Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Themes in Technology Education Research

Dorothy T. Bennett
Education Development Center, Inc./Center for Children and Technology
New York, NY

For the past ten years, my colleagues and I at Education Development Center, Inc.'s (EDC's) Center for Children and Technology have worked in collaboration with educators to evaluate, study, and develop K-12 technology education programs that involve design-based pedagogy. Through this work, we have discovered that design (i.e., a process integral to engineering) affords multiple opportunities for children to gain new sets of literacies—mathematical, linguistic, technological, and artistic. We have heard numerous stories from teachers who have been implementing technology education in their classrooms that design-based projects have enabled their most troubled students to develop new competencies in communication and problem solving. At the same time, we have also grappled with the problem of identifying what it is about the nature of design-based technology tasks that seems so engaging for students and how it is that teachers can effectively integrate design-based pedagogy into their teaching. In this respect, I think the conference was worthwhile. I was finally able to hear from others in this small but growing community that my colleagues and I are not alone in our desire to get a clearer understanding of the characteristics of teaching and learning with technology.

Since the conference, I have been thinking a great deal about the need for research in design education, technology education, and education that involves the process of solving problems and designing solutions. A number of themes stand out for me:

1) Technology, while it overlaps with science, has its own distinct set of skills and concepts that are yet to be fully identified or understood. I believe this was raised in relation to the design-based/technology curricula that are currently being developed by colleagues present at the conference. I got the sense that the benchmarks provide a good starting framework for identifying these skills and concepts, but there is much more work to do in this area.

2) To study teaching and learning in technology one must look at the means as well as the ends. I think nearly everyone agreed that process and content are central to technology education, but there are some unique skills and "big ideas" associated with the design process and the doing of technology itself that need further investigation. In the context of technology problems, understanding how you get there is as critical as the end product—in fact the process often determines how successful your end product might be.

3) Design-based education/technology education can involve multiple disciplines at once. The richer and more complex the problem, the more interdisciplinary the content base students might draw upon. Because of this, it makes special demands on teachers and students and we need to understand the best ways in which technology education can be integrated into teachers' existing curricula.

4) Theodore Lewis speculated that technology education might be most closely related to art in the sense that individuals might possess certain intuitive design talents that come to bear on their performance. The intuitive understandings and skills that children bring to solving technology problems would be interesting to investigate further.

5) Practitioners in the field of technology education are often working in isolation and few researchers are paying any attention to what they are doing. This is especially true at the elementary school level.

6) Technology education and design education would benefit greatly from partnership research in which researchers work alongside educators to better understand what key concepts and skills students are gaining as they work on classroom-based projects and how the curriculum might be strengthened to yield richer learning. I think this was stressed in my presentation with Ed Goldman as well as in Janet Kolodner's presentation.

7) There is a need to investigate children's conceptual understanding of technology and the process of design and to identify some of the developmental issues that abound across the grade levels.

With all the diversity of opinion shared at the conference about what constitutes technology learning, I was struck by the level of agreement on a number of issues about future directions for research:

  1. That more ethnographic and qualitative research is needed to understand the nuances of what it means to teach and learn technology in the classroom. Janet Kolodner particularly made a strong case for design experiments and I have to agree that research that explores design and technology education in context will be most valuable to the field.
  2. That multiple methods need to be employed to capture teaching and learning in technology and design (e.g., ethnographic observations, videos of students' problem solving process, clinical interviews, etc.)
  3. That we need to explore how diverse students approach technology, the kinds of tinkering that boys and girls do, and the types of problems that seem to engage all students. We need to address gender issues by examining what it is that different children bring to technology problems without colluding in stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity.
  4. That doing technology and design does not involve a linear process—there are many entry points into design and technology. For example, as one tests a design, one can redefine the problem, and then redesign. Understanding the different ways in which children enter into this process across the grades would be beneficial to moving technology education forward.

Future directions for research

There are three core areas that I think are worthy of further investigation:

Technology Teaching and Pedagogy

As Janet Kolodner, Theodore Lewis, Edward Goldman, and others suggested, in-depth classroom-based studies are needed to explore the types of design problems and teaching strategies that promote rich learning. This would involve conducting ethnographic research in collaboration with teachers to identify:

  1. what sequences of topics seem to work best for students learning key concepts;
  2. the types of problem contexts that are successful in engaging diverse students; and
  3. the most effective assessment tools that can capture the learning that takes place.

This may be done in collaboration with curriculum development projects currently underway.

Student Learning

Research is also sorely needed that focuses on what in fact students are learning and the kinds of literacies that are supported in technology education classrooms. Among the questions that seem pertinent are:

  1. What types of problem-solving strategies do students employ in design problems? For example, how do they move from defining a problem to redefining a problem? What are the considerations they make and the resources they draw on?
  2. Similarly, what constitutes successful work on design projects? What evidence do we have?
  3. Are there other skills and concepts that are not already outlined in benchmarks?
  4. Which skills and conceptual understandings are transferred from one project to the next?
  5. How do different students approach the design process? Do design approaches differ with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status?

Teacher Development and Reform

We need to investigate the ways in which teachers can be supported in adopting design-based strategies in their existing curricula and how it impacts their overall pedagogy. There also seem to be many claims being made that technology education offers opportunities for major curricular reform to take place. We need to understand how technology education and design-based pedagogy is being adopted in schools and what impact it has on the teaching of related disciplines. Just as inquiry (integral to science) has served as a major pedagogical framework that has stimulated educational reform, we need to better understand how design (integral to technology) might do the same.