Revitalising your curriculum through rotation, rotation, rotation

Mark Pattinson and Louisa Dowe

Mark: In a previous life I was a visual interface designer at BT research laboratories, creating advanced products and services. Children are fantastically creative and, given the chance, they rarely disappoint.

Louisa: With a background in Multimedia Textiles, I have been a passionate advocate of textile design for many years. Having worked on various exhibitions, including promotional work for Game of Thrones, I am always finding new ways to engage and enthuse students.

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Image credit: Flickr // Thomas. Image credit: Flickr // Thomas.

Although the government would argue differently, those of us on the education front-line know that there has been a sustained and systematic marginalisation of creative arts subjects in Secondary schools. The introduction of the EBacc in 2010 forced school leaders to focus their diminishing budgets on the subjects that the then minister for education deemed worthy. According to the 2015 Warwick Commission report this has, in part, contributed to a 50% drop in GCSE numbers for Design and Technology.

Faced with reduced budgets, a diminishing interest in our subject, and a humble place in subject hierarchy, how could we excite students enough to choose Design and Technology in KS4? The answer lay in changing the pace and progress at KS3.

The usual delivery of KS3 D&T is through design-and-make projects. Typically, years 7, 8 and 9 would study graphic design, resistant materials, product design and textiles on a carousel of around 10 weeks each, and at the end of each rotation every student would proudly take home the product that they had made.

There are lots of good reasons why this approach works; it allows students the time to practise techniques, familiarise themselves with tools and equipment and deep-think questions such as “form-versus-function”. “We moved from a project-based curriculum to a skills-based one.”But for some students it allows them too much time. They know that a lesson off-task doesn’t equate to an unfinished cushion, bottle-opener or screen print, and a missed deadline isn’t really a deadline at all when we build tolerances into our schemes of work to make sure that no-one gets left behind.

What we decided to do was to change the emphasis of our work. We moved from a project-based curriculum to a skills-based one, on the notion that producing a finished product is less important than the skills learned along the way. Furthermore, we reduced our Years 7 and 8 rotations to just five weeks each (two repeated cycles during the year) so that students moved on to something new just as they were beginning to become comfortable in their subject ‘zone’.

What we’ve found is that students’ resilience improved – they’re only studying each subject for a short time, so if they don’t like it they just push-on. And their enthusiasm is continually piqued. They focussed better, learned more and in less time – for example, where we previously spent a full 10 week rotation teaching isometric projections in Year 7, we now achieve better results in half the time, and can progress to perspective drawing in the same year. Our budget benefits too, because our motivation is on teaching skills, not outcomes, and we also save on materials.

But perhaps even more significant is the change we have made in Year 9.

We collapse our textiles, graphic design and product design groups into one; one studio space, one project, and running for 20 weeks (double the amount of time, as we don’t need to rotate). The first few lessons are purely skills-based, re-visiting some skills covered in Years 7 and 8, but now with the focus on quality and development of ideas. We cover various print techniques, modelling, joining and CAD skills within our own workshops, and swap lessons so that all students have access all specialist teachers. Students banked knowledge and skills for later use.

Now here come the fun bit! When sufficient skills have been covered and pupils feel confident, we put them into teams of four or five - no choice - and mix them up X Factor-style using our knowledge of ability, skills, personality and SEND. Once the groups are sorted, we launch the competition.

Each team runs as a business; students assume the roles of company director, lead designer, head of finance and quality control. Each team is given a starter pack containing basic materials and stationary, but anything extra has to be paid for using DT credits. The credits are earned for completion of homework, productive classroom work, quizzes etc. Students can even freelance and sell their skills to other teams. This is where the excitement begins to build.

The competition is based on a research, design and make brief. Each team adopts the mantle of a fictitious movie company. They lucky-dip a genre and era, and their task is to write a short synopsis, then produce “Their task is to write a short synopsis, then produce advertising, props and merchandise.”advertising, props and merchandise which they pitch Dragon’s Den-style to a team of judges. The prize is a £10 Amazon voucher each. The teams plan their own lesson objectives, set their own homework and book business trips to other classrooms; there are obvious cross-curricular links with English, History, and Geography depending on genre, era and location. Our role is as facilitator and consultant (which pupils also pay for).

Apart from an excellent design-and-make project we also get to encourage so-called ‘soft skills’ that industry prize so highly. Resilience, teamwork, collaboration, negotiation, responsibility, determination, planning, presentation skills and creativity by the spade-full! Teams that find time management difficult are watched more closely, and teams that fall out with each other are not allowed to just give up. In fact, one team fired a pupil for lack of engagement, and for the next three lessons he sat and did nothing. In the end he got so bored of watching the others enjoying working together that he created his own CV and pitched his skills to every other team. He was taken on trial by a different group, and turned out to be extremely hard working.

What the students learn in this project far outweighs what they can learn in a standard DT lesson. The feedback we get from the pupils is that they love the independence that the project allows. The judges are always awed at the creativity and the standard of work and presentations. Since changing the way we deliver our KS3 curriculum our numbers at KS4 have been consistently high.

Make every effort to change the things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking.” (Maya Angelou)

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