Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Priority Research Needs in Technology Education: Thoughts on the AAAS Conference

Senta A. Raizen
The National Center for Improving Science Education

I have been reflecting on the recent conference on research in technology education. It comprised a rich mix of people with different backgrounds. There were some individuals with deep experience in developing technology curricula and some who have been teaching such curricula at all levels, technology education advocates, science educators interested in advancing the field, education researchers, and people concerned with the research infrastructure in technology education. Project 2061 is to be commended for having the foresight to configure the conference in this way. As the variety of participants made very clear, any advance in research on technology education is likely to come about only if a stronger research infrastructure is built first, and that means enlarging the pool of people currently working in this area. This issue was well addressed during the conference, as summarized by Brigitte Valesey of International Technology Education Association in her post-conference reflections. Therefore, I will concentrate below on the suggestions for research needed in technology education, based on the work of our small group. Let me add that these suggestions were much influenced by the excellent presentations made during the conference.

The perspective I reflect here fits well with Alan Schoenfeld’s (1999) consideration of the synergy between theory and practice. The work suggested below generally falls into the upper right quadrant of Stokes’ two-dimensional representation of basic and applied research as reported by Schoenfeld (i.e., "use-inspired basic research") although some of it might also fit the lower right quadrant ("pure applied research"). Unfortunately, as we all recognized at the conference, theory undergirding the learning and teaching of technology education is rather underdeveloped. What we have mainly are general theories of cognition and instruction rather than theories specific to our field. In that respect, we are even worse off than researchers in science education—like me—who generally decry the state of their field compared to research in mathematics education.

Another limiting factor to identifying research needs in technology education is the lack of clarity about the knowledge, processes and skills to be mastered by students. There certainly is agreement on the "big ideas," such as design, trade-offs, systems, feed-back and control, redundancy, and cost/benefit considerations. But as Gary Benenson pointed out in his issue paper prepared for the conference, we have not identified in sufficient detail what we want children and adolescents to understand about these big ideas. What declarative knowledge of fact, principles and laws of technology should they know? What strategic knowledge of approaches and methods appropriate for given problems/situations do they need? What procedural knowledge of skills and processes to be employed in given solutions should they master?

Given the caveats of thin descriptions of what we want students to learn and an inadequate base of theory, let me plunge bravely ahead. Here is my version of high-priority research needs identified in our small group during the conference. I group these research needs into three areas.

High Priority Research Needs for Technology Education

  1. Tracking the development over time of concepts, general skills, procedural skills, social skills, and belief systems integral to technology as a distinct discipline and school subject.

The notion underlying this recommendation is that we know very little of how technological literacy develops, either during one school year or over a sequence of years. Research might take advantage of "natural experiments" involving curricular sequences as they currently exist in the schools. Another approach is to carry out "design experiments" where independent variables (e.g., the technology curriculum) are varied in specified ways to affect the dependent variable (i.e., student development of technological literacy as defined by a variety of outcome measures). Still a third approach is the use of quasi-experiments involving control groups and specific technology teaching sequences as the experimental treatment. Fourth, individual students or classes (provided they could be kept intact) might be selected to follow longitudinally.

Obviously, all of these approaches necessitate a reasonably detailed specification of just what the key concepts are that are critical to technological literacy, as noted above. They also require development of much better measures of technology understanding discussed in greater detail under the third recommendation below.

The general skills of interest in technology education are those needed in the design process and in trialing and testing. These too must be specified in greater detail in order to track their development as students proceed through sequences of technology teaching. Another set of general skills is more broadly applicable, and therefore identified in the literature in greater detail. These skills are encompassed by the term metacognition. They generally include planning one’s work, assembling necessary resources, checking approaches and potential solutions, revising one’s work—all deemed necessary for effective work in any field, certainly so in learning technology concepts and processes.

There are two other types of skills that must be developed in tandem with general skills. Procedural skills include such psychomotor skills as using tools, visualization and spatial skills, and deciphering and representational skills (reading and/or constructing diagrams, graphs and tables, blueprints and other pictorial representations, and written descriptions or instructions). Social skills include collaboration, working in teams and ability to take a variety of roles as a team member, group-decision-making, evaluation of group work and individual contributions.

