Arts or Science? Or Both?

Interview with James Bleach, Head of D&T

James Bleach joined Tanglin Trust School as Head of D&T in August 2017. He designed the school's new D&T Studio which was opened in February by Mei Chee, Head of Product Marketing for Apple (India and SEA) and the TTS PTA.

James previously worked in the UK where, in addition to his own teaching, he created an online D&T resource network to share his innovative teaching materials with over 4,000 teachers and professionals worldwide. In 2015, James was a keynote speaker on 'Creativity – A Universal Language', in Dubai. He has worked as a consultant for the Design and Technology Association (DATA) advising the Ministry of Education in the UAE on setting up a D&T curriculum in local schools. James has also delivered a variety of workshops around the UK, trained staff for Cambridge University in developing environments and curricula, and been awarded as an 'Outstanding Teacher of D&T' by DATA.

What first inspired you to pursue a career into D&T?

Whilst I was on my gap year visiting the US, I offered to brighten up the interior of a primary school health centre. I decorated the walls with Disney characters and children were so keen to see the work that they were pretending to be ill. I really enjoyed working in a school environment and decided to study to be a primary school teacher. I have always been passionate about design and how it can have a positive effect on society. During my PGCE course, I gained experience in secondary schools and realised that secondary D&T was the path I would ultimately take.

What appealed to you about the subject?

First and foremost, I knew that my passion for the subject could definitely benefit others. The sheer scale and variety of D&T, its immediate relevance and its future potential are a big pull for most students and certainly was for me. The subject provides so much scope for your interests to develop within it. In addition, technology itself is constantly advancing, what it is today is not what it was, nor what it will be tomorrow. It has changed a huge amount since I've been teaching, and will do so even faster in the future, so you have to be agile and keep learning to keep up − all of which makes it an exciting, vibrant subject.

How do you explain to parents and children the benefits of studying D&T?

D&T crosses traditional boundaries between creative and scientific disciplines to develop logical thinkers, creative thinkers and problem solvers. Students make lateral connections and gain transferable skills they will be to able use in a whole range of careers out there now and ones that don't exist yet.

It is a subject that embraces change, new ideas and creativity and, alongside that, encourages an analytical and persistent mind-set, one that is able to problem solve from first principles.

D&T encourages students to become comfortable with ambiguity, fluidity and contradiction. Great attributes for the modern world! Take the iterative design process − the designer has to remain open to the possibility that initial ideas may not be the best ones, to avoid fixation in order to develop other, potentially better ideas, whilst also being tenacious in developing some ideas in the face of constructive criticism.

How can a creative, problem-solving mind-set be taught?

Fundamentally, creativity is about being able to naturally avoid fixation but this doesn't always come naturally, so it's more about helping children (and adults) to access this mind-set. Creativity can be supported and encouraged through various means but to say you can 'teach creativity' is something of a contradiction in terms. As Sir Ken Robinson suggests, an emphasis on right and wrong answers in schools can often educate children out of creativity.

Teachers in the creative fields therefore need to be continually mindful of the tendency to fixate on perfection, a right and a wrong answer, and develop ways to free the student from these constraints. For example, rather than asking them to 'draw a house', I ask them to 'design a shelter', or 'somewhere that something can live within'. By framing the question differently, it stops them from designing to a template of how they think their work should look.

As for problem solving, the new D&T curriculum emphasises the learning journey. It is important to create a positive learning environment where students don't fear trying new things, and have the opportunity to build, experiment and test things to destruction. It's vital to understand why and how something fails in order to understand how to make something better. Whenever I see products I ask myself and my students, "Can we design and engineer that better? Can we manufacture it better?" Everyone loves making things and seeing how things work. In that way, we spot and solve problems within context, which helps with a logical and confident approach to researching, designing, modelling and testing from first principles. It is important that we are not afraid to work in a cycle and are happy to redesign.

The physical working environment can also be set up as an enabler to give freedom to create through a variety of methods. Mei Chee, who opened our studio, commented on the open plan flow of space and the variety of opportunities within it, how it allows students the freedom to work in different areas on different machines to suit the process or product. She was also complimentary about the CAD/CAM streamlining approach we have taken. We currently use just Fusion 360, Adobe Illustrator, and Affinity Designer. Design and design departments can come with a lot of baggage – we wanted to strip that out – it can weigh down the creative process rather than free it.

We have talked more about Design than Technology. Why is that?

Design skill – both logical and creative – can be applied to anything and everything. It is, has been and always will be used to problem solve across sectors like automotive, aviation, architecture, sports and fashion, amongst others. Technology facilitates the realisation of solutions in all of these sectors, and developments in technology are making the more imaginative ideas feasible, so it is very important but it doesn't generally lead the process.

After a little repetition, students easily develop skill in operating machinery and tools – some of which can be described as new and emerging technology, others might be more traditional and craft-based – once they understand different processes, the rest is all about design. And therein lies the real potential.

There is such a demand for design aptitude in the workforce. Nowadays most STEM/STEAM graduates have been exposed to some level of coding and the younger generation is taking over these areas in the technology sector. But do they have the skills to become the next Dyson, Hadid or Jobs? I'm hoping that the next product on one of our displays here in the studio will come from someone who has been inspired in a school like ours. Where they have the freedom to tinker, engineer, design and manufacture hardware as well as software; to use the most recent technology and make something new.