RATIONALE - Design & Technology in Scottish Primary Schools

It is possible to make a very convincing argument supporting the statement that 'a technological capability is LESS important now than ever before in human history' - so why, during the last decade, has 'technology' been added to the primary school curriculum? What does 'technology' add to the child's education that no other part of the curriculum provides? If we accept the definition, "Technology is a distinct form of creativity where people interact with their environment to bring about change in response to needs, wants and opportunities" [ES 5-14 National Guidelines Pg. 65] are we not simply stating that technology is 'living'? Isn't this a definition shared with virtually all human endeavour?

To make full use of the classroom time allocated for technology we need a tighter, more practical definition, one that identifies the core experiences and skills that we can guarantee to deliver. On the same page of the same ES document is the statement, "At the heart of technology education is the engagement of children with practical tasks that lead to products that serve a need, solve a problem or, in a word, 'work'." We would suggest that the answer is here - it is 'making things!' A very long time ago our ancestors sharpened sticks and chipped stones for the first time. Before that they had probably scraped together heaps of leaves to make beds, and ever since, people have been engaged in 'practical tasks that lead to products that 'work'.' The difference now is that most of us don't! We rely on specialists to design and make these products for us, and perhaps soon intelligent machines will take on this role. We would argue that 'making things' is important to the individual's personal development - that it is a fundamental need that is closely linked to a person's feelings of confidence and self-esteem. Witness the joy exhibited by a child who has built some simple model that 'works' and you will see that, though the little model may be designed to 'serve a need', the act of creation itself serves a much greater need. (This can be seen at some basic technology INSET sessions - teachers often report levels of satisfaction verging on therapeutic!)

 

It needs to be made clear that it is the individual's confidence and self-esteem that enables him or her to be a useful member of a team - not the reverse. Technology education is often suggested as an ideal 'team activity'. This is only the case when each and every team member feels that he or she can make a valid personal contribution. If this cannot be guaranteed then group 'solutions' are best avoided.

Course structure
Failure leads to disenchantment, loss of motivation and reduced confidence. Unfortunately activities that rely on children solving problems for themselves is likely, at least some of the time, to lead to failure. We all solve problems and make decisions based on our experience. If we feel we lack necessary experience we go to someone else and ask for help. Primary children have limited experience - they haven't lived very long! They shouldn't have to identify the experience they haven't got, but which they feel they need, to solve a problem. Projects that are organised in this manner are potentially destructive.

Designing shouldn't be equated with inventing. Designing in the primary school should be about making informed and appropriate choices. Design problems for primary children must be set so they can be solved using current experience - we must not forget that they are children.

To start with we need two programmes of study. One is structured over the full seven years of primary school with the following two years in secondary in mind. The second is a transitional programme that recognises that older primary children may not have had any planned technological education in earlier years. Primary 7 teachers shouldn't necessarily expect their pupils to begin with fully functional robot designs! On the other hand, if the children have been working on design and technology projects for the previous six years they should be able to work with a large degree of autonomy.

Each project should have a three-dimensional starting point. In the early years of the primary school this may well be a closely controlled exercise with step-by-step instruction. This ensures that the activity is appropriate to the attainment level of the group/class and that skills, processes and systems can be presented in an order that preserves a sensible progression.
The result of this activity is that:-
1. Basic skills have been reinforced by reuse.
2. New skills/materials/ processes etc. may have been introduced to the whole group.
3. Each child has his/her successful model. THEY MADE IT - THEY OWN IT!
They next stage involves a design brief. The children are asked to design simple modifications or additions to their model. The crane might be required to pivot. The trebuchet might need calibration The puppet may need to hold props The wagon needs a cover, etc. The children design and make their modifications, either directly altering the existing model, or by rebuilding a second model, whichever action is most appropriate. Evaluation follows. The importance of this system is that the teacher retains control while still allowing children to make important decisions AND whatever the level of success of any modification/addition the individual child still has a successful outcome via the original model AND the teacher knows what has been taught and learned. The greater the experience of the class the less support needs to be provided. Primary 6 or 7 classes may well have enough experience to be able to omit the prescriptive first stage, though it is important that access to solutions to similar problems is made available. Children with a crane to make will learn very little of practical use from looking at photographs of real cranes, whereas one or two model cranes, built using materials similar to those available to the children, would be of great help.

Strands
Although there will be times when a technology topic involves all three strands of "Skills - designing and making", i.e. Preparing for Tasks, Carrying out Tasks, Reviewing and reporting on Tasks, it should be remembered that other areas of the curriculum share some of these skills. An expressive arts project such as a piece of craftwork or a poster will cover the same ground as these strands - so too a short story or a poem. ("Skills in science - investigating" also uses these same strands).
With very little time to be allocated to technology it would be sensible to avoid too much duplication of method. There should also be opportunity for designs to be made, ideas to be developed, which are never turned into product. Imagination will often be stifled if ideas always have to be turned into 'real' 3D objects. Children could design a meal that they could not cook, or design a building they could not model. Similarly simple 3D models could be constructed from kits without extensive preparation, and ready-made products could be evaluated.

Breadth v continuity
We have perhaps only 20 hours each year for design and technology; if we attempt to give breadth to the technology experience we run the risk of destroying any constructive progression of practical skills - especially if we make every project a full-blown design brief. It is more important to construct a course of study that returns more frequently to a limited set of core skills than to endeavour to introduce a too wide range of skills and experiences. Competent tool use can only be achieved by regular practice yet tool skills, once acquired, tend to be readily transferable. Both manipulative and co-ordination skills benefit from frequent tool use. Time developing these practical skills is a better investment for the future than a shallow knowledge of a wide range of activities.

Teachers should consider focussing on areas of technology where they themselves have some level of competency. Teachers who feel that they lack particular skills are likely to avoid their use in the classroom. We should never forget that we are dealing with children - not small adults. If design and technology courses and their component projects are to be worked successfully, then the outcomes must be relevant to the children who are involved. A nine-year-old child cannot 'design & make' a block of flats or a family car or a sleeping bag - they can of course 'design & make' a model block of flats or a toy car or a snug furry bag for their doll. Science & Technology We often see these words together. What a pity that they are kept separate in the Environmental Studies Guidelines.. It is almost impossible to develop a useful technology project without referring to at least one science AT. As soon as something 'works' we are faced with 'transfer of energy', or 'changing materials', or 'forces'. The only difficulty is linking the levels. This gives us both meaningful Technology topics and practical examples of the 'science in action'.