Proceedings of the First AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Thoughts on Technology Education Research

Karen F. Zuga
The Ohio State University

After I reviewed seven years of technology education research and published my findings in 1994, I came to the conclusion that technology education researchers need to:

  • expand the use of a variety of research methods,
  • explore and demonstrate the inherent value of technology education,
  • research cognition and conceptual attainment with respect to technology education,
  • study the ideology and inherent biases within the content and practice of technology education in order to provide content and access for all students,
  • determine and exploit public attitudes and receptivity to technology and technology education,
  • develop and test curriculum materials in order to implement technology education for all students, and
  • identify and promote effective professional development (Zuga, p. 67, 1994).

After two more reviews of the technology education research literature (Zuga, 1995 & 1999), the database has changed so slightly that I have not changed my conclusions.

My attendance at the recent conference on technology education research, supported by Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has not changed my ideas about the research needs in technology education. It has, however, helped me to elaborate on them, and I would like to discuss these ideas here. Slightly changing the mix of ideas and not the intent, I will take up the issues of the research base and the methods we use, technology education and its inherent value, cognitive and conceptual attainment, curriculum and instructional materials, and professional development.

Research Base and Methods

I will strictly define technology education research as research which is about the teaching of technology as a school subject and as a subject for teacher education generally published in the few journals controlled by the profession of technology educators. This definition is limiting on purpose, and that purpose is to identify what we know about technology education, not related fields. The research base of technology education in the United States is limited and weak and that has been a major insight of my efforts reviewing the research literature.

Some of the technology education community might seek to resolve this weakness by being inclusive of research literature related to technology education. This is an excellent strategy when conducting a study. Research which relates to a particular topic of study from a variety of fields and disciplines should be included in research on any given topic within technology education. However, in a review of the research within a field such as technology education, that review should be limited to research about that field of study, eliminating related research from education, vocational education, industrial training, psychology, science, engineering, mathematics, etc. This will allow an accurate analysis of the size and nature of the research database for the specific field of technology education. It is important to take a narrow view when critically reviewing the research of technology education, otherwise we cannot begin to assess the state of the research in the field. Dilution at this stage is not valuable. Avoiding dilution helps readers to know and to understand the research database in technology education.

One of the reasons the technology education research database is small and continually shrinking is the gradual diminishing of scholars directly concerned with technology education (Sanders, 1999). If technology education had a large and diverse community of scholars who were solely dedicated to it, then that community could address the limited content and method problems in the existing research database. Given the number of researchers who say that most of their professional emphasis is on technology education, it is no wonder that the research in the field is limited in scope and in method. There is far more research to be done than existing technology educators can accomplish. Therefore, it is with gratitude that we accept the forays into technology education research by our colleagues interested in cognitive science, science education, and other fields of study; every effort helps us to learn more about ourselves. However, we cannot rely upon the efforts of researchers primarily interested in cognitive science, science education, and other fields. They have research foci emanating from their primary interests, not technology education. We must have researchers committed to a lifelong study of technology education.

Knowing that research in technology education is dwindling should provide technology education researchers with opportunities for research, and, in some cases, it has. For example, Volk (1993) noticed the dwindling numbers of colleagues in his community of scholars, studied the reduction in enrollment in university technology education programs over time, and concluded that the dilution of technology education with the industrial technology community of scholars has not helped maintain technology education. Likewise, diluting the research base of technology education with too many studies from other fields and disciplines may not help in the understanding of technology education.

Having a larger community of scholars interested in technology education would increase the likelihood that a variety of methods will be used to study a wide range of topics. There is an example of this in the international community of technology education scholars and researchers. After the political gains of support for technology education and the subsequent growth in technology education programs and researchers in Great Britain and other parts of Europe, we are beginning to see that international research is bearing intellectual fruit with respect to technology education. Moreover, the methods used in international studies tend to be more diverse with more studies conducted using qualitative methods. Technology educators in the United States ought to look to Europe for both a growing research database on technology education and examples of alternative research methods.

The Inherent Value of Technology Education

Some of the European support for technology education rests upon a research effort that was designed to identify and promote the inherent value of technology education. Research initiated in the Netherlands (Streumer, 1988; Streumer and Doonekamp, 1988) became a means of providing evidence to the government of the Netherlands that technology education was essential (J. Raat, personal communication, March, 1996). This research was done by the international group, Pupils' Attitudes Toward Technology (PATT), which continues to support quality research in technology education through the PATT Conference and continues to add to technology education knowledge.

