The report Assessment of Performance in Design and Technology (Kimbell et al., 1991) acknowledged the importance of both reflection and action in pursuing design and technology activities. It must be remembered that at the time the research was carried out, a National Curriculum did not yet exist in England, hence none of the pupils had been taught design and technology as a school subject. The report discusses at some length the reflective-active balance that occurs in the responses of different pupil groups under different conditions in response to different tasks. One of the interesting findings was that for girls (who are generally seen as more reflective than boys) who had experienced a craft design and technology course (the subject most similar to design and technology), their ability to be reflective “enhances their active procedural capability.” Even in these early days, the importance of reflection-action interaction was seen as significant. The tasks used to explore performance in design and technology were of necessity truncated, and it can be argued that to some extent they lack the authenticity achieved through extended design and make activities. Richard Kimbell (2004) has been critical of the way assessment practice in design and technology has developed since the publication of the APU report. He sees most current assessment practice as “widely regarded as having become formulaic, routinised and predictable” (Kimbell, 2004, p. 103) He takes this criticism further, stating, “It has become increasingly evident over the last few years that a number of pressures have combined to reduce learners’ innovative performance at GCSE in design and technology. ‘Playing safe’ with highly teacher managed projects has been seen to be the formula for schools guaranteed A-C pass rate” (Kimbell, 2006, p. 18). In response to the concerns he raised, there has been renewed interest in assessment, and this has led to the Innovating Assessment research project (Golsmiths, 2009), which has produced structured testing materials to be used over a three-hour time block under examination conditions. This is a huge step forward compared to the stranglehold that the coursework portfolio has over pupil assessment in design and technology. Despite the undoubted achievement of this research project, there have to be reservations about a one-size fits all timed test pupils as the best way for pupils to reveal their capability in design and technology, particularly if consideration is to be given to the interplay of reflection and action and the time that this takes. Barlex (2007) has argued for a different approach in which the nature of the design decisions made by pupils tackling authentic tasks is the focus. He envisages a pupil making a series of “What if I did this” moves (Schon, 1987) as he or she considers possible decisions about a feature and its effects on decisions made or yet to be made about other features. This interconnectedness reflects a constructivist reflection-in-action paradigm for the pupil considering the process of designing as a reflective conversation with the situation (Dorst & Dijkhuis, 1995). Yet the utilization of a “What if I did this” strategy is more than a mere ad hoc tool to cope with the complexity of designing. Its repeated use increases the designer’s understanding of the issues, thereby informing, guiding, and stimulating further designing both within and outside of the given design situation (Schon & Wiggins, 1992).
This view of pupil activity in design and technology has at its heart the interaction between reflection and action. It is worth considering this in the light of Lave and Wenger’s (1991) idea of learning through participation in a community of practice. Those new to the community learn by taking part in the activities of the community. It is tempting to see pupils in a design and technology classroom as being members of a community of practice, under the guidance of the teacher, in which they tackle tasks that are personally authentic (in that the pupils are designing and sometimes making items that they feel are important) but also culturally authentic (in that they reflect to some considerable extent the professional practice of designers). A significant part of the learning that would take place as pupils develop the ability to respond fluently to such tasks would be to be both reflective and active in ways that enabled these behaviors to inform each other.