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Why do we make ‘stuff’ in D&T?

Welcome to my first independent blog having published over 100 on the TES in recent years. Sadly, just a recycled blog illustration with this but here we go…

I have seen some interesting discussions generated recently on the subject of what constitute ‘worthwhile’, relevant or ‘solid’ projects for Design and Technology at KS3/KS4. This has been something of a holy grail for me over the last few years and something I have given a great deal of time and consideration. The new GCSE specification, deep dives by Ofsted and numerous other initiatives and ideas have led many, including myself, to look at the long term planning of the subject and what we should deliver in the key stages before GCSE.

KS3 should be a substantial experience for the students regardless of what they choose to study at GCSE. AS educators, we have a responsibility to ensure that every student we teach gets a ‘solid’ grounding in aspects of design and technology as they are the generation that will create or consume products and have the potential to change the world as we know it….for better or worse. At the same time, we need to prepare them well for examination level should they make that choice. Admittedly its a fine balancing act, especially with the limitations imposed on us but we really need to do our best to meet these demands.

Clocks, bird houses (grits teeth there), pencil holders, desk tidy’s (guilty as charged)…hell, even blockbots all have their place as vehicles for delivering skills to young minds. The problem is when these become the ‘destination’ rather than the vehicle for getting there.

The other problem is that of ‘safety’ and reassurance (for the teacher) where products are still in the curriculum because they are products….and ‘mums like them’, ‘SLT take pictures’, ‘look good on the shelf’ or whatever. Take the clock project as an example, one which is still prevalent in schools today even at KS4. If there isn’t a specific skill being covered (well) then what it the problem they are solving? What process of design and enlightenment is being undertaken? where is the inspiration, the purpose, the learning? The problem of telling the time is already solved by the provision of a clock mechanism…are you simply dressing it up like a doll in parts you have cut out to keep kids occupied in lesson time? I have seen many designs where the outcome, no matter how ‘pretty’ has completely disregarded the original purpose and the time can hardly be read from it!

I have my own issues with the well crafted products often seen in open evenings and displays (particularly from prestigious independents) that are simply pointless or unnecessary designs that are ‘exclusive’ for the wrong reasons (we have a surplus of English Oak in the store room, daddy has a metal fabrication facility we can access, it’s in the style of Jonny Ives because I own lots of Apple products/ I got to use the new laser cutter/3D printer/spray booth so SLT feel it was a good investment, it will look great on the shelf next to that Alessi product etc.) That is a discussion for another time though 😉

At the other end of the scale, give most Year 7 a task like ‘evaluate the needs of an elderly person and develop an eco -friendly method of delivering medication while providing a form of entertainment with opportunities for social interaction and development’ and you are understandably asking for a sea of blank expressions. KS3 should really be a mix of accessible contextual challenges and tasks that cover the skills that will be necessary at the next stage of education should they progress to GCSE but still provide an enlightening experience even if they don’t.

‘Problem solving’ for it’s own sake is not necessarily good teaching, students need to engage with the reason for solving that problem and be able to relate it to the real world…their world. Making up a problem or context in order to justify your decision to continue making that pencil holder they ‘like to take home’ may not be the best way to teach this subject.

So, is a clock or a desk tidy a worthwhile project at KS3/4? I could ask the students who have taken the concept of a modular desk organiser to A Level standard with prototypes worthy of developing commercially or those who designed a ‘timepiece’ for the elderly, visually impaired or to teach young children to tell the time in a fun way. Pretty sure they will remember the experience, the learning and the purpose for longer than the ‘product’ they took home for decoration.

The choices we make…

We all make choices in life. Some are good, some are bad. Some we learn from, while others, well, we never seem to learn from those mistakes (guilty as charged). Making the right choice is not always easy, but they really do shape us for better or worse. As the primary topic of this blog is design I would like to look at some of the choices I made in the design world that led to where I am today. Now, I’m not saying that is necessarily a good thing, or that I have attained success, wealth or reached any sort of educational zenith, but I am quite proud of my achievements and experiences. Many of these were not the result of what might be considered the ‘right’ choice at the time but…do read on.

As a teenager I chose to ignore pleas from my parents to be a bank manager, or priest. The former was at least a well paying job. The latter, well, lets just say it was never going to happen. No, I chose to follow my love of art and design instead…how that ended up is pretty obvious if you are reading this.

