Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Journeys and Destinations in Technology Education: Implications for Research

Kenneth Welty
University of Wisconsin-Stout

How do students learn technology? It is a basic question that addresses the essence of our enterprise. Thus, it is not surprising that the American Association for the Advancement of Science is looking to researchers in education to address this fundamental question. Despite its simplicity, it is a mysterious question that clearly eludes a simple answer. Furthermore, scholars could devote their careers to answering such a question and, despite their efforts and dedication, they would only be able to provide partial answers. Addressing the subtleties of this seemingly simple question will require a significant commitment of time and talent from the education community.

Despite the elusive and perplexing nature of this question, it is a question that needs to be answered to provide educators the knowledge that they need to better understand the nature of students. Answers to this fundamental question could help teachers inform their practice as classroom practitioners, assess the impact of their curriculum and instruction, and ultimately, facilitate technological literacy. Unfortunately, according to some observers, there is very little research about how students learn important concepts in technology (AAAS, 1993; Foster, 1992; Waetjen, 1995; Zuga, 1994). For the study of technology to progress as a viable and integral part of the general education curriculum, there is an urgent need to underpin our practice with both qualitative and quantitative evidence regarding the ways in which students come to understand technology.

The following narrative will describe two paths that researchers can take in the pursuit of new knowledge about the teaching and learning processes in technology education. One option is to investigate what can be portrayed as adventures in technology education, and the other option is to study what the author likes to refer to as journeys in technology education.

The following reflections are an attempt to characterize the current climate for conducting research in technology education from one technology teacher educator's perspective. Due to the shortcomings of our research base, the following thoughts are based on interactions with classroom practitioners while supervising student teachers, facilitating professional development activities, and conducting graduate classes.

Adventures in Technology Education

Common sense would suggest that the search for insights into how students learn technology would involve visiting classrooms and laboratories that are dedicated to the study of technology. From this location, one can observe students engaged in technology education, gather objective data about the teaching and learning process, and hopefully, uncover the practices that appear to be effective in building meaningful understandings under the scrutiny of evidence.

Based on this author's experience, visiting technology education classrooms and laboratories presents researchers abundant opportunities to observe students drawing plans, using tools, and processing materials under the auspices of technology education. Questions posed to classroom teachers about the content that students are studying often evoke references to things like producing projects, making CO2 cars, building balsa wood bridges, designing mousetrap cars, or testing egg drop containers. Probes into the nature of the teaching and learning process often incite testimonials about the merits of hands-on activities, solving real-world problems, learning how to work in a team, and developing creative thinking skills. Unfortunately, specific details about the concepts and skills that students are studying are extremely rare. In short, most of the students that this author has had the opportunity to observe over the last 10 years were engaged in adventures in technology education.

For the purposes of this discussion, adventures in technology education are exciting trips into the unknown without any specific expectations other than having a rich and engaging experience. For a learning activity to be a genuine adventure, it needs to be relatively open-ended in order to provide students the greatest latitude for discovering something new and unexpected. Burdening the activity with specific concepts and skills in the interest of achieving predetermined outcomes adds a formality to the experience that many practitioners believe tempers the quality of the adventure.

Teachers employing this popular approach to the study of technology strive to engage their students in activities that conventional wisdom suggests will be meaningful in the lives of students. Due to the richness of these learning activities, it is easy for teachers and observers alike to believe that the students will take something valuable away from these experiences. For some, the potential for students to have a new and enjoyable experience is more than enough justification for the time, energy, and resources needed to implement these activities. For others, a more tangible outcome is the students' ability to replicate the experience if a need should arise. Lastly, others defend these learning activities by sharing anecdotes and critical incidents that suggest these experiences had positive effects on students in the past. In the final analysis, determining the merits of the students' experiences requires hindsight.

The ambiguity surrounding this popular approach to technology education presents researchers in technology education abundant opportunities for scholarly inquiry. In this context, researchers could conduct studies to uncover and define what the students are actually learning from these activities. Unfortunately, the results of these inquiries are likely to uncover concepts and skills that are not essential to technological literacy. Therefore, a large number of studies would have to be conducted before enough useful information could be gathered to inform our efforts to facilitate technological literacy for all students.

