Proceedings of the Second AAAS Technology Education Research Conference

Improving Technology Education Research on Cognition


Karen F. Zuga

The Ohio State University


Cognitive research about technology education has suffered from a lack of a coherent focus. Certainly, there are studies that have addressed cognition, yet analysts of technology education research have been unable to coordinate their findings in any meaningful way (Streichler, 1966; Dyrenfurth & Householder, 1979; McCrory, 1987; Zuga, 1994). There are several persistent problems facing technology educators that contribute to the inability to develop clear interpretations or generalizations of the relationship of cognition and technology education. If some of those problems are identified, then, perhaps, we can address them in order to devise directions and strategies for studying cognition in technology education.


What We Have From the Past


Reviews of research in technology education conducted during the last half of the 20th Century have cited numerous studies involving cognition (Streichler, 1966; Householder and Dyrenfurth, 1979; McCrory, 1987; Zuga, 1994). However, the reviewers have often concluded that the research they read represents no coherent direction and conclusions with regard to cognition and learning in technology education.


Even efforts such as the 1966 Industrial Arts Curriculum Project, which promoted institutional research and generated over 20 studies through project work and dissertations, with at least 16 of those studies addressing aspects of cognition, did not project a depth of work in any given aspect of cognition (Buffer, 1971). As Dyrenfurth and Householder (1979) concluded regarding research in technology education:


Many of the variables in the context of learning processes were researched. Yet, in the absence of some overall research scheme, one cannot identify which relationships are yet to be researched. The mere quantity of the individual variables reviewed to date, and the possibilities broached by their permutations, points out rather clearly that research efforts have just begun. (p. 69)


In truth, the options with regard to variables related to cognition and learning that are open to researchers are vast, leading to the present state of research about cognition in technology education as being broad, but not deep. Single studies with selected variables related to cognition and learning abound in the literature to this day, making it difficult to draw together enough studies to do a coordinated analysis. No unifying research problem(s) seem to direct the research effort, making it difficult to create a research focus.


Problems and Issues


The lack of a clear focus and coordinated grouping of cognition and learning studies in technology education may be due to several problems and issues facing the profession historically and today. Certainly, the size of the profession has been and remains a problem, but there are other problems and issues. The complacency that we have about doing or not doing research, an atheoretical stance on the part of the majority of the profession, and the resulting process orientation in technology education makes it difficult to create a research base.


Size. In 1993, Volk documented a diminishing trend with regard to teacher education and teacher educators in a look at enrollment trends in technology education. This reduction in force was no surprise to most of us who saw the number of our colleagues dwindling through program reduction and retirement. A follow-up in 1997 by Volk documented the continuing trend in reduction of enrollments and programs. There is no evidence that this situation has reversed. In fact, additional loss of technology education faculty and researchers has taken place through retirements with no replacements.


In addition, the number of technology education studies identified using similar data bases in the last review of research is significantly lower, about half of the studies reviewed in the previous review (McCrory, 1987; Zuga, 1994).The number of studies in the two reviews fell from 435 to 220 studies with each review covering research conducted during a seven year period. Conspiring to create such a dramatic reduction in research has to be the decline in the number of graduate students and faculty doing research. Those of us in graduate education have no reason to doubt these data as we see fewer and fewer graduate students interested in technology education. A reduction in the number of faculty and graduate students is creating a situation where the already small number of professionals available to do research is getting smaller.


Complacency. Given that the pool of potential researchers has grown smaller, there is another persistent problem that has faced technology educators. It is difficult to find the time, funding, and support to do research. Many technology educators who leave their graduate programs in search of faculty positions are confronted with the reality that there are only a handful of universities where research in technology education is encouraged and supported because there are so few positions that deal with technology education. Reading the job postings for technology education reveals that most universities advertise for faculty with technical expertise who can maintain and manage a technical teaching laboratory. Often, new faculty members are given positions that put them in contact with industrial technology students and not technology education majors. Volk (1993, 1997) documented the growth of industrial technology education and illustrated the way in which those programs have overtaken the teacher education programs that they have replaced. Faculty members often take on primarily teaching roles in industrial technology and become complacent in those roles, avoiding research on education due to the lack of time, support, and funding.

Even though technology educators have a small research base as noted by several analysts (Cajas, 2000; Lewis, 1999; Zuga, 1994), there is another aspect to their complacency. That is the tendency to make pronouncements and act on ideas without much research support (Petrina, 1993). Yet to be determined and supported by research evidence are the following: technological literacy, problem solving as the technological method, technology as a discipline, and other "truths" that seem to be held by the technology education community. Still, technology educators carry on with recommendations that would make one think that technological literacy, problem solving as the technological method, and technology as a discipline are universally accepted concepts outside of the field of technology education with research backing.


