Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Technology Education Research: Focusing on the Learner

Brigitte G. Valesey
International Technology Education Association

This conference confirmed what is essential—that the learner needs to be the focus for technology education research. Models for learning and teaching reflect only best guesses about how to deliver technology education so students learn about technology effectively. While focused in theory on students, in fact research has yet to fully reveal the complexities of how students learn about technology and the extent to which they develop technological literacy. Assessment measures and research instruments have yet to be developed to indicate a student’s understanding about technology.

More and different types of research are needed to increase our understanding of how students learn, how teachers can effectively deliver technology education, and the value of technology education to individuals and society. The current view afforded by research is vague and limited in scope. James Rutherford, in his keynote address, cited a lack of tradition in research in technology and a need to establish a research agenda with clear learning goals and priorities. Karen Zuga, summarizing technology education research between 1987 and 1998, found that research topics focused largely on curriculum (49%) and profession/instruction (18%), with few studies dealing with teaching and learning effectiveness. Also, teacher educators were studied almost twice as often as student populations. There were few studies dealing with cognition and constructivism, public attitudes about technology education, integration, diversity, and effectiveness of technology education.

Critical and interpretative approaches to methodology are needed to complement the positivistic research that has predominated. Alternatives to traditional quantitative methodologies—in the form of classroom observations, naturalistic studies, case studies, and action research—will provide a more holistic picture of how students actually learn. "How we view our work, or the nature of the field will help dictate methodology", says Theodore Lewis of the social component of research. Janet Kolodner presented design experiments research, i.e. engineering the environment to promote learning and then observing what happens in that environment. This methodology addresses research questions such as, what conceptions about technology do they have and when? How do these conceptions develop? What activities promote learning? What teacher practices make a difference? Future research must include methodologies and corresponding instruments that capture a multifaceted view of how students learn and effective ways to teach.

Classroom research provides key insights about how students construct meaning and develop understanding. Patricia Rowell studied elementary students to find out what constructions children were capable of. Her elementary case study examples provided an exciting glimpse into how students approach design activities, how they might apply science and math, or how students articulate what they've learned. Robert McCormick’s research efforts to capture student thinking during a design and technology activity gave us insights concerning cognitive processes and how students approach technology problems. Gary Benenson observed student behaviors and recorded thinking processes during technology activities to determine how children develop their concepts of technology. Their studies provide models for interpretive research that reveal ways students learn about technology. Similar research needs to be done to develop a more comprehensive view of what actually happens in the classroom.

What we clearly need is an expanded community of researchers with different backgrounds, yet a common interest—the study of technology and students who study technology. This community should include educators from fields such as engineering, science, and mathematics, as well as classroom teachers and their students. While "we don’t want to impose paradigms on each other", as James LaPorte stated, research done by and with many different groups will yield a clearer vision of technology education and what students can really learn and how or when they may learn best. Mark Sanders suggested several strategies for developing a research culture including developing a web-based research forum; attracting science, engineering, and other educators to doctoral programs; encouraging undergraduates to do research; engaging children in research; and involving teachers in collaborative efforts.

This conference reconceptualized research in technology education, stressing a need for clear direction, more rigorous research, newer methodologies, and a broader continuum of research topics. There are hosts of research issues—theoretical, empirical, methodological—to be studied. Researchers across educational fields need to address such topics as student cognition and metacognition, the nature and role of conceptual knowledge and actual practice, teaching effectiveness, developmental issues, and assessment as it relates to the study of technology. What was clear to conference participants is that research on technological literacy, i.e. K-12 technology education, must refocus on the learner and how he or she develops an understanding of technology.

Theodore Lewis (1999) has written, "Research is fundamentally a creative enterprise…." This is an excellent time for researchers to be creative and to engage in meaningful efforts that have collective significance. This conference initiated a creative dialogue and established an opportunity for action. It is time to develop a research culture that embraces broader communities with a common interest in technology and how students learn it, and to sustain the momentum needed to take the issues and directions explored at this conference and advance them further.


Lewis, T. (Spring 1999). Research in technology education: some areas of need. In Journal of Technology Education,10 (2), 1-17.