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Perceptions of lower secondary design and technology teachers about the utilisation of the design process

Dèsirè Mallet
Edith Cowan University

The background to the study

The Technology and Enterprise learning area of Western Australia proposes four interdependent strands of learning as the base for the planning of technology programs in schools. These strands are designing, making and appraising; materials; information; and systems. Each strand defines the content, skills and processes of the curriculum (Curriculum Corporation, 1994), and the process of designing, making and appraising (DMA approach) is presented as central to Technology Education. The DMA approach infers problem-solving without explicitly stating so:
Designing, making and appraising is a process through which students develop ideas and create imaginative solutions for the learning tasks in which they are engaged. They participate in decisions about what to do, why it should be done, how it should be done, and how what has been done might be improved (Australian Education Council, 1994, p. 4)

The purpose of the study

This study investigates Design and Technology teachers' perceptions of the design process, and how the selected Design and Technology teachers monitor and assess students' achievements in lower secondary schools.

The significance of the study

This study is significant for two main reasons. Firstly, it is done in a period when the Education Department of Western Australia is considering a long term goala vision of schooling in the year 2000. Secondly, the study takes into account the curriculum changes which are affecting Design and Technology teachers. These changes consist of two concurrent moves, a move towards outcome-based education and a move towards Technology Education.

The problem

The problem was how the designing, making and appraising approach might be used to demonstrate students' achievements in Design and Technology.

Research questions

The following research questions were addressed in this study.
  1. (a) What is a design process; (b) how do Design and Technology teachers view the different elements of a design process?
  2. How does the inclusion of a design process affect the teaching and learning process?
  3. What do teachers look for when they assess students' achievements in Design and Technology?
  4. How can a design process be taught in lower secondary schools?

Method

Participants

The sample consisted of seven lower secondary school teachers from four government schools and three private schools from Perth metropolitan high schools. The participants were interviewed individually and the interviews were audio-recorded.

Procedure

The researcher identified thirty three schools for the research. Fifteen teachers showed an interest in the research. Finally, seven participants were selected according to specific criteria. The interviews were carried out over a fifteen day period in August-September 1995. A verbatim transcription of each interview was printed and sent to each participant for validation.

Data analysis

After all the interviews were done, the information was classified and categorised. The data were organised into themes and concepts relevant to the research questions and to emerging issues from the interviews. The NUDIST (Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing, Searching and Theorising) software system was used for managing and organising the research. The node building and retrieval operations offered by NUDIST provided essential reliability.

Limitations

As the research was an interactive one, the depth with which certain topics were treated depended on the interests or special circumstances of the interviewees. For example, it was inappropriate to question teachers from the private schools on the implementation of the Student Outcome Statements which were being trialed in some government schools only.

Results

The design process

Research question one related to the definition of the design process and how Design and Technology teachers viewed its different elements. A design process was defined as a type of creative problem solving process which, when used in Design and Technology, helped the students to solve a problem constructively. The process was described as a cyclic and structured process and it was also referred to as the Design-Make-Appraise (DMA) approach. The design component of the design process itself was perceived essentially as a cognitive input in an area which has remained for too long associated with practical work. The making component was considered as a valuable and essential element. Finally, the teachers had diverse opinions on when and how to perform an appraisal.

Characteristics of a design process

The process was seen as a structured process which may be used either flexibly or rigidly depending on the teachers' managerial approach or their perception about the nature of the process. The teachers felt that a design process offered a wide range of opportunities to the students. For instance, the design process could allow their students to plan their work, to think for themselves while making something desirable.

Previous research found that the modelling of ideas with both the hands and the mind was highlighted as being an important capability in Design and Technology (Kimbell cited in Marsden & Marsden, 1994). In the interviews, the teachers remarked that they were hoping that their students would use not only the hand but also the mind in solving technological problems. This may suggest that more cognitive skills will be introduced into the subject in the future.

