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Making learning visible: D&T at Thomas More College

If you ever have the chance to walk into the Thomas More College Design & Technology (D&T) “shed”, (our school is in Kloof, near Durban in KwaZulu-Natal), don’t hesitate at all – do it.

The energy is almost tangible when you walk amongst the pupils working on their projects. You can see the pupils are enjoying brainstorming and planning.
I had the privilege of sitting with our D&T “crew” to talk with them about how the subject has evolved at Thomas More College.
Stephen Ireland, high school deputy head and design and technology teacher said:
D&T makes learning visible. It combines theory and practice and solves real life problems. To see pupils having fun whilst learning is a joy. Pupils moving around the centre talking about the various challenges and then realising a solution in a creative way, is the best way to learn.

A new vision

The introduction of D&T at Thomas More happened in 2017, with a new vision from Dave Wiggett, our high school headmaster. He wanted to make learning more applicable to real life. Soon afterwards, the school pursued a “Core and explore” programme for Grades 8 and 9. Pupils could choose subjects to study (within the constraints of the national curriculum). This gave the D&T department the ability to explore topics in a very in-depth manner. The biggest win was that all projects could be completed at school with none being taken home for mom and dad’s input. Secondly, lesson topics could be more adequately investigated and solid research could be done. Thirdly, a more focused task could be achieved and in the case of “Fashion from Trash”, a full fashion show could be planned. At first, four teachers were assigned to draw up the topics and facilitate the content. Innovative ideas were tried where pupils could use the library at any stage in the lesson or join groups in other classes. Collaboration with teachers happened in live time on various social media platforms, and Grade 8s could be seen “wandering” the school, doing real work. A drab, old accountancy classroom was repurposed, and out-of-date art desks refurbished to drive this new vision dubbed “Failing forward”.
D&T teacher Vinnie Oberholzer, says:
When I see “stuff ” being thrown out, my brain automatically goes into “How can I repurpose this?” mode. This is the reason why the D&T shed is my absolute happy place. What makes teaching this subject even more exciting is when you see the learners start to think of “Not thinking out the box”, but rather “What can I do with the box?” and watching their ideas coming to life.

Introducing Siemens Stiftung

Two members of the department went to the “Design thinking” conference at the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking (D-school) at the University of Cape Town1 this year, and what they brought back has altered the way the department sets topics for study. The introduction of the Siemens Stiftung design thinking process (Siemens Stiftung is a Danish non- profit organisation that has developed functional, step-by-step tools and techniques that take teachers and students through the various phases of design thinking, providing pedagogic and didactic reinforcement for the entire process)2 has radically altered the way our teachers approached design thinking. In the classroom, these methods show students how to address challenges with empathy and by shifting their own perspective to explore an alternative point of view.
Many long-time D&T teachers will be familiar with some form of “Investigate, design, make and evaluate”3 as the tried and tested method. This process moved pupils towards the creation of a product without much design-thinking happening. The Siemens Stiftung approach encourages the teachers to acknowledge firstly the 17 goals established by the United Nations for sustainable development (SDGs), which provide a thematic structure for classroom lessons.4 The teachers then plan topics around these real world problems and when a topic is assigned, pupils choose which SDG they would like to solve, allowing them more ownership of the challenge up for solution. The students then divide into groups and identify a particular person facing that challenge. Lots of time is spent on identifying this person so as to give the pupils a more realistic connection to the challenge and shifting the focus away from the product being made, towards a more user-centered approach.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty

This has shed new light on design thinking and has enriched the experience for our pupils. In addition, the process encourages the pupils to journal their experience. Questions such as, “How well has your group worked together?”, “Did others listen to your contribution?”, “What worked well in your group?”, and “What part of the solution is clearer to you now?” are asked throughout the process and for teachers, the answers illuminate the design thinking that pupils are doing in real time. The end product is only a prototype, and this relieves the pressure on pupils to produce a finished product and rather encourages and trains design thinking which is the ultimate purpose of D&T.
Genevieve Saville, design subject head says:
I love walking into my classroom when the Grade 10s, 11s and 12s are working on their practical assignments, because every pupil comes up with a unique approach to the same topic. There is enough freedom within the assessment framework for each pupil to tailor the challenge to their individual interests and skills. The new design thinking methodology has really helped learners to engage with their projects in a deeper and more meaningful way and the quality of their work has improved significantly as a result. I see a lot of pupils making connections between their own interests and pursuits, and real-world challenges, and often navigating real, workable solutions that extend beyond the classroom.

Connecting with communities

The department lives what they teach, and this is seen in three main areas.
1. The head of subject engages our community in supplying
classroom resources. The aprons worn by students are made by local crafters at the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust.5 According to their website, the centre’s mission is to “uplift and inspire local people and families in need through the provision of practical skills development and training opportunities as well as the provision of market access to local artists and crafters”. The practical and colourful design bags which pupils receive at the beginning of Grade 10, are custom-made to carry workbooks and stationery for the subject by Uzwelo.6 This organisation creates a range of bags that are “not only functional and stylish, but change lives”.7 Each unique bag is hand-made by local women out of fabric that is repurposed from waste cut-offs donated by a signage company. These initiatives connect the classroom with community projects that embody the values taught in the classroom in terms of social responsibility and environmental sustainability.
2. The design thinking space was created by using discarded desks. Both teachers and pupils were involved in brainstorming the space and making the repurposed items. Furthermore, pupils came up with prototypes for stools that utilise plastic drums containing the chemicals used in the maintenance of the school’s swimming pool.
3. All materials used in the manufacture of prototypes must be recycled, and we constantly appeal to our community for collections of plastic, wood and paper.

Juliet Hartley is admissions and marketing co-ordinator: communications at Thomas More College.
1. See:
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6. See:
7. Ibid.

Category: Winter 2019

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