At University I chose not to stay within my area and wandered into Industrial Design where my eyes were opened to other methods of design and manufacture including their shiny new CAD suite that no one was using. I learnt the software, sold my skills to the industrial design guys (well, I had to live) and was threatened with eviction from the University if i continued.

I chose to ignore them and continued with what I was doing. Six months later I was travelling around conventions in the UK helping a professor to get his PhD in virtual reality and was asked to exhibit my CAD work at Earls Court and the NEC as the University had none…what a shame 😉

In my final year, I chose to completely ignore my degree specialism (furniture) and design an 8 foot virtual exhibition booth for my major project (this was in 1992 and used a slide projector and a mirror to rear project on a sandblasted glass screen). Again, I was threatened with removal from the University and told I would fail the unit if I persisted. At the end of the year I graduated and also collected the George Jackson award for my design which if I recall was awarded as it ‘exemplified the work done between the two faculties’…hmmmmm.

After graduation I chose not to sit on my bum waiting to find a design job in the creative desert of Yorkshire and applied for a teaching role, despite having no experience. Now here is where you have to ask if I made the right choice 😉 I got a nice little job in an independent school at a time where a degree was sufficient to teach, but I still chose to gain further qualifications in education (for the record, they didn’t really make that much difference to my teaching…just opened a few more doors).

After 8 years doing this, I felt something of a ‘fake’ working with only well behaved and privileged children so I chose to leave a perfectly good job and find the toughest state school that had a vacancy….and it was probably the best thing I ever did.

I was then offered the opportunity to develop a whole new department from scratch and I chose to move to that role, despite the huge amount of work involved. I chose to stay there to develop it into a larger creative arts faculty, to move into management, and to make it one of the most successful departments in the school.

Now, not all choices are necessarily good and during these years I chose to write and publish over 30 children’s books, build a huge website, design websites for international clients, work as a designer, illustrator and even an interface designer for Microsoft; all while still a HOD. These choices are the ones that meant many late nights and too much time away from family. As I said, not all choices are necessarily good 😦

After thirteen years in that teaching role, with success almost assured each year, I chose to take voluntary redundancy and return to the teaching world outside. This, however, was where I thought I had chosen very badly as there were no suitable roles in my subject area and I found myself unemployed for the first time. This is where I chose not to sit at home and I signed up for supply work. It was some of the most challenging and soul destroying teaching I have ever done….if you can really call it teaching some days. My time in a PRU in Leeds trying to teach PD to one student intent on killing me will forever be etched into my mind. Little did I know PD meant ‘painting and decorating’!!

When the phone rang one day and I was asked if I could teach Media Studies to A Level for a few days, I chose to accept (although I was very honest about my total lack of experience). That turned into a fantastic 6 month experience in a great school that I will never forget…and every student passed with a predicted grade or better….now that was a good choice which changed my perception of teaching for ever, especially as I got to see the D&T department from the ‘outside’.

At that point I chose to leave teaching, but that is another story so I will leave that little interlude for now. However, I did choose not to leave the world of D&T entirely, and I took up the offer to write a blog for the TES. I then chose to continue doing that for the next 3 years, write and illustrate 100 blogs, get shortlisted for an award for doing it, and get to write for companies like BMW, NASA, LEGO and Airbus.

Opportunities continue to present themselves and I make the choice I think is best for me and my family to enjoy a rich, varied and full life. I chose to produce resources, design courses, deliver training and to work with a range of companies. I chose to leave another senior position where the creativity was drained from me and I chose to take up the offer to move to Thailand and work as a class teacher in a role where I have the opportunity to design, develop and create new stuff every day. I expect I will continue to have many choices to make in the future, but I’m genuinely excited about that.

I guess my point is, we are given choices in life, and its not always possible to spend time procrastinating about the pros and cons. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling one way or another (and that includes not staying somewhere you are not happy). I have always been of the belief that I would rather experience something (legal of course) and possibly regret it than regret not having tried it in the first place. Let’s be honest, I have skimmed over many of the bad choices I made such as not buying Apple shares when they were worth pennies, or styling my hair more creatively while I still had the choice 😉

We often aspire to that job we can stay in until retirement, in a lovely reassuring environment, but sometimes its not what we need at all….it just feels safe. Sometimes taking a leap of faith into the unknown can be exhilarating and reap rewards you never expected. I certainly can’t imagine how my life would have turned out had I stayed where I was most comfortable. With the world the way it is, maybe flexibility and adaptability are skills that will benefit you in the future. Who know, there could be a whole new world of adventure and excitement out there for you to experience.