Development of belief systems includes understanding that technology is an inclusionary enterprise. Therefore, technological literacy is of critical importance for all students who will live and work in the 21st century, regardless of their gender, ethnic or racial identity, country of origin, or English language fluency. Individuals from all these groups have the potential to contribute to the technological enterprise. Students also should develop interest and motivation to continue engaging, during their formal schooling and beyond, with technology—whether in active design and development during eventual careers, as a leisure interest, or as educated citizens able to consider the advantages and disadvantages of alternative technological systems and solutions that address societal wants.

  1. Connections among various disciplines closely allied to technology, skills needed for technological literacy, and individual backgrounds and talents.

Research questions about connections between disciplines should investigate what students are learning in mathematics, science, and language through their technology instruction, also what they bring from these and other school subjects to their technology learning. Cognitive laboratories and clinical interviews with students are one methodological approach that can be added to assessment of students’ knowledge and competence to address such questions of connectedness of learning across related disciplines.

Other types of connections that merit investigation are those between conceptual understanding and the types of skills—general, procedural, social, and attitudinal—briefly describeed above. Which concepts and facts can be learned apart from the development of these skills? Which are best learned through being linked to skill development, perhaps through design and making of technological artifacts? What are the linkages among the various types of skills? Are motivation and interest and inclusionary attitudes engendered through learning to work collaboratively and value the contributions one's team members? Can procedural skills best be learned on an individual basis or in tandem with social skills?

The third type of research need in the area of connections is in-depth investigation of what types of curricular and instructional strategies in technology education are most effective for students with given talents and backgrounds. For example, is Howard Gardner’s typology of multiple intelligences related to different styles of learning, and if so, what is the implication for technology instruction? Are there some teaching approaches more effective than others for students having given cultural beliefs that influence their attitudes toward technology? In formulating such research questions and designing relevant investigations, great care must be taken to avoid stereotypes such as all girls learn better through cooperative groups or all boys like construction and making things.

The third area of research perhaps falls into a hybrid category of use-inspired applied research.

  1. Development of assessments of student learning and competence that will probe for all the important goals of technology education.

Two types of assessment need to be addressed: classroom-based assessments and large-scale assessments. Both types of assessment require the development of tasks and accompanying scoring rubrics that have been sufficiently tested with a variety of students to be both valid and reliable. That is, they actually assess the concept(s) and skill(s) they purport to assess, they do so for all students for whom they have been designed, and the scoring rubrics can be used by a number of scorers without significant variations. In addition, for classroom-based assessments, tasks and evaluation methods must be developed that provide information not possible to obtain in large-scale assessments. This includes tasks probing students’ abilities to diagnose a problem and design several solution approaches—possibly combining technological, social, and economic components; tasks that require sustained work over time; and tasks that entail repeated trialing and revision. Such tasks are necessary to investigate the development over time of technology concepts and skills and the connections across disciplines and among skill types, the two kinds of research suggested above. Further, developing a pool of proven assessment tasks available for use by classroom teachers would go far to advance the introduction of technology education into many more schools.

Also ways must be developed to assess group work and individual contributions to a group’s achievement. Work on this type of assessment should be accompanied by the development of peer-evaluation and self-evaluation, so that external criteria for good work in technology become internalized by students as they move through school. One possible approach that would further such assessments is the design and development of class projects and demonstrations addressing a real problem in the school or community. Examples are reducing noise in the school cafeteria (which may have both technological and social solutions), cleaning up a local dumpsite or alley, developing more effective traffic patterns at a busy and dangerous intersection, and designing a park for an unused square of land. Projects must be carefully chosen to be suitable for given grade levels. The students should expect to present their suggested solutions to other students, school authorities, or community members, as appropriate, for evaluation and possible action. There is hardly any more meaningful way to assess what student have learned and are able to do as a result of their technology education.