Some carrying on is good; the kind of carrying on that is done in order to field test and research ideas is necessary. However, carrying on in the absence of testing and research is wasteful of precious educational time and resources. Working with no data, other than collected opinions regarding prescriptive content for technology education, technology educators risk failure in the very goals that they wish to achieve-universal technology education. For example, on a topic related to how people can best learn about technology, how many modular technology education labs have been installed in schools based upon solid research which supports their effectiveness? Not many. In fact, this rapid conversion to modular education seems to be related more to preference than to effectiveness. It is reminiscent of the repetition and drill audio lingual laboratories installed in schools during the late nineteen sixties and ripped out of schools later as ideas of effective language instruction changed.

Atheoretical Nature. Without proper support to conduct research and with a dwindling base of research, it is all too easy to become atheoretical. The pragmatism inherent in technology, in itself, inhibits theory and the history of research in technology education has exhibited an atheoretical bent (Petrina, 1998). Many of us are just not interested in theoretical perspectives and rarely question the theory that supports the decisions we make, including research decisions. Ignoring the theory that frames our discussions about technology education leads to bias and the kind of error that analysts have noted in technology education research: flawed research design and methods (Streichler, 1966; Dyrenfurth and Householder, 1979; McCrory, 1987; Zuga, 1994; and Petrina, 1998).


With a lack of interest and an atheoretical nature inherent in technology conspiring to denigrate theory, it can disappear as the support for research. For example, problem solving becomes the catch phrase used in the field, rather than constructivism, cognition, or some other related learning theory. What kind of research is generated when "problem solving" is used as a key construct? The resulting studies tend to seek answers to such questions as these:

  • Is using problem solving better than traditional teaching?
  • What do students learn from problem solving?
  • Do students exposed to technology education problem solving activities do better on mathematics and science achievement tests?

Often, studies such as these are conducted in absence of a theoretical perspective with little discussion of the learning theories that underpin the act of using problem solving as a method of teaching.


Basing research about problem solving in a learning theory such as constructivism could result in a detailed look at how students construct their own reality and what concepts they are learning via technology education activities as they make sense of the world. And, there are technology educators from outside of the United States (e.g., McCormick, Murphy, and Hennessy, 1994) and cognitive scientists in the United States (Kolodner, 2000) who are doing studies and basing their research on the constructivist literature of our science and mathematics education colleagues and the theories of cognitive science.


Process Orientation. The new standards for technology education have signaled a move away from the detailed content identification of the era of curriculum reform in the 1960s and 1970s to more of a process orientation. Clearly, the new standards can be seen as an attempt to make contemporary visions of technology education teachable and to provide direction for classroom change, a possible compensation for the over reliance on content structures generated in the past. This is not, in itself, a bad idea, but now there are fewer concepts identified, 20 standards and 288 benchmarks related to those 20 standards; these are to be studied and learned over four levels of schooling (International Technology Education Association, 2000). This is a stark reduction in the content generated by the curriculum projects of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This reduction of content can inhibit research on cognition.


Without technology education content, how do we begin to study what students learn? Test to see if they are learning math and science? It is revealing that testing to determine success in science and mathematics is what some of the technology education module sales representatives do to sell their wares. It also implies that there is no valued content for technology education. Somehow, all of the work that had been done in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s has been lost on the current generation of technology educators who now create curriculum activities based upon a problem solving method and a theme such as biotechnology or construction. So, children make and test bridges or grow vegetables hydroponically and are tested not on technological concepts, but mathematical and scientific concepts. Gone are the short-lived days of basing activities on earthmoving in construction content such as:

Given an efficiency chart, equipment costs, and a graph to determine acres moved per hour:

a. Determine the amount of earth moved per hour.

b. Select the proper earthmoving equipment.

c. Determine equipment costs.
(Lux, Ray, and Hauenstein, 1970, p. 120)


This example represents detailed content about using technology. Perhaps, it is the lack of clear content that is inhibiting research about cognition in technology education.


Once they have determined that there are concepts of value which lead to a greater understanding of technology, the role of researchers in technology education should be to explore and determine the value of the concepts, how and when students internalize these concepts, and how the concepts fit together to create a big picture humans use and can benefit from the technology that they create. (Zuga, 1994, p.63)


Directions and Strategies


Based upon the previous discussion of problems and issues which continue to confound the ability to create a technology education research base, I have several recommendations. They can be grouped according to these themes: modifying and expanding research methods and efforts, adopting a theoretical framework, and re-engaging in content.


Research methods. If the current means of conducting research and the number of research efforts are insufficient, we need to rethink what we are doing and devise better ways to conduct research on technology education. Two major changes that could redirect the research effort come to mind, using qualitative research methods more frequently and encouraging teachers to become action researchers in the classroom.