A teacher indicated that the design process introduced the students to a wide range of skills including literacy and communication. The new set of skills would produce cross-curriculum outcomes which would be in accordance with some of the aims of Technology Education proposed by the Australian Education Council (1991 & 1992).

Elements of the design process

The models used by teachers contained three main components: a designing component, a making component, and an evaluating (or appraising) component. The degree of importance which the teachers placed on each of these components varied according to the perception of each teacher about the nature of Manual Arts or that of Technology Education.

The first component, that is designing, appeared as a perceptible change in an area which has been traditionally oriented towards practical work. However, as the projects proposed to the students were similar to those done in Manual Arts, it is suspected that teachers do not want to move too far from skills and designs which are already familiar subjects to them.

A research phase was considered as fundamental to the design process. Some teachers even found it useful for them to compile infor mation and ideas (from newspapers and magazines) which they used as a 'research bank' for the exploration of ideas. Proper research was viewed as a sine qua non condition for successful design; and, the ability to do research was a competency which teachers wanted their students to master. A participant explained that investigation and research produced a ripple effect on the students. This happened when the students who were initially motivated exerted a positive influence on the less motivated ones during the research process.

Some teachers concentrated on the teaching of strategies like co-operative learning and brainstorming. However, even though these two strategies are proposed as being appropriate for teaching problem-solving techniques (Christensen & Martin, 1992), it is of concern that traditional Manual Arts teachers may not be willing to use these strategies in their learning environments.

One teacher has listed serendipity as one of the ways of solving problem, but it was not clear why the others made no mention of this way of arriving at a solution to a perceived need. Another respondent felt that the teacher's role was to facilitate the students to have strategies to help them to design. Indeed, the notion of the teacher as a facilitator of learning is compatible with the use of a design process and an approach based on student centredness.

The second component (i.e., the making component) was perceived as the raison d' Ítre of Design and Technology and as the core of the DMA approach. It was viewed as an educationally valuable activity. Indeed, this point of view reflects that of Piaget who believed that hands-on activities foster cognitive development (Woolfolk, 1993, p. 31).

On their side, the teachers stressed that the students were proud of the things that they designed and made. They affirmed that these things developed in the students a sense of ownership and pride in creativeness. However, it was of general concern to these teachers that the students often did not complete the work that they had conceived; this appeared as a hard reality for them.

The third component of the DMA approach was the appraising component. The teachers highly valued the educational importance of appraisal because students were learning how to critically analyse their own work. And, they asserted that there was not an exact or single position for the appraising component within a design process. Appraisal or evaluation occurred either at the end or at the beginning, or as an integral part within the other components (i.e., the designing and the making components).

The effects of a design process

Question two related to the effects of the inclusion of a design process on the teaching methodologies and learning strategies. The research found that the design process has not apparently affected the lower secondary school curriculum albeit recommendations were made in Western Australia years ago. The inclusion of the design process in schools was still being met with resistance. In fact, some of the users of the design process were not totally convinced about its suitability and they viewed the move to using design with suspicion and fear.

Another salient feature of the design process which emerged from this research was the effect of teaching thinking to students who may not have been exposed to thinking strategies. Finally, the research recorded that the teachers blamed both the teaching institutions and the Education Department for their inefficiencies in devising a proper teachers' training scheme for the teaching of Technology. This has created a situation where teachers felt alienation vis-?-vis this new technological approach.

First encounter with a design process
This research has found that the design process was not a totally new concept in Western Australia. Yet, the impact of the application of the design process in the school curriculum was not felt by teachers. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain how effective the initial encounter has been. It is possible that a design process may never have been implemented in schools.

The resistance to change
The attempts to utilise a design process in school were being met with resistance in Western Australia. Some teachers were convinced that there were political moves to phase out the subject. A design process was mostly a threat to those who have been teaching successfully using a trade approach for years. The English encounter with the design process was cited to back arguments against the use of this process. Critics of the design process have also been mentioned by Massey (1992), West (1989), Wright (1994), and Wright R. T. (1993). Certainly, the design process remains an ambiguous one for the teachers.