Creativity for the win

Lockdown, its rubbish and lets not try and pretend otherwise. Billions of people, possibly for the first time in history, confined to their homes to try and limit the spread of contagion. They are detached from their working live, from friends and, in some cases, their families. Their daily routines have changed and, other than the digital lives that exist in the home environment, they no longer have ‘normal’ or regular access to the things they considered social and recreational.

As we live in a digital world, much of this experience is being viewed through a virtual window and we, in turn, have become digital voyeurs. But, as seedy as this sounds (and could be), what we are watching is not what we might have expected before all this.

People are actually discovering a whole world of self-expression and collaboration. They are recreating famous artworks with household objects and making videos of famous songs with their friends online. I wonder how many of us stop to consider the analytical task that is necessary to do that and the lateral thinking and problem solving needed to overcome the limitations of the situation.

Kids are making stop motion videos of them travelling to other worlds, climbing mountains or deep sea diving. Adults are drawing, designing and making music and video. I dont think I have ever seen so many creative ways of using household objects to craft new and useful things and people who wouldn’t get up to sing Karaoke after a bottle of gin who are now gleefully crooning along to Queen and sharing it with millions online.

Think about all the subjects studied at school currently considered important by politicians and educational leaders. How many of those are making their way into the creative exploits of isolation? Anyone working on algebra, geography or maths to keep themselves meaningfully occupied (and sane)? No, didnt think so.

I recently wrote about Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and its worth reminding ourselves of that and what it means. Yes, we panic bought the food (and toilet roll) but that’s simply ensuring we met the physiological need for ourselves and our families. Lockdown and avoiding the threat of contamination meets the psychological needs. After that its social, esteem and love…some of which we have… some we will struggle with in isolation, but once those needs are satisfied we don that think which all humans eventually so: we seek self-actualisation or self expression.

Creativity is the means by which we are doing this and its incredible to see just how innovative and inventive people can be when not distracted by a 9-5 job or what was the ‘old normal’. This is what is inherehent in all of us and something that, for some, is slowly repressed by adult life and the responsibilities that come with us. As Ursual Leguin said: “The creative adult is the child who survived.”

If this situation has one positive (other than the cleaner environment) its the realisation that, when we allow ourselves to be free from those restraints, we find that we are all creative people and that art, music and design are not just hobbies or interests or things that you can do alongside a ‘real’ job. They are in fact essential elements of being a happy and fulfilled human being. They are also vital skills for industry and the future, but they are what makes us human, what connects us and what keeps us going through times like this. Let us hope that when ‘times are no longer like this’ we don’t forget just how creative we can be and just how important creativity is to us all.

A new way of learning

Do you remember how you used to rack your brains thinking of how to set meaningful work when you missed a teaching day at school for some reason? If, like me, you considered this to be a practical focussed subject, you would have been worried that, without supervised access to specialist equipment, the cover would inevitably end up as a Spanish test or, if you were lucky, a bit of drawing and colouring.

Then there was the student who, for some reason, was off school for a while and you were asked to provide work they could do. Again, you racked your brains as to how this could be done without access to all the equipment and resources in school that your schemes of work/learning relied so heavily on.

Then came the pandemic, school closures and lockdowns and everything you thought you knew about teaching Design and Technology was put to the test. Sure, you could adapt some schemes of work to get through a few lessons, maybe a week or more, but then the horrible feeling that this might be until the end of the year or even longer. I’m sure all teachers felt the pressure to provide meaningful work but, for those subjects that rely on not just specialist environments and equipment, but interaction with the students; all of whom have different skills, ideas, needs and difficulties that are very difficult to share remotely.

I’m not here to preach on how best you should teach your subject to your students, but we are all in the same boat here and we have the additional challenge at this time of year of encouraging students to choose our subject at examination level. That in itself is a task, and one made much more difficult if they feel their last experience of the subject was frustrating, difficult or unrewarding.

