colour GUI’ and a Meg of RAM if I remember correctly.

The desire for change

This may seem harsh but schools are not always great at adapting to change from a strategy and vision standpoint. They mean well, and those in seats of decision making will often embrace the idea of something new from a concept standpoint, but very few understand the need to support that vision with a hands on, practical and feasible plan of action. This is frequently not about money; it’s about the desire to want to change the way we do things so that they improve; to help children get prepared for a world of work that we don’t really fully understand ourselves (the frequently banded about quote ‘we are preparing kids for jobs that don’t yet exist’ springs to mind) and to fundamentally change the curriculum content and approach we have in place.

Subjects change but curriculum’s, on the whole are antiquated. Creativity is not a new thing in schools. Arguably primary and kindergarten staff have been doing ‘STEM’ and ‘STEAM’ activity in schools for decades – playing, building, failing and working in teams often in a sandpit or on the carpet with tons of Lego, Stickle bricks (remember them?) and other cool things – combining Art, Science, Design, Language, Maths…

What we need, as students move up to secondary or high school, is a rudimentary change to what is delivered at the curriculum chalk face. For this to happen we almost need to wipe the slate clean and start again.

The problem we have is that many who are at the decision making end of directing and developing curriculum’s at government or school level have frequently come up through that industrial age of education that Sir Ken refers to in his original TED talk (and so expertly captured in the RSA animation of that talk RSA Sir Ken Robinsons TED Talk). These folk have been button-holed as ‘bright’ or ‘academic’ (and many are…) and have seldom been through a creative area of study at school. Rote learnt knowledge has been seen as a better foundation than one where they have had to solve complex problems on paper through an iterative process or with their hands in Art, Design and Technology – or indeed on stage through performing arts. Arguably, the nearest many have come to creative thought or play has been on the rugby or hockey pitch (or other team sport where spontaneous flair and decision making is often required).

Reverse Engineer the way we do things

To achieve the change that Sir Ken spoke about needs a fundamental upturn in philosophy where the practical application of knowledge is seen to be on an equal footing (?) with the ability to simply rote learn facts for an exam. For this to happen we need to reverse engineer the whole structure of academic acceptance.

What do I mean?

The world of work needs a workforce who are creative, flexible and can apply previously harboured knowledge well (be that from school, university or work experience).  They need to be worldly, good communicators, gregarious, empathetic, skilled and confident.

Firstly, governments need to have ministers responsible for education in employ who have actually come from an educational background – folk who have delivered and managed in schools and who have a better (more realistic?) understanding of what students and teachers need to deliver.genius-quote-albert-einstein

Secondly, if a student chooses to go directly into the world of work from school, rather than attend University, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Parents and schools need to understand that in the same way that industry does. Getting hands on experience of a business may well put them in better stead than doing three years in further education with no guarantee of a job at the end of it. Accepting that is key and is normally a fight for parents who get caught up in the ‘league table’ nonsense where students often achieve artificially high grades centred on a factory process – the success of which is based on sitting a one and a half hour paper at the end of two years study. Not good. You also have the ‘when I was at school’ scenario when parents of a certain generation were educated in schools that led them to believe that some subjects were more academic than others. It’s a big rut to climb out of psychologically.

Thirdly, universities need to supply courses that are current, flexible in delivery (able to change content mid course to satisfy employment demands) and that allow students to apply what they have discovered at school rather than treating them all as ‘starting from scratch’. I have heard of universities that take students onto certain courses and simply tell them that they have to ‘unlearn’ what they did at school and do things differently; so your first year becomes, in effect, a foundation year. What a waste of schooling and finance. Schools and universities need to talk to each other more.

Schools need to de-construct and review current curriculum’s. They need to have the confidence to do it. Do we still need Latin? Do we still need to study Shakespeare (as opposed to other more contemporary writers…)? Should everyone study at least one foreign language? Do we continue to have the mainstay of ‘core’ subjects at the heart of what schools do – Maths, English and Science (with extra languages, Art, Geography, History, Design and Technology in tow)? I don’t know, but questioning and jiggling to take some risk would be healthy.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-designing-12For me I’d love to have Design at the core of the curriculum with science, business, humanities, languages, maths and the arts radiating off. The idea that working with your hands (manufacture, creation, enterprise) is the realm of ‘less able’ students is totally unfounded. Bright students can, and do, work with their hands. Art has long been considered the ‘accepted’ manual skill for bright students along with Music. Sadly Drama, Dance and Design have always struggled to gain the same acceptance along with physical education (a tough A-Level in reality).

In essence, anything that has not grown out of the land or ‘popped’ out of a human has been designed; someone, somewhere, has sketched the idea and developed it. That’s both academic and creative in my book.

As Sir Ken said, we need to ‘shift paradigms’.

We need to educate and nurture future wealth creators (not just financial – anthropic wealth too) who can develop innovative products and services. I reiterate, despite Sir Kens 37 million ‘likes’ on the need to have creativity in the curriculum there are still many within government and education who feel it’s not required a decade on. The current EBACC debacle in the UK is looking to throw out creative education from the curriculum and quite rightly there is uproar from many sides across business and education.

The biggest anxiety for me, in all of this, is that we will probably still be having the same conversation in several years’ time, recognising that creativity is important, that we drastically need curriculum change and so on. But will folk have listened? Will there have been change? I truly hope so.

By that time Sir Ken’s original talk will be up past the 100 million views mark. Probably.

 

Educating youngsters for today and tomorrow

I first saw one of these videos back in 2005. The core storyline has not changed much over time (but I do like the reference to the sales and influence of Mac products in this example…) BUT they do highlight the massive challenges facing a generation of youngsters moving into the world of work. People like Sir Ken Robinson have highlighted the plight of creative education (lack of progression) in schools and his TED talks are inspiring. Check them out if you have not done so already (search my blog for some featured talks…)

Preparing youngsters for the world of today….and tomorrow. Not an easy task. As mentioned, there are a plethora of ‘Did you know?’ type video montages out there highlighting the issues that face those not only growing up in this rapidly changing world, but facing those responsible for educating those youngsters – leading them forward. Sure, there are many statistics thrown into these things (there are lies, damn lies and statistics….) BUT there is no denying the fact that that the world is changing exponentially with the onslaught of technology making it a smaller, busier and a far more frenetic planet to live on with regard to the sharing and dissemination of information.

Educating youngsters to discover and learn HOW to analyse and synthesise that information is crucial. Getting them to think creatively and apply that knowledge to solving problems will be vital. Getting them to harness and work with that technology as a key tool is vital. Challenging and exciting times for all involved.