The teaching of thinking
This research revealed that the teachers believed that the low ability students and those who had a short attention span did not like to think. What appeared to be an open secret may be linked to the fact that traditionally students in technical subjects have not been encouraged to think. Consequently, the shift from a teacher-centred approach to a student-centred approach is not taking place smoothly. It is felt that, for design process to be fully implemented, existing teaching methodologies will have to be radically changed to fit a student-centred type of education.

Relevance of the DMA approach
When a design process was used, the end product was much more diversified than in traditional Manual Arts. The teachers were inclined to invest much time and energy to teach students the concepts of the design process. Nevertheless, they argued that the design process did not seem to be an easy concept to teach. In fact, not much is known about what goes on in the mind of the student who attempts to solve design problems in technology education. This was a concern for McGirr (1985) who stressed that students really need strategies to be able to solve design problems effectively.

Still, the general consensus was that the DMA approach was perceived as being purposeful in view of the fact that it was teaching the students how to think, for the first time. It was also felt that, through the design process, students were learning a new set of skills much more relevant than those offered by the traditional Manual Arts course. The set of skills described by a teacher fits well within the aim of technology education as proposed by the Australian Education Council (1992).

The training of teachers
This research disclosed that a design process was not being taught in all Western Australian schools because of the inadequacies in the current pre-service teacher training. In plain terms, it was felt that most, if not all, of the lecturers at universities did not have a background either in technology or in the design process. The fact that a considerable percentage of the Manual Arts teachers and lecturers came from trade backgrounds was posited as one of the reasons why certain people found it hard to teach the process.

It was felt that, even if Manual Arts (or Design and Technology) teachers had the knowledge and skills to solve problems and to do the design process, there was a perceived lack of direction from the Education Department. However, it was a common view that both the design process and Technology were not being properly taught because there were no role models or curriculum change leaders who were prepared to risk change.

Assessment of students' achievement

Question three related to how teachers were assessing students' achievements in Design and Technology. It was noted that assessment done in Design and Technology was both quantitative and qualitative. In quantitative assessment, the teachers looked for some specific skills. The teachers usually broke these different skills into manageable portions to which a certain amount of marks was allocated. A qualitative type of judgement was also suitable when the teach ers used the design process. Qualitative assessment done by teachers was usually in the form of observation, discussion or questioning techniques.

The Design and Technology teachers had the tendency to mark work in detail. This tendency was based on a desire to be fair towards all the students and to have a concrete basis for monitoring students throughout the accomplishment of their project. Some teachers linked the rationale for the parcelling of the school project with the monitoring of certain specific objectives. Moreover, by breaking down the total mark of a project into smaller portions, teachers felt that they were achieving a reliable degree of fairness in marking. In fact, these marks served a dual purpose: first, they were used as a basis to justify how assessment was done, and second, they helped to identify where students went wrong in a project.

In using qualitative assessment, teachers made use of professional judgement. This research showed that the teachers believed that it was possible to form comprehensive judgements about the performance of students. The comments made by two teachers corroborate with recent literature on the issue, namely that holistic marking is more reliable than marking each separate component of the design process (Borthwick, 1992, & Williams, 1991). In addition, holistic marking appears to be consistent with the move towards outcome-based education.

The research found that the type of assessment done in Design and Technology had some repercussions on the students. Design and Technology was viewed as a subject where students experimented with materials and made mistakes without being ridiculed or feeling frustrated. Moreover, it was affirmed that in Design and Technology, there was room to patch things and fix mistakes by certain techniques which were not available in subjects like Mathematics or English. Thus, mistakes were transformed into remarkable success. This research also found that Design and Technology teachers placed a particular importance on helping the students to achieve self-esteem and self-confidence and on public recognition of project works done by their students.