If you have just looked at the aspects of your schemes of learning that can be done without any specialist equipment or materials, then maybe that is not the best approach. Design and Technology has changed over the last few years. It is no longer focussed on a well made ‘product’ that might adorn the front of the school magazine or Aunty Flo’s living room. Outcomes can be challenging but unfinished, creative yet ugly, innovative yet incomplete. The focus is on creativity, problem solving, and realising ideas in a variety of forms; some that don’t require actual materials. These are the areas we can focus on in delivering a rewarding experience in such challenging times.

However, because of this challenge, I have only now realised just how important the physical interaction between class and teacher really is. My school has worked hard on designing a meaningful ‘remote learning experience’ and as a marketable product, it works…on paper. What it can’t provide is the ability to ‘read the room’ for students who may be struggling, those ‘tells’ that let you know they haven’t quite got it. It won’t let me look over their shoulder to see how they are getting on with the task, offer help, or ask if they want a chat if they are getting a little overwhelmed and upset by it all. I cant demonstrate a process or skill and I miss the collective ‘oooh’ when you do something cool in the workshop.

I have tried to second guess what might be asked of me by a class and decided to make supporting materials. What would have been a 20 page workbook under normal circumstances is fast approaching 200 pages of supporting material. I would never have done that before but it begs the question: is it too much now, or was I providing too little before? Was I relying on subject knowledge, teaching experience and knowing my class to reduce the amount of supporting documents and teaching materials, or am I simply trying to make a virtual, printed version of myself that the students can refer to when they need help and I am not there?

Despite, making a product they can work on and realise through rapid prototyping, there is so much about this subject in particular that requires personal engagement, class dynamics and, well, a ‘hands on’ experience for it to truly shine. What we don’t have is that option at the moment and maybe not for the foreseeable future so we have to adapt whether we like it or not. I’m not even sure teaching will ever go back to how it used to be once we return to school and there is a little part of me that thinks it shouldn’t. For now, we need to keep D&T at the forefront of education but for the benefit of the students. Much has been done to promote design and engineering, now we need to make sure our students get the benefit if they are to continue studying this subject and achieve the results they deserve. There have been too many schools removing practical subject like D&T so, if its longevity requires a new approach to teaching and learning, then it really needs to be done.

The new human needs?

About a year ago I sat down to write a blog about human needs and wants and how they have changed quite noticeably over time. Being a visual person, I considered how the traditional hierarchy made famous by Maslow almost 80 years ago, and depicted as a pyramid, had in some ways become inverted. Rather than simply flip it upside down to illustrate this point, I made a mirror image sinking in to darkness. Clearly I was not a big fan of this ‘new’ hierarchy.

Let’s consider the two extremes of the original. At the bottom are the physiological needs; of food, water, sleep and the toilet. At the top of the pyramid when all other needs have been satisfied is self-actualisation; creativity (more on that later) and self expression. Now, let’s consider a fairly recent phenomena: online gaming. Here is am immersive experience made possible by the advances in technology that weren’t even science fiction back when Maslow created his hierarchy. News reports have featured gamers who have died, yes I did say died, because they were so involved in these games with a desire to get a top score, rank higher than their competitors, or achieve some virtual goal. In doing so, they ignored their bodies need for rest and nutrition and instead fuelled themselves with whatever energy supplements and drinks available. For some, it simply wasn’t enough. We could also consider how numerous young people do real harm to their bodies in an attempt to fit a social template be that visual or one of status within their peer groups. However, as always, I digress…

The world of last year is very, very different from the world Maslow lived in so some change was inevitable. If you are interested in how we came to be so self obsessed I would recommend reading the book ‘Selfie’ by Will Storr, which is a great account of how the west became self obsessed. The worlds of design and technology will have inevitably made a considerable contribution to from the clothes we wear to the gadgets we use to immerse ourselves and share our virtual selves online. Without technology there might be no designer clothes to covet or realistic computer worlds to immerse ourselves in.

The development of technology and its affect in society could be discussed endlessly with no guarantee of any kind of agreement about what is good and bad about developments in technology but the reason I decided to revisit this planned blog is that recent events have caused us to reconsider all this again and it will be interesting to see how this section of humanity’s development looks in another 80 years. In some countries the reliance in technology during the lockdown has caused internet and telephone systems to grind to a halt and, in some cases, collapse entirely. Such is the rush to maintain communication with the outside world…and to keep entertained with Netflix and gaming. But there has also been a return to almost ‘post-war’ attitudes of ‘making do and mend, utility and amusing ourselves in increasingly creative ways. For many, technology seems to have become the means to share the creative renaissance they are experiencing rather than the world they disappear in to and the queues for the supermarkets show we are not quite a world of online shopping just yet.

