Are digital design tools sounding the death knell for hand skills… Or heralding d&t into a brighter and more creative future? Andy Mitchell and Richard green consider the issues…
For a long time, some of us have been saying to colleagues: ‘if I were still working in school, I would no longer have time to teach pupils how to use a woodwork plane in D&T. That is of course, unless they need to use one.’ And, it often doesn’t go down very well. The content of exactly what should be covered in terms of manufacturing methods and craft skills in an already packed curriculum has for many years been a hot topic – fuelled not least by teachers, and fine craftsmen and women themselves. Seeing their hard earned skills devalued and replaced by digitally driven techniques can be threatening. Since the late sixties the content of the then traditional handicraft curriculum has been continually added to – designing, control, electronics, micro-electronics, smart materials, computer aided design (CAD) and manufacture (CAM) and now 3D printing, to name a few. The result is a packed curriculum yet we still expect students to develop the same level of craft skills that was possible in the 60s when boys would spend five years just learning woodwork, and girls needlework.
Ebacc and Progress 8 accountability measures mean many schools are facing loss of D&T curriculum time, so how that time is used is even more important. Inevitably things have to go. But what do we take out to make way for new and contemporary methods of production?
In May the Design and Technology Association, the RSA and You Invent ran a one-day summit on the future of digital manufacturing in schools. Held at the London Fablab it brought together teachers from schools who had been part of a DfE 3D printing project in 2014, from RSA academies who are also exploring the potential of this technology, and schools working with You Invent to firstly crowd fund and then develop the use of 3D printers in their schools. In addition there were academics, researchers, industrialists and representatives from government and professional institutions.
The teachers gave inspiring, thought provoking presentations showing how they had used 3D printing, which in some cases offered a direct challenge to what might be described as the established D&T orthodoxy. Two speakers described how implementing 3D printing had begun the transformation of their school’s D&T curriculum from something craft project-based, tired and uninspiring, into a modern, relevant and motivating experience. The passion with which the teachers spoke showed how revelatory the experience had been: “We invested in 3D printing not only to inspire our students but to use it as a catalyst to drive the D&T department to be outstanding!” said Danny Wilkinson of Wellsway School. “Students with access to professional level CAD can develop and realise products just as design engineers do in industry. It is rewarding to know we are filling the shortfall of future engineers.”
Others talked about how digital designing and manufacturing had raised attainment across the whole ability range – allowing the least able to design and make things to a previously unattainable quality, and the most able to develop and produce products of great complexity and sophistication made possible only by digital technology. “Having the opportunity to access a 3D printer has given our pupils the confidence and ability to test, develop and actually modify their own ideas,” explained Sarah Pearce, of Dovehouse School. “The fear of failure has lifted because using a 3D printer is fun and accessible to all.”
The presentations showed levels of creativity too rarely seen in KS3-4 D&T. As the teachers said, “If you can draw it, you can make it.” That may be a little simplistic but the essence is undoubtedly true. The drawback is that you have to be able to ‘draw it’ using CAD and whilst the packages get ever more intuitive and easier to use they still demand time and practice to acquire a level of proficiency – and this raises an interesting issue.
We have insufficient time in the KS3 D&T curriculum to give over to learning software. Lack of time to teach and learn CAD software is just one symptom of a wider problem. To address this, for some time we at the D&T Association have been promoting the idea of schools facilitating students using the software before and after school and in lunchtimes and, if at all possible, letting them install it on their home computers.
If we don’t have the time to develop the skills of cabinet-making, is it time to undertake that review of content and, adjust our focus? If so, that focus inevitably means an increase in the use of CAM as the main manufacturing process. This brings challenges – the number of 3D printers, CNC routers, mill, laser cutters required to service a class of students could be expensive. However, schools attending the summit that had invested in multiple 3D printers talked about the benefits of doing so. With prices continuing to fall and the possibility of crowd funding, these are not insurmountable.
Additionally, the working envelope of the low cost machines tends currently to be small and therefore more suited to producing parts of rather than complete products. It helps to think of these devices as producing components not products. For example, 3D printed parts such as a propeller will only represent part of a system – the rest may very well still need to be made by a variety of non digital manufacturing processes.
Therefore a mixed economy of manufacturing tools and equipment is required, as well as a rethink on how they are utilised. This needs to be more on a needs to know basis as opposed to planning a scheme of work around learning a comprehensive set of skills and techniques just in case they are required.
A final message was subliminal because of the venue. Why do so few schools have links with their local Fablab/Maker Space? Do they even know where they are? Do they understand how to engage with them? The facilities and knowledge that reside at the London Fablab encourage combining digital manufacture with embedded digital control. Students can produce working products – and huge opportunities are being created by the BBC Microbit, Raspberry Pi and other interested organisations. D&T has to capitalise on the interest and emphasis now being placed on computing in schools.
Part of the summit was dedicated to drafting a letter to the current Secretary of State for Education in England, and her counterparts in Wales and Scotland. This epistle sets out the successes achieved so far through small scale curriculum and professional development projects and goes on to highlight the vital commitment needed to provide a wider, more comprehensive programme of CPD for schools.
But, far more importantly, the feeling of the summit was that Government needs to acknowledge the contribution of D&T to creativity and STEM. It must put measures in place to reverse the slow decline of the subject, before in some schools, D&T is lost completely due to an insufficient supply of trained teachers and the singular focus on Ebacc that is squeezing creative, technical and practical subjects, an unintended consequence of Government accountability policies.
It is fair to say that D&T is at a crossroads – in one direction lies decline and loss; and in the other a reworked model of D&T where creative thought is paramount and digital design and manufacturing key tools to help its realisation.
We await the reply to the letter with interest.
About our expert
Andy Mitchell is Curriculum Director and Assistant Chief Executive at the D&T Association; Richard Green is its Chief Executive
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