Teachers also felt that the bringing home of the product made in the class was a concrete example of what the students were able to achieve positively in their school life. This bringing home of artefacts produced at school formed an accountability link with the parents and the community. Teachers were confident that the artefact would describe to the parents, in a language which was visible to them, what the students actually did at school. In brief, this research matched up the bringing home of artefacts with an unwritten contract between the teacher and the community.

Teaching the design process

Question four related to how the design process was being taught in lower secondary schools. It was of concern to the teachers that the clientele for Design and Technology came from a group of students who have not voluntarily selected the subject. This research showed that teachers were experimenting with different approaches through trial and error. The teachers have called attention to some areas of major concern, namely to (a) the provision of a selected repertoire of basic skills to students, (b) the development of the graphical abilities of students, (c) the designing of curriculum material, and (d) the introduction of Technology via a design process.

Clientele for Design and Technology

According to the interviewed teachers, most of the students who chose to do Design and Technology were of low-academic ability. Because these students did not look at secondary education as a spring-board to enter university, they tended to adopt learning strategies which were different from students who competed for university entrance. The interviewed teachers believed also that the students selected the subject in the hope that they could have good fun instead of hard work. It could be that the students have been conditioned to believe that not much mental activity is required in the subject.

This research has also indicated that the existing selection procedure at schools did not offer much choice to the low-academic ability students. To start with, there were certain academic (or scientific) subjects which were outside their reach. So, the sole alternative was to pick a subject, in this case Design and Technology, whose syllabus was intentionally designed to cater for the needs of these students performing at a lower level.

Learning experiences
In teaching the design process, teachers were faced with many concerns which included the type of teaching approach to use, the need to teach students some basic skills, and the availability of physical resources. The participants were trying different approaches to expose children to techniques of design and to knowledge of materials. One of these approaches was the trial of a tri-cycle arrangement where either a woodwork, metalwork or design teacher had a group of students for a number of hours every week on a rotating basis. The main problem generated by this arrangement was that it was difficult to relate each bit of knowledge in a natural and harmonious way because each group of students would have been exposed in a different order to each of these bits of knowledge.

Another approach was the teaching of design as an alteration of one part or more of an existing artefact. In this kind of situation, the teacher designed a piece of work, and the students were allowed to modify it either partly or wholly. One teacher's solution was to teach all the students three different processes and to allow them to use any of these three options in their design. Actually, the teachers concluded that teaching the design process was a real dilemma for they were unsure whether or not to teach design first or to teach psycho-motor skills first.

In general, the teachers felt that students needed a repertoire of skills to be able to start design properly.

Based on what the teachers have shared, it is understood that a non-directional model of a design process is appropriate to lower secondary schools students. This may give them flexibility to start the process at the manufacturing stage for example. And then, they may either go to the ideas generation or the appraisal stage, or to any other stage, depending upon how the class responds to this type of learning experience.

Teachers were also concerned about modelling, the type of material to be used for modelling, and the use of drawing as one form of modelling. However, the real issue is that the modelling of ideas in the mind and the modelling of ideas in reality were viewed by proponents of Technology Education as the cornerstone of capability in Design and Technology (Marsden & Marsden, 1994).

Needs
The participants in this research have highlighted two major needs, namely the need for suitable curriculum material and the need to teach students to communicate graphically. There appears to be an urgent need for curriculum writers who have a solid background in the subject. And it seemed that, in general, the teachers have been expecting that the curriculum material should have been provided to them. However, there were examples of people (amongst the participants) who were working on syllabuses and support documents which were suited to their school and community. It may be expected that more and more teachers will be involved as curriculum developers in the future.