We are still living with this ‘new normal’ and we are discovering that we are innovative and creative despite having endless films and box sets on digital tap. We are also getting a chance to see what the world outside is like without our meddling, and its genuinely eye opening. There is no doubt that technology is keeping us connected and we would be lost without it, but I wonder if, when we all emerge from our domestic bunkers, we will be glad to see the back of technology for a while and enjoy that which has always been there. Perhaps Maslow will see his hierarchy restored to some extent and, if we can become better people and look after each other, and ourselves a little better, I think that can only be a good thing 🙂

Supply teachers; give them a chance.

Not strictly D&T related but I can clearly recall my first encounter with a supply teacher. I was a member of senior management in an independent school where it was unusual to see a supply teacher as staff usually covered lessons internally. I can remember asking who he was and what he was teaching. The replies were unsurprisingly vague; “He’s here to teach Maths, don’t know his name”.

For days he sat alone in the staff room during breaks, but no one spoke to him other than the other members of the maths department as a courtesy. Admittedly, his appearance and demeanour didn’t cry ‘professional’ and students were generally left unimpressed, so he didn’t last long in the role. Like most first experiences, it left an indelible mark on me and I came to perceive supply teachers as having ‘failed’ to get a job in the real world of education or social outcasts only hired as a last resort. I’m sure I am not the only one to have thought along these lines.

Around 5 years ago, I left that job and I found myself with no permanent teaching role but wanted to remain in teaching, so I did something I never expected; I became a supply teacher. My first assignment was late in the summer term on general cover which simply means getting a phone call at 7am then driving to a strange school to cover the lessons of anyone absent that day, regardless of subject specialism.  I walked up to the reception where I was handed a timetable, an ID badge and an instruction leaflet which I was given a short time to read. I was then sent to the first room with just minutes to prepare for the class that was about to arrive. I’m not sure what was worse; trying to learn Health and Social in 5 minutes or trying to maintain the interests of a large class of Year 10 all of whom wanted to go outside in the sun and had their own perceptions of the ‘quality’ and credibility of supply teachers.

Fortunately (for my sanity) I only did a few such days and was fortunate enough to secure long term assignments in some great schools where I was treated very well indeed, yet I continued to meet day to day supply teachers who were often treated exactly as I had been. I even had colleagues make derogatory comments to me about them as they had clearly forgotten that I was also a long term supply teacher.  I realise this is not how all staff behave but it was still a very disheartening experience.

Supply teachers are often transient, and you may never see them again but if I could ask one thing …just give them a chance, treat them as fellow professionals and try and welcome them reassuringly into your working environment. Remember your first day at work and imagine reliving the confusion and intimidation each day you go to a new school. How hard would your job be without the INSET, a teaching room where you know the resources available, work colleagues and a rapport with the students you teach. You can’t imagine just how infuriating it is to not know their names!

Supply teachers are not always, as I first believed, inadequate, inexperienced or unqualified. They could be fantastic teachers burnt out by excessive workload, maybe they are simply trying to find a better work/life balance or they may be carers and cannot commit to a full time permanent role. They could be ex-head teachers, examiners, moderators, industry experts or consultants who all have a wealth of life experience and skills to share.

Ultimately, they are in your school to help reduce your stress and workload by covering for absent staff but if you get the chance, try and find out a little about them rather than just herding them to their first teaching room, especially if they are there for more than a day. Not only will it help to reduce the anxiety of entering a strange environment, you might just find that they have a lot more to offer than just a days general cover.

Having worked as a supply teacher I can now see that, those who do it well, deserve admiration rather than apathy. To have the courage to experience your ‘first day at school’ on each assignment, to maintain control of an unknown and possibly hostile group of students and to deliver the required material in an often-insular environment is impressive. To do so without the financial security or other benefits associated with a permanent role and lack of support from fellow teaching colleagues deserves further respect in my opinion. Sadly, there are always likely to be supply teachers who simply are not ‘up to the job’ and given the burgeoning teacher shortage, you may not always get lucky, but rest assured there are some real gems out there and unless you give them the chance to shine, you may never know what a treasure you have in the classroom.

