Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

What Changes of Direction Are Necessary in Technology Education Research?

Pat Hutchinson
The College of New Jersey

The December 1999 Technology Education Research Conference and the challenges it posed stimulated a good deal of "neural activity" on my part. The following reflections are meant to address item B among the requested topics, but couldn't seem to help overlapping onto the others.

Clarify What We Want to Know

We are at a very early stage of the process of designing this field called technology education. There are vast differences in the ways people perceive what should be included and how it might be presented. The standards should help focus us. They will not provide uniformity of activity from classroom to classroom—a good thing, if teaching is a creative endeavor, with unlimited room for new strategies and insights. What we don't need to do is spend more time on documenting the history of industrial arts, and assessing the current state of a field that is clearly not changing fast enough to keep up with society and technology.

The real issue seems to be that the outcomes, content and strategies most of us value intuitively need more scientific underpinning if we are to influence change in schools in a serious and sustainable way.

Attend to the Scientific Enterprise

Dr. James Rutherford referred to the mission of science education as "engaging students in the scientific enterprise." I agree that this is by far the most valuable gift of science education to "all Americans"—to allow us to assume the role of scientist: observer, synthesizer, tester, and interpreter.

Probably one of the reasons for science's failure to connect with a majority of students is that science classes are more about memorizing the findings of somebody else's engagement in the scientific enterprise, and less about including students in this really stimulating activity. People who have not succeeded in getting to the advanced levels of science don't get much practice in the scientific enterprise—research.

Few of us who have gravitated toward technology education historically have been highly scientific types. Technology is about solving practical problems, a creative rather than investigatory activity, so the dearth of scientific research into teaching and learning about technology shouldn't be surprising.

Challenged to become researchers into learning, we are being asked to behave as scientists. Perhaps if science education had espoused Dr. Rutherford's goal years ago, research in general, and certainly in technology education, would be better today.

Attend to the Technological Enterprise

Every discipline has its own process or "enterprise," different from every other. Technology education's role should be to engage young people in the "technological enterprise," to enable all Americans to "practice technology"—identifying opportunities for innovation and solving the problems those opportunities pose. In today's world, while "appreciation of" and "literacy in" some fields may be enough, we all must be practicing technologists.

And because I believe technological comfort and competence are essential to everyone, improving research in our field can be no less than a survival strategy. One reason is purely pragmatic: in the U.S., the validation of technology education will rest on approval from the science community, largely because science is so strongly connected with prosperity in the American mind.

But in fact it truly is important to test the hypotheses on which we base our assumptions (about learning, teaching, curriculum, etc.) if we are to be good technologists, addressing the problem of preparing kids well for adulthood. Clarifying the problems, evaluating the possible solutions—those are a few of the ways science supports technology, and we need to do it. (But research in so human a set of endeavors is not easy, so I was very glad to hear someone like Janet Kolodner express the value of case studies and anecdotal evidence as important among a range of research approaches presented.)

So What Do We Research?

From the discussions, at least three excellent sources of research problems come to mind. Here are just a few of the questions that were raised.

  1. The Standards Effort
    Wheeler's mapping activities:
    • What is the correct progression for building particular concepts?
    • What is the relationship between context and transferability?
  2. Funded projects and local efforts in the U.S. over the past fifteen years, including related areas from which technology programs are drawing ideas, like gifted and talented programs, pre-engineering programs, and Science, Technology & Society (STS) efforts.
    Benenson's problem-identification activities:
    • How do students understand the engineered/designed world?
    • What are their attitudes toward technology?
    • Do they recognize trade-offs and responsibilities when they consider technological activity?
    Welty feels traditional (technology) teachers value engaging activities (journeys), at the expense of planned learning outcomes (destinations). Questions:
    • What is the value of open-ended exploration? Of goal-oriented activity?
    • What is a reasonable balance?
    • How can learning outcomes be assessed?
  3. The experiences of the countries that have implemented technology education, systemically or locally, during the past 30 years. These include virtually all of the English-speaking countries of the world: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most recently, South Africa. McCormick's studies of the design process in schools suggest a mismatch between design models and what really happens in schools. Questions:
    • Is this a fault of design models, of models in general, of the way teachers interpret design models, of the constraints on design activities imposed externally on schools?

A Personal Note

The conference forced me to turn attention to the need for research in our emerging field at a personally opportune time. Our project (Children Designing & Engineering) is about to enter pilot testing, and the feedback we hope to get should provide some good insight into the way teachers perceive and interpret our products, the ways children react to the materials presented by their teachers, and the general logistics we are advocating for classrooms. If we can factor what we learn into the further development of our units of study, we should then have something around which a few questions might be posed that will allow us to gather some information about Design-and-Technology, the approach to the field that our project reflects.

Events since the AAAS conference, including exposure to some recent developments in brain-based research on cognition, have suggested new dimensions to the research questions we need to answer. If we find that the contextual, design-based activities, the student-centered environment, and the inquiry-focused teaching strategies we propose correlate with improved test scores in standardized tests in math, science or language arts, why is that happening? How are those strategies affecting brain functioning at a physiological level? It appears that some of the imaging technologies now available to scientists may be able to shed light on the actual development of neural networks in the brain (although interpretation of the data that is delivered is still in the early stages).

The opportunity to consider this brain-based research was made possible by funding from NSF, as the Technology Education Research Conference was underwritten by AAAS. Activities like this are critical in stimulating important discussions. The real challenge, however, is located closer to the "grass-roots." We need to create a culture among technology educators (and teachers-in-training, and even high-schoolers considering career paths) that understands and values research within creative efforts. Such a culture producing solid findings could be very persuasive with stakeholders of the educational system—businesses, parents, government agencies. But we have a vicious circle on our hands right now: too few institutions, turning out too few potential researchers, resulting in a lack of data to support decision-making in schools. In other words, not only have we no shortage of research questions, we are also replete with practical problems to solve.