Since quantitative research methods tend to focus on specific variables, it just may be a contributing cause of the scattered approach that has been prevalent and leads to breadth in the research base, rather than depth. Moreover, selecting a variable to research with quantitative means can often be like a shot in the dark with little or no prior research evidence to support that selection. More important, at this stage in the technology education research effort, would be to identify, from practice, variables that might be worth further study. By observing students as they engage in technology education activities researchers could begin to identify what key ideas and concepts students are using and learning and how they are learning them. This kind of research is taking place at present, usually abroad, but on a limited basis in the United States (Zuga, 1994). We need to do more studies with qualitative methods (Zuga, 1987; Hoepfl, 1997).


To address the dwindling numbers of technology education researchers, we need to expand the potential population of researchers. Expanding the population of researchers is best done by encouraging teachers to engage in action research or teacher inquiry in their classrooms and laboratories (Benenson, 2001). Working on problems of cognition that concern themselves and/or working with researchers from universities in research teams on programmatic problems could increase the amount of research that is done. Of course, this means that there must be an end to complacency and a vision that sees research as important to the health and growth of technology education. These are not new ideas. Certainly, teacher inquiry has been an important form of educational research for over 25 years and many innovative teacher education programs now stress action research projects for their students in order to acquaint and socialize them into their role as classroom researchers (Rogers and Tyndall, 2001, Fraenkel and Wallen, 2000, Holmes Group, 1990). All technology educators need to consider themselves as researchers with important contributions to be made to the literature.


Theoretical Perspectives. Theory plays multiple roles in research: it frames the research problem; the selection of variables; the methods used to conduct the study; and the methods used to analyze the results. Acting in absence of theory in any aspect of the research endeavor brings a bias to the research, one that has been noted and documented in technology education research (Petrina, 1998; Zuga, 1994).


We must adopt theory to guide us in our research endeavors. We need to understand and explain the theoretical frameworks which support the selection of the problem, variables chosen, selection of the study design and method, and the interpretations made. Contemporary research theories, theories of how to conduct science in education, support qualitative and teacher inquiry as we observe student behavior, interview for student knowledge and understanding, and interpret representations of what students believe about technology and how people create and use technology.


To do this we could take a page from constructivism (Lewis, Petrina, and Hill, 1998; Herschbach, 1998), using this theory to guide us to identify students' preconceptions, link those to related concepts, and identify learning activities that help to bridge student learning from preconceptions to subject matter conceptions in technology education.

We could also attempt to create our own learning theory with respect to technology education. Lewis, Petrina, and Hill suggested the modification of the concept of problem solving to "problem posing" by shifting focus from curriculum to instruction, or theoretically from method to situation (1998, p. 8). This shift allows us to think theoretically about how problem posing is uniquely a part of technology. This shift also opens new vistas for discussion and theorizing about technology education. Certainly, it is related to constructivism, but it extends that work beyond the purview of mathematics and science education.


Identifying Concepts. The study of cognition in technology education, what students are learning from studying technology, begs for the identification of key concepts and content. Even if the activity is a technological problem, there still must be underlying technological and/or technical concepts that are to be learned from participating in the activity. If we have thrown out the content structures from the era of curriculum reform in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, then, we must identify the content that we intend students to learn now. One way to identify these concepts is to use qualitative methods to observe student learning. This is being done abroad as teachers work with students who are attempting to solve technological problems in the laboratory setting (Järvinen and Hiltunen, 2000; McCormick, 1997). Another might be to identify the key concepts that teachers think they are teaching and then to determine, through evaluation, if students are learning and using those concepts. Yet another may be to implement standards based programs and identify, through multiple means of assessment, what students are learning and whether that content relates to the benchmarks. The idea is to try to identify what students are learning that is the unique value of technology education and what technology education contributes to the cognitive growth of people that is not contributed by teaching other subject matter and by other forms of education.


Once some direction is obtained through research on cognition, then, it will be possible to explore relationships between cognition and variables such as creativity, motivation, and multiple intelligences (Hill & Smith, 1998). Identifying key concepts from the study of students' learning enables researchers to use their research outcomes to promote further research, rather than basing research on a hunch.




Technology educators and researchers do have a history of trying to research cognition as it relates to technology education. However, the efforts have been criticized from within the profession as having too much breadth and not enough depth. There are several reasons for this state of affairs that are related to the size of the profession, as well as to the topic, technology, and the culture of the professionals. Changing this state of affairs may best be done by:

  • including teachers in research,
  • using qualitative methods,
  • adopting a theoretical framework for research design and problems,
  • creating theory for technology education,
  • identifying the constructs and concepts that students learn through technology education activities, and
  • assessing the effectiveness of technology education in addressing those key concepts.



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