Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Reflections on the Technology Education Research Conference

Patricia M. Rowell
University of Alberta

Reflection on the conference

This conference provided a rare opportunity for an exchange of ideas among those working in varied contexts of technological education. The conference offered a forum in which the status of research in the field was interrogated from diverse viewpoints, and the possibilities for future work explored. The research field is diffuse and, as noted by James Rutherford in his keynote address, lacking in tradition.

A questioning of what it means to be learning or teaching technology grounded all the sessions. What are the intents of technology education? What are the understandings that we should be aiming for in classroom technology education? A need to identify the 'big' ideas' of technology in order to frame learning and teaching was acknowledged. Concept maps displaying links between ideas may be useful in trying to delineate a progression in ideas to be developed by students (Soren Wheeler). What ideas do children bring with them to technological problem-solving situations? The interplay of key ideas in problem-solving situations—i.e., how much a plastic shopping bag will carry before it breaks (Gary Benenson)—exemplifies the challenge confronting teachers in their efforts to translate the adventures of enjoyable hands-on activities into experiences contributing to technological understanding (Ken Welty). Are there patterns of progression in development of children's technological concepts? What classroom practices support the development of technological understanding? How will we know that students are progressing in their development of technological concepts? Such questions need to be addressed in teaching situations (Janet Kolodner; Ed Goldman & Dorothy Bennett).

In some school jurisdictions, technology education is subsumed within science education, and the question of whether this results in the 'scientizing' of learning in technology, or the “technologizing” of science learning was vigorously debated. We know little about the ways that children appropriate the ideas of science for use in technological problem solving (Rowell). And what is the role of context in solving technological problems (Bob McCormick)?

Technological capability draws not only on conceptual understanding but also on knowing how to do things or procedural knowledge. While the development of generic manipulative skills in children have been documented, we know little about the extent to which the ability to see how to translate a design into reality impacts successful problem solving. In classrooms, how is problem solving perceived by teachers? By students? Classroom interactions are likely to be influenced by perceptions of problem solving as application of general-purpose skills giving rise to ritual knowledge rather than to principled understanding and providing a "veneer of accomplishment" (Bob McCormick).

The questions arising out of these discussions demand an examination of technology education research methodologies employed in the past and consideration of those for the future (Karen Zuga; Theodore Lewis, Dan Householder). Selection of methodological approaches depends on researchers' perspectives and assumptions. Endeavors to understand the nature of classroom interactions which support learning in technological problem solving are aided by ethnographic approaches together with microgenetic analysis (Janet Kolodner).

Future directions

Before we move forward, we may need to look back to re-examine the rationale underlying school programs in technology education. What are the assumptions about the nature of technology in an instructional program? What dimensions of technology are given emphasis in this program (technical, cultural, social)? Why is the technology component of the program structured in this way (stand alone, linked with science, across the curriculum)? What messages about technology are being sent through this program? Questions such as these must be dealt with before any attempts to identify, develop or assess key technological concepts and/or procedures.

Perhaps one reason why research in technology education is diffuse and lacking focus is because we are lacking theoretical frameworks in which to question classroom practices. We need to develop ways of talking about specific dimensions of teaching and learning in technology classrooms in such a way that we can begin to interrogate the nature of classroom interactions. Because of the interplay of cognitive and manipulative demands in technological problem-solving, we need a perspective which enables us to view learning as more than an acquisition of knowledge of concepts and procedures. Moreover, we need a perspective which foregrounds the social and cultural dimensions of technological problem solving. Such theoretical frameworks will hopefully enable us to ground the findings of ethnographic and case study research and, in so doing, contribute to an elaboration of such frameworks.

We should be cautious about trying to pin down generalizable skills for technology education until questions have been addressed such as whether there are useful heuristics for technological problem solving and what the degree of situatedness in problem-solving situations might be. Some technological practitioners argue that every problem is unique, and that the context of a particular problem plays a key role in the shaping of the problem for the problem solver. Which brings us back to making more explicit the goals of technology education, and differentiating between development of technological literacy and technological capability.

A research agenda

I would suggest the following strands of research for technology education:

What is the nature of technological problem solving?

As a human endeavor, technological problem solving has cultural and social dimensions as well as economic and political dimensions. How do we expose these dimensions within a school program? What emphasis is given to any of these dimensions in contrast to the technical dimension? Should there be distinct school programs, some oriented to development of technological literacy and others oriented to development of technological capability?

How do children/adults learn to solve technological problems?

Prior knowledge and experiences have bearing on the solving of problems. And yet every problem is a unique experience by virtue of time and place. What aspects of a problemsolving situation contribute to experience brought to bear on future problem-solving situations?

Engineers point to the importance of talking with people in their work. How do engineers and other technological problem-solvers talk with each other? How do such people use language to frame a problem and work out a viable solution? What is the nature of collaborative talk in technological problem-solving situations? What are the discourse practices which constitute a culture of technological problem solving?

Technology and science are intertwined ever more closely in our present worlds. But we still know very little about how problemsolvers move between the two fields. We need to understand how people such as engineers pull science principles into their technology discourse; this would have significant implications for school programs.

What pedagogical practices support technological problem solving?

Before they come to school, many children have experience with design and make activities. What are the characteristics of classrooms in which children improve their capabilities in such situations? What do teachers need to know in order to create activities which enhance the learning of technological problemsolving? What do teachers need to know and do in order to introduce students to a culture of technological problem solving? How do we support the development of such knowledge and practice in teacher education programs?