Redesigning D&T: Topdown approaches

Front Cover for Redesigning D&T ... Talking ... Thinking

One of the key experiences that shaped my attitude towards the likely success of topdown approaches was writing a 16+ textbook in response to a supposed ‘Common Core’ for A-Level Design and Technology. By the late 1980s interest in the subject was growing, but the existence of 90+ different A-level syllabuses relating to the design field was a cause of many difficulties. Notably in recognizing student success in these subjects for university entrance, but also for teacher supply and training, resource provision and students when deciding which subjects to study at A-level.

Consequently the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) established an initiative and published a report entitled A Level Design and Technology – The Identification of a Core Syllabus. This is what prompted the interest of commercial publishers and provided the opportunity to publish resources for design education at 16+ in the same way that they did for all the other subjects. So a worthy cause and one which I was happy to support by helping to write the textbook. There were 4 authors for an A-level textbook, so it surely couldn’t take too long.

There were 6 Examination Boards at the time and they produced a number of Common Core syllabuses. These were written rather too broadly in order for detailed decisions to be made about the book’s content, and so the decision was made to wait for the specimen examination papers before making a start. When they arrived the questions were divided up, chapter headings were decided and authors allocated.

The book was very successful with excellent sales and reviews, and so it clearly met the needs of many users. Essentially it covered the requirements for 5 of the 6 Examination Boards, but the sixth Board (Oxford) had a very different interpretation. The syllabuses of the 5 Boards it did cover were diverse enough for it to be the longest 16+ textbook ever published by Longman, a record previously held by Chemistry. It had to be printed on thinner paper than was usual (you can see through the pages) in order for it to be cut on the printing press’ guillotine!  A separate book had to be written to cover the Oxford syllabus (written by John Morrison & John Twyford and published in 1994). Hence, the work of the CNAA had led to some convergence of thought concerning what might constitute appropriate design education at 16+, but there was still considerable divergence in interpretation.  Much of this divergence was attributable to a lack of agreement about the design areas to be addressed, but there were also considerable differences about the way in which designing should be presented.

Some of the syllabus titles that appeared, such as Design and Technology (Design), Design and Technology (Technology) and Design and Technology (Communication) alongside Design and Technology indicated something of the nature of the differences in opinions.

It always irritated me slightly that it was repeatedly pointed out that the book was very long, as if somehow the authors were responsible for the scope of the content. This was normally followed by questions about the particular sections that the commentator didn’t feel were relevant or needed. Understandable, but it took most of my non-teaching time – including one Boxing Day – to write the text required in order to cover the specimen papers for 5 of the 6 Examination Boards. We could certainly have reduced the length of the book and the time to write it, but it was not part of the authors’ role to decide which sections were relevant.

So, what has all that got to do with topdown approaches. Well, the CNAA Working Group’s report – however good its perceived quality – did not achieve the hoped for consensus. The high level language used to describe concepts in the design field are open to such a wide range of interpretations, that achieving a consensus starting from a topdown initiative was going to be problematic. I tried to illustrate this in a journal paper relating to materials and processes in 1993, at a time when A-level syllabuses were again being reviewed. ‘Making’ could be interpreted as traditional craft activity, industrial manufacturing, CADCAM, rapid prototyping etc and the student could be making a final product, prototype, model of appropriate fidelity etc.

And what might happen now if a term like ‘design thinking’ was included in a document for dissemination. Is that thinking by a designer, so something that students could be taught about and aspire towards, but not actually do? Or is it a thinking style that anyone can do, and, in which case, how is it linked to design? Or is it related to ‘satisficing’ –  the way that designers think in order to resolve ill-defined problems through divergent and convergent phases?  I suspect there would be advocates for all of the above,

The National Curriculum again had laudable goals such as establishing subject identity and minimum entitlements. The initial documentation proposed that ‘Design & Technology’ should be read as a composite noun and provided a definition in, what I would suggest was an optimistic attempt to circumvent some of these issues. It was regularly reviewed with documents giving greater and lesser detail, but have any of its initial goals actually been achieved? I rather doubt it.

If you have ever picked up the book I helped to write – Advanced Design and Technology – I think you’ll agree that it is weighty evidence of the spectrum of interpretations that the Design & Technology community were able to put forward in response to a centralized document. A useful doorstop some have said J The full weight of evidence would really require holding both Advanced Design and Technology and Design Capability and Awareness (John Morrison and John Twyford’s book) together. An experience that I think would be likely to shake anyone’s certainties concerning the efficacy of topdown approaches.


NORMAN, Eddie (2009) ‘Materials and processes within A/AS-level Design and Technology: a study of implementation’, Journal of Design & Technology Education, 2(3), ISSN 1360-1431. Available at: <>

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