Thursday, April 18, 2024
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How to kill off British technical skills


KIDS love Design and Technology. They treasure the practical and problem-solving learning the subject offers and in return, it adds tremendous value to our design, engineering, and creative industries. 

Why then is Pearson, an educational company with global reach and owner of Edexcel, the UK’s largest qualification-awarding body, recommending that we transform Design and Technology into an inquiry-based subject which can be delivered without specialist teachers or a specialised curriculum? 

One area where the UK economy still punches above its weight is in design, high tech, IT and emerging tech sectors, which together contribute £97billion a year to the economy. As James Dyson puts it: ‘Design and Technology plays a fundamental role in combining the academic rigour of science and maths with creative problem-solving to equip young people with the skills they need to solve big problems.’ 

Where the UK led, the world has followed, with D&T and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education being given priority in many countries across Europe and worldwide. Young people learn skills they can take to the bank, whether in construction, engineering, electronics and electrical engineering, computer-aided design and manufacture, catering, textiles, and now artificial intelligence applications. It’s lightning in a bottle, and a copper-bottomed investment for any country as fortunate as ours. 

Yet Pearson wants to change the focus on open-ended practical, technical and knowledge-informed problem-solving into generalised problem-solving, critical-thinking skills. In this educational ‘vision’, technical skills and knowledge would be required only on a need-to-know basis.

Its press release says: The new design education curriculum, which utilises the expertise of cross-sector organisations, including digital insights from Microsoft and Google, would support a natural transition from its current focus – the creation of existing consumer ‘products’ that too often end up in landfill – to a more sustainable approach in which learners are challenged to design solutions for citizens that address key global issues. This could be through the physical prototyping of products and spaces, but also through the digital design of services, experiences, infographics, apps, websites, marketing campaigns, laws, policies, social movements, and more.’ 

The gobbledygook boils down to marketing campaigns, policies, social movements, and laws and sounds more like indoctrination than developing real skills.

‘Couldn’t we make something today, Miss?’ ‘No. Finish your intersectional climate-justice marketing materials!’

The press release talks about ‘progression routes’ which include art, craft and design, implying that the subject can be delivered by non-specialists. Without any requirement for specialist facilities and teaching, or a knowledge-based curriculum against which pupil progress can be quantified, and tying outcomes to woke objectives, I fear lessons are likely to degenerate into interminable Blue Peter– style recycling projects and activist posters. No standards would be required or expected, other than compliance to political objectives. The teaching of difficult topics which require hard work and resourcing, for example electronic engineering, design thinking, CAD-CAM, engineering and structures, becomes disincentivised, as does the keeping and maintaining the kit and equipment which has taken decades of investment to achieve. 

We know that inquiry-based learning is not effective. Nations which  have embraced it and generalised cognitive skills find themselves with plummeting educational standards. Evidence from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that it has a stronger association with failing than skipping class or even poor behaviour. And research indicates that students perform better with a curriculum in place.  Do we really need to go down the path of the Curriculum for Excellence which saw pupils’ progress in Scotland take a nosedive? 

The CEO of the Design Council, contributing to the Pearson proposal, makes connections to the ‘climate emergency’ and ‘green economy’. But we will ignore at our peril the effect of this indoctrination on our young people. One report suggested that 56 per cent of children hold the irrational and psychologically devastating belief that humanity is doomed, with a quarter saying they are too worried to have children of their own.

Centring every classroom experience around ‘climate emergency’ and ‘global issues’ risks increasing this mental health burden on already strained youngsters. As we are all more exposed to news from around the world that at any time in history, so the need to present balanced views, as opposed to alarmism, to young minds is greater than ever. 

Viewing children as a resource to be exploited as activists, not individuals to be assisted in their acquisition of real skills, is consistent with the aims of ‘critical pedagogy’, the now dominant ideology in education departments. Inquiry-based learning is the preferred tool for its implementation, its lack of effectiveness not being a prerequisite. It makes no distinction between the learning of a child who has no prior knowledge and a postgraduate researcher. This is an ideological belief rooted in the evolutionary-denialist view of children as blank slates.  

Many Design and Technology teachers know as well as anyone that learning is not the zero-sum game of power allocation that critical pedagogy claims it to be. Traditional education generates new wealth, ideas and positive externalities. 

It is this ‘wealth’ that will be needed to fund the broken-window economics of the ‘green economy’. It is the trade of refined products and services that the UK specialises in and which makes the question of keeping – and expanding – Design and Technology so essential to our future. 

Young minds, constrained by fear, a sense of hopelessness and the limitations of inquiry-based learning, cannot deliver innovation and ideas. Free-thinking and optimistic children, excited for tomorrow and backed up by a knowledge-rich, design curriculum, taught in well-resourced schools, unimpeded by the imposition of ideology, can.  

Our young people are not cogs in the climate-justice machine.  Is robbing them of the chance to develop the skills they need really ‘future-proofing’?

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Alexander Hughes
Alexander Hughes
Alexander Hughes has been teaching Design and Technology for over 30 years, both in UK and International schools. He lives in India with his wife and two children.

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