Beg, borrow or steal? The importance of developing teaching resources as an element of professional development.

I remember a time before the internet. Yes, young teachers, you may well scoff and, if I’m being honest, I would never go back to the technology of those days but, nonetheless, there was a time where if you wanted to know something you went to the library, and if you needed to learn you went back to college or University. If you needed resources, schemes of work and other teaching materials you bought resources from a catalogue or, more likely, knuckled down and made your own.

The internet with its endless resources, specialist forums and social media has pretty much eradicated the need to do that anymore but I do wonder if the ease with which such material can be obtained is actually deterring some teachers from experiencing the process of formulating their own projects, schemes of work and teaching materials.

If you spend enough time on forums and user groups, members tend to fall into one of three groups; those who put out requests for ideas, projects and other resources. The second type are those who generously put up their own work for critique or to be shared. The final group are the ‘lurkers’ who watch quietly but, upon spotting a useful resource, politely add their email to the thread with a tentative thank you.

Sadly, there is also another very small minority who share ‘great ideas’ they have found elsewhere claiming to be inspired by them. Now inspiration is great and forms an important part of the design process but there is a fine line between being inspired and simply copying.

At the one extreme are the stories of resources bought from hard working teachers being passed off as original work and, in some cases, repackaged and sold on again!! That really is inexcusable especially in a subject that should inspire young minds to be individual and unique and to develop their creative skills. We warn them of plagiarism and get them to sign record forms declaring all the work is their own. What kind of role models are we if we are not able to say the same of our own efforts?

Sharing good practice is fantastic but consider if, when asking for a resource, SOW or exemplar piece of work, are you offering something of your own making in return or in some way able to contribute to the development and improvement of that resource?

I have spent many years making resources and once, as a young teacher, vowed rather naively that I would make all my own diagrams and illustrations so they would be copyright free and unique. It was a bigger task than I anticipated but it led me to discover new techniques, learn new software and develop professionally. What I have now is a wealth of material that I can adapt to a range of situations and I can take ownership of that material without fear of copyright violation or someone claiming it’s theirs. In asking someone else for a SOW or set of resources, you are denying yourself the experience of creating your own piece of unique teaching materials and the satisfaction of knowing you made it.

The internet makes it all too easy to pop a request out on a Sunday evening for that Monday morning lesson or, dare I say it, job interview, and the members of the various groups who have worked hard to produce these resources are often all too happy to oblige. It feels like an easy win; all that hard work and time saved and you win the day but that work represents dozens, maybe hundreds of hours of work from an individual, likely to reflect their own skill set and be very specific to their teaching experiences and environments. There is the very real danger that using such resources will actually lead to an expectation of delivering the same quality on a regular basis. If you didn’t make it in the first place, how can you possibly create a whole new version for next week. At worst, given that the same resources are often available to buy online or shared with others, it may be recognised as not being your work and cost you a job. Can you imagine the embarrassment of discovering another candidate for a job has used the same resource?

Times are hard and budgets are tight so the temptation to pick something up for free or at short notice is often very tempting. If you want a royalty free resource to use and don’t have the experience or the time to create your own, then look at the various shops available where they can be bought, but at least consider using that as the foundation for developing a unique new version suited to your needs.

On the flip side, those happily sharing their full resources because they know they are effective or are proud of their efforts might wish to consider if they are holding back their colleagues from experiencing that same sense of achievement in creating their own resources. Inspiration is good and we all need it…. just think if asking for a full scheme of work or resources really is the best way to support what is essentially a creative and unique subject. 

I don’t think I can close without addressing the elephant in the room which is why people charge for teaching resources given these hard times for teachers. I would agree that AO’s should provide all the necessary materials for supporting their syllabi which they often do. However, many of the other supporting resources developed by individuals have been designed and (hopefully) checked thoroughly ready for teachers to adapt and to use effectively. If you think that asking a few pounds for what might equate to hundreds or thousands of pounds worth of worked hours is unfair then I would suggest that’s one more reason to make your own resources. If not to make them unique to you, then to really appreciate the amount of time and effort that can go into creating them.