Journeys in Technology Education

Although we have a body of research at our disposal, it is not particularly useful in informing the design, implementation, and assessment of curriculum and instruction for all students in the context of technological literacy (AAAS, 1983; DeVore, 1983; Johnson, 1993; Zuga, 1994). An alternative, and potentially more efficient approach would be to initiate both classroom practice and scholarly inquiry with important concepts and skills that both scholars and teachers alike have endorsed as an integral part of becoming technologically literate. This would put both teachers and research on the same path toward understanding how students learn technology. In short, both teachers and researchers would be on the same journey.

For the purposes of this discussion, a journey is an informed trip that is designed to reach a specific and predetermined destination. Unlike an adventure, a journey is a trek with a specific destination in mind. The destination in this analogy is a valuable piece of new knowledge that is thought to be essential to technological literacy. This new knowledge could be in the form of a profound understanding or an essential capability. The purpose of the journey is to engage students in activities that encourage and support the construction of new knowledge in ways that are personally meaningful to the student. Therefore, the emphasis in this paradigm is on how students learn technology in contrast to how teachers teach technology.

Adventures and Journeys in Technology Education: A Comparison

Adventures in Technology Education

Journeys in Technology Education

  • Begins with a learning activity that educators believe will be fruitful and meaningful in the lives of students.
  • Begins with an understanding or ability that educators want students to possess upon completion of the learning experience.
  • The focus is on teaching technology.
  • The focus is on learning technology.
  • The role of research is to validate the choice of pedagogy.
  • The role of research is to inform the use of pedagogy.
  • The independent variables are the teaching strategies that teachers want to use to teach technology and dependant variables are the concepts and skills that students take away from their learning experiences.
  • The independent variables are profound understandings and essential skills in technology and the dependant variables are the factors and teaching strategies that contributed to the learning process.

  • The assumption is engaging students in rich learning activities will result in meaningful learning that is yet to be determined.
  • The assumption is students can learn important ideas about technology by means of teaching strategies that are yet to be determined.

Standards as Destinations

How do students learn technology? Before we can answer this question we need to know the answer to a different question. What is the technology that we want students to learn? Fortunately, several initiatives have provided teachers and researchers standards for the study of technology (AAAS, 1993; ITEA, 2000; National Research Council, 1996). Although they are not perfect, these standards do provide scholars as well as practitioners an operational taxonomy of desirable outcomes (or destinations) for the study of technology.

The Path Less Traveled

One of the more pressing issues facing the technology education community is a lack of a rich and cohesive research base for the study of technology (AAAS, 1998; Wicklein, 1993, Zuga 1995). One path that our research agenda can follow is to hold our teaching methodologies constant and study what students actually learn from the learning activities that have become engrained into our culture. Addressing the question of how children learn technology will require evidence that shows a relationship between our time-honored practices and the concepts and skills that we equate with technological literacy. Common sense would suggest this approach would produce mixed results. Although uncovering practices that do not make significant contributions to technological literacy would be valuable discoveries, this line of inquiry might not be the most efficient research agenda for facilitating the understandings outlined in the standards.

A path less traveled would be to engage in a research agenda that holds our standards constant and searches out the strategies that encourage and support the development of these profound ideas and essential skills. This will require initiating our teaching and research with the understandings that we have equated with being technologically literate.

Closing Comments

Research in technology education can play an important role in defining the relationship between teaching technology and understanding technology. In the past it was difficult to focus our research needs due to the lack of a common frame of reference. The standards that have been recently developed for the study of technology have provided researchers a new foundation on which to launch disciplined inquiry. As we move into the 21st century, we could rally around a simple banner that challenges both teachers and researchers to answer the question, "How do students learn technology?" The results of these studies can inform teacher education and ultimately, classroom practice so that the goals outlined in the standards can become a reality in the minds of a generation preparing for life in a technologically sophisticated society.


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