Function follows form: politics and the National Curriculum

As the newspapers never tire of telling us, there are many problems with politics and policymaking. Some of them involve hapless MPs claiming expenses for pork pies in station cafes. Some are much more deeply rooted, and challenging to our national prosperity. Here are two of the latter, and an analysis of how they are currently playing out in the fight over a little corner of education policy.

The first problem is politicians tend to think in electoral cycles. They are mainly interested in tackling, or being seen to tackle, today’s problems, and of those the ones that grab the most column inches. Short-term urgency takes precedence over long-term importance. There are some laudable exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. This is a problem if, as is the case in education, it takes a lot longer than five years for the real effects of a policy change to become clear.

The second problem is the person with the final say, and often the person driving policy direction, is someone who frequently has a very shallow understanding of the matter in hand. In few other fields would we leave complex decision-making to partisan non-experts.

I recently had the privilege to watch both of these inadequacies have their fun with the Design & Technology curriculum, currently under review.

The first issue has manifested itself in the reluctance of the Ministerial team to hive off cookery as a subject in its own right, because of the need to change ‘primary legislation’ this decision would imply – which is time-consuming and labour intensive. Furthermore the interest in bigging up cooking (which I actually don’t disagree with in principle) is a direct response to the ‘obesity epidemic’. Which is of course a very current and pressing problem. Both of these things combine to mean that we are apparently trying to counter the obesity (and other lifestyle diseases) epidemic through the medium of D&T.

This is all a bit untidy and confusing, but the second problem, of expertise, is really far more serious.

The way I see it, different subjects teach you how to think in different ways, often through making you perform particular tasks, of increasing difficulty and complexity. For example, in history, writing essays teaches you to marshal your thoughts and facts into an argument with a narrative. In chemistry, conducting experiments teaches you how to test a hypothesis and evaluate empirical evidence. In design and technology, designing and making teaches you how to arrive at a solution that meets a number of needs or requirements: to problem solve.

The unfortunate thing about the proposed curriculum for design and technology is that nowhere does it acknowledge that designing and making – the practical activities – have associated cognitive skills. The emphasis is all on the ability to perform a series of practical tasks, rather than developing capacities that will serve for a lifetime. ‘Students just need to leave school knowing how to weld’. This is all very well if what we need, now and for ever more, is welders. But unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that over the coming century, we need people who (as well as being able to operate machinery) can deal with problem-solving in complex situations.

D&T and Art & Design, when taught well, provide some precious curriculum space to teach this, to instil an alternative way of thinking, an essential counterpoint to the rule of the 3Rs. But the discussions being had over the new curriculum fall far short of this level of sophistication. It has come down to arguing over which kinds of structural systems ought to be taught at Key Stage 3. It is really quite shocking how far we are – given our national heritage of innovation in education – from designing a curriculum that will turn out innovative, creative people equipped to critique and engage with the designed world in the 21st century.

And this is where it gets really circuitous: part of the reason we don’t have a curriculum that will generate creative and inventive problem-solvers, is that it is being designed by people in government who – even after a great deal of input from professional associations and industry experts – fundamentally don’t recognise design as a conceptual mode. It is being designed by people whose only framework for addressing a problem (and it is remarkable how often they turn out to be Oxbridge PPE graduates) is by writing a lot of words down on paper and then arguing about which ones should be there and which order they should go in. Not by people who ask at the outset, ‘what really is the problem we are trying to solve here?’ and ‘how are we going to interact with the man-made world over the next 100 years’ and ‘does this D&T curriculum bear any relation to those challenges?’

In dogs and monarchies, too much inbreeding leads to defects and weakness. Unless we start thinking quite radically about how to diversify the experience of our elected representatives, we risk governing ourselves into a corner.

3 thoughts on “Function follows form: politics and the National Curriculum”

  1. I quite agree Joss. Design and its power is so regularly misunderstood by those who (in this case) make decisions about education policy very often as they have not experienced it personally as part of their own education. That was why last year, I was amazed to learn at the event you ran at the Danish Embassy demonstrated the opposite ie how how a government was actively looking to use design to help create and mediate their policies.
    In addition to your well put concerns, I would also add that there seems to be no recognition given to the implementation – not least the teachers, where they are now and what would work in schools. This is all the more important given that we know there is going to be absolutely minimal support available to schools from DfE to implement what is produced. It is as though there is no attempt to go beyond the simple view that what is now is wrong with no acknowledgement of why it is like this. Much is very wrong but simply producing a minimally worded document that at best sets out to please a range of influential individuals/interest groups is never going to change things much. But then of course the approach that those of us from a design background would advocate, would involve an entirely different way of going about this reform. We’d use design processes to come up with solution that worked.

    1. It goes like this. I’m 67. I studied design, but via animation at the RCA became TV producer. When the iPad was announced I morphed from TV to designing reference apps. Reference apps are not TV programmes. They aren’t websites either. They are not electronic books or even games. But they can include elements from all of them. So the problem to solve in 2010 was: ‘what is an app? My liberal design education (at Ravensbourne in the mid-60’s) equipped me to solve this problem even though computers at the time were almost non-existent. A reference app should be a narrative adventure, where the user controls the story journey – a bit like those games I played with Dinky toys on the carpet as a kid. So the apps’ nearest electronic cousin is the video game. But instead of fiction it delivers facts. This means it has echoes of TV documentary too. But the routing, controlled by the user, uses similar icons found in websites. Then the animation experience kicks in because some of the assets are shot on stop-frame cameras so the user can swipe the screen and make them spin. I haven’t mentioned text yet. This has to be hyper-efficient so it’s nearest relative is TV commentary writing or advertising copy – I’ve done both. Britain is a world leader in so-called ‘super-app’ design. But the odd thing is, the people doing it couldn’t possibly have been taught how to do it because apps didn’t exist before April 2010. The reason we can do it better than anyone else is because artists and designers in the 1960s taught us how to think.

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