The views shared by the participants clearly indicate that there is also an urgent need for students to learn how to model their ideas. Teachers affirmed repeatedly that the students were not able to communicate their ideas properly. As far as the design process was concerned, lack of graphical skills prevented the students from explaining their problem-solving procedures in a clear manner. Therefore, it was hard to assess their work appropriately. When this issue is solved, it i s expected that students will have acquired an essential tool towards technological capability.

Technology Curriculum
There was a perceived suspicion amongst teachers that the design process has been included in the Technology and Enterprise Learning area as an attempt to link some mismatched subjects together. There was concern that there existed no rationale for the inclusion of a design process in some subjects which had no relation to Technology.

The main argument in a teacher's statement was that the design process would not transform any subject automatically into a technological one. The reason given was that the design process is but a part of Technology. The point made by that teacher may be construed as a suggestion that Technology (and not the design process) should be at the foreground of the teaching of technological capability in school. There appears to be a need for the Education Department to make clear its position concerning Technology Education.

Concluding observations

It is of concern to the Design and Technology teachers who participated in this study that the future of Technology is uncertain. Changes occurring within the school curriculum are coupled with changes occurring within the education system in Western Australia. Both changes are having a direct impact on the subject. The inclusion of the DMA approach in the Technology and Enterprise learning area is considered as an uncertain factor which prevents this learning area from having clear-cut boundaries and expectations of predictable results.

There is concern that moves by the educational authorities to introduce the design process as a central element to Technology Education are generating more problems than solving existing ones. One of the underlying causes is that the teachers themselves are experiencing difficulties in grasping the concept of the design process. The changes occurring in the school curriculum, as far as Design and Technology is concerned, are creating apprehension. Some teachers seem to be afraid of losing their jobs, as their trade background expertise may become increasingly irrelevant within the new learning area of Technology and Enterprise.

This research found that a design process is being used in an environment which is structurally inappropriate to the teaching methodologies suggested by Christensen & Martin (1992) or Williams (1987 & 1991). For example, in using a design process, students should be given the opportunity to use, in a safe way, any material they want to include in their design. But, this is not the case. In practice, the teachers are still using, in most cases, an approach based on limited materials.

Also, this research noted that the method used to assess students' work was sometimes in contradiction with the philosophy of Technology Education itself. For example, the literature on the issue proposes holistic marking as an alternative to the current method, but, for different reasons, the teachers find it better to rely more on the breaking down of marks than on their professional judgement to assess students.

The literature suggests that the current trends in Technology Education are oriented towards a student-centred learning approach with the role of the teacher one of a facilitator of learning (Christensen & Martin, 1992; Williams, 1993). However, this research shows that the transition from a teacher-centred approach to a student-centred approach is being made with much difficulty. There is a perceived fear on the side of the teachers that their expertise will be lost and that the students will lack manipulative skills if emphasis is placed on process instead of on the product.

This research also concludes that students have preconceived ideas about the nature of Design and Technology. The simplistic view that Design and Technology is only about the development of the psycho-motor domain seems to be still ingrained in the mind of students and their parents. Further studies are needed to understand what could be done to market Technology not only to teachers but also to the students and to the community at large.

All in all, this research has shown that greater focus should be given to the underlying methodology of the design process. Lack of curriculum materials, role models and uncertainty as to the future of the Technology and Enterprise Student Outcome Statements are all factors relevant to the teachers in this study, and significant to their concerns when implementing the design process with their Technology students.

Finally, as this research limited itself to only seven lower secondary school teachers it may not be possible to generalise the findings to all the Western Australian teachers who may be using a design process in Design and Technology. However, the views shared by the participants are valuable ones, as these views may reflect not only the individual perceptions but also, in some instances, a common feeling about some current issues in education in Western Australia.

Recommendations

The following recommendations developed from this research:

References

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Author: Dèsirè Mallet, Edith Cowan University, d.mallet@cowan.edu.au

Please cite as: Mallet, D. (1996). Perceptions of lower secondary design and technology teachers about the utilisation of the design process. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1996. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1996/mallet.html


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