Corresponding efforts are needed in the United States. There has been only one attempt to replicate the PATT studies (Bame, Dugger, and deVries, 1993). These studies and others related to the value inherent in technology education need to be done on a state-by-state basis in order to provide the basis for a convincing educational argument in support of the study of technology education in schools. Without a belief in the value of technology education and the support of the community, a critical mass of people and opportunities for research cannot be assembled.

Related to the inherent value of technology education are the belief systems of the people who support its study. Only a few studies have been done to explain (Lakes, 1988) and assess (Bebee and Blankenbaker, 1987) public attitudes about technology education. More needs to be known about what is valued about technology and how it might be perceived as a necessary part of a child's education.

One of the topics not discussed at the recent conference on technology education research was the value of technology education to students and their curriculum. There was no evidence of estimates of what most children might know about technology, and there were only a few reports (most of them from other countries) of what children might be learning from their experiences in selected technology education classes (Kolodner, 1999; McCormick, 1999; Rowell, 1999). In an era of accountability, we do not have fundamental information to take to educational decision makers in support of the study of technology education.

Cognitive and Conceptual Attainment

When researching what children might be learning as a result of studying technology, we track their cognitive and conceptual attainment. The studies presented at the conference by Kolodner (1999), McCormick (1999), and Rowell (1999) indicate that researchers are beginning to get a sense of what kinds of mental constructions are being formed as a result of studying technology and performing technological processes in order to create artifacts. However, most of the research on children's mental constructions of technology are being done out of this country.

Technology education researchers need to borrow theory and research techniques not only from their European counterparts, but also from their American colleagues in science and mathematics education. Constructivist-based research about how children make sense of technology and the act of creating technology is a necessary next step in technology education research. Some technology educators (Lewis, Hill, and Petrina, 1998; Herschbach, 1998) have made this case in recent articles, but we have yet to see substantial and significant research appearing in the American technology education journals. Becoming knowledgeable about the theory of constructivism as applied in science and mathematics should provide technology education researchers with a host of ways in which constructivism can be studied in technology education.

While constructivism will help to provide a theoretical framework for research about children's cognitive development as a result of technology education, almost missing from contemporary research is information about children's attitudes and psychomotor development. Only three recent dissertations come to mind, one on children's use of tools (Trautman, 1989), another partially on children's curiosity (Brusic, 1991), and a third on at-risk students' beliefs (Cardon, 1999) after taking technology education. Missing from contemporary research is a stream of research on psychomotor development in young children and mentally- and physically-challenged children, conducted in the 1960's and 1970's, by those long departed members of the technology education community interested in the education of elementary school children and the mentally and physically challenged. Research about attitudes as a result of technology education experience has never fully developed.

Curriculum and Instructional Materials

While most of the research in technology education has been related to determining curriculum and studying its status, what we don't know is what children are learning as a result of our curriculum and instructional materials and activities. There is little or no research which connects what is done in the technology education laboratory to what children are learning or whether they have learned what the teacher intended them to learn.

At the conference on technology education research, Kolodner (1999) provided information about how cognitive scientists are creating environments and instructional activities in order to study what children are learning in technology education and elsewhere. It is introductory research like this which could enable teachers to diagnose the intended goals and the educational value of technology education instructional materials, and plan a more meaningful curriculum. Helping teachers to plan a more rigorous curriculum leads to the need for better ways of preparing and informing teachers about technology education.

Professional Development

Being able to plan and implement a coherent and rigorous technology education curriculum should be the main concern of professional development research. Current studies in technology education and technology teacher professional development tend to ask how many developmental activities teachers participate in, and how frequently (Ellis, 1989; Tracey, 1993), or how comfortable they are with contemporary conceptualizations of curriculum (Linnell, 1992; Rogers, 1992; Rogers and Mahler, 1992). Rarely, if ever, do researchers go into technology education classrooms and laboratories to determine what teachers believe they are doing and if students believe what teachers believe.

What we do not know on this topic is startling. We do not know what goals most technology teachers hold with respect to the purpose of their subject. We do not know if technology teachers plan instructional activities that reflect their goals. We do not know if technology teachers are meeting their goals through their instruction. We do not know what the optimal activities are for technology education. The list could continue, but the point has been made. There is much to do.


Technology education research does not suffer from a lack of questions, but from a lack of people willing to ask the difficult questions and study them in a rigorous manner. There are occasional attempts to do this, but a sustained and consistent effort is not visible in the profession and may not, in the present state of the profession, be able to be sustained.

As a beginning, I believe we ought to focus our research in technology education on the methods we use, technology education and its inherent value, cognitive and conceptual attainment, curriculum and instructional materials, and professional development.


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