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Technology Education - Philosophies, Approaches to Curriculum, Trends and Prospects

field content american arts

Technology education (TE) in the United States is a field of elementary and secondary education that until the 1980s was commonly referred to as industrial arts. Its focus is on promoting technological knowledge and skills.

The notion of teaching children about contemporary technology and industry has been a recurring international theme throughout the history of education. Modern American technology education took form in the first quarter of the twentieth century, mainly in the Northeast. In 1923 Frederick Bonser and Lois Coffey Mossman laid out the view of industrial arts as a general school subject for boys and girls in pre-secondary education. As a subject, industrial arts was a branch of the social studies, with content focused primarily on food, clothing, and shelter. As a method of teaching, it provided a constructional basis for curricular integration. Thus Bonser and Mossman, in the larger context of the Activity and Progressive-education movements of the time, attempted to subsume traditional home economics and manual training topics into a participatory curriculum that went beyond tool manipulation to include larger social issues.

Ostensibly, the Bonser and Mossman conception of industrial arts guided most American industrial arts teacher preparation, as well as the philosophy of the predominant professional organization, the American Industrial Arts Association (AIAA), from the late 1930s until the 1980s, when the AIAA changed its name to the International Technology Education Association (ITEA). But most leaders and practitioners did not observe the progressive ideals of Bonser and Mossman and instead focused mainly on educating high school boys in traditional manual-training subjects such as woodworking, metalworking, and drawing. As recently as the late 1990s, these three subjects were still the most popular technology education courses in the United States. Thus in describing TE one must differentiate between theory and practice.


While the purpose of technology education is often encapsulated as "learning by doing," the relative importance of knowledge and activity is a subject of debate. Specifically, most technology teacher educators and theoreticians regard the primary purpose of technology education either as content, method, or process.

The content philosophy views technology education as an academic discipline with a well-defined taxonomy of knowledge related to industries and technologies such as manufacturing, construction, communication, and transportation. That technology is an important subject of study for children at all grade levels is the essential precept of "Standards for Technology Education: Content for the Study of Technology" (2000), a multimillion dollar ITEA project funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Proponents of the method philosophy see technology education primarily as a means of teaching the subjects of the K–12 curriculum. In this view, technology education takes the form of constructional activities in which children manipulate tools and materials to create products and, in so doing, learn about social studies, science, and other subjects. Advocates of the method philosophy put secondary focus on technological content, emphasizing that any content may be taught via technology education. This conception is most common in the elementary grades.

In the process philosophy, teaching technology education is tantamount to fostering competence in problem solving and solution design. The content of technology education in the process view is any and all knowledge needed to design solutions to problems, and technology activities constitute a context for the entire K—12 curriculum. This philosophy has re-emerged in U.S. technology education literature and teacher education due to its popularity abroad, especially in Anglophone Europe and Australia.

Because it is espoused by the major U.S. technology teachers' organizations and enjoys the financial support of well-known U.S. government agencies, the view of technology education as a content area dominates teacher education, textbooks, curriculum, funded projects, and doctoral research. Scholarly discourse also favors this view, but to a smaller extent. The Standards for Technology Education represents an attempt by the field to position itself as an academic subject by emulating the efforts of educators in the mathematics, science, language arts, social studies, and fine arts fields in the standards movement of the 1980s and 1990s. It is also the most comprehensive effort in the field's history to arrive at consensus as to the nature of American technology education.

Approaches to Curriculum

It is clear that in classroom practice, the most common approaches to technology education do not correspond neatly to these three philosophies. Surveys revealing that high school technology course offerings closely resemble those from the early twentieth century have been a source of consternation to leaders in the field since the 1960s, yet schools and teachers in the United States have been very slow to shift curricula from traditional industrial courses, such as woodworking and drafting, to technological studies like manufacturing or communications. The most prominent leaders in the field have advocated this change in focus since the late 1940s. Their primary success has been in the nearly nationwide name change from industrial arts to technology education, accomplished in the 1980s and 1990s.

A 1999 survey found that the four most frequently taught middle and high school technology courses had not changed since 1963: general technology education, drafting, woodworking, and metalworking. Other popular courses include automotives, architectural drafting, communications, electricity/electronics, and manufacturing.

In American elementary schools, technology education is rare. Where it is included in the curriculum, it is usually the responsibility of the classroom teacher rather than of a technology specialist. In other nations, however, elementary-school technology education has been a growing area since the 1970s.

In the 1980s and 1990s professorial exchange programs, international tours, and an notable increase in foreign authors publishing in American journals led to a growing interest in overseas curricula, especially process-oriented technology education from the United Kingdom, where design and technology is compulsory at the primary level. The first American critiques of late-twentieth-century British design and technology deemed it intriguing but inferior in content depth and tool and machine instruction. But when it became clear that the primarily pre-secondary British model was being compared to traditional high school courses in the United States, design and technology began to be presented as a supplement to, and in some cases a replacement for, the prevailing American curriculum.

Trends and Prospects

As suggested by the titles of the most frequent technology-education offerings in American high schools, the field has always been associated with vocationalism. The connection is downplayed or rejected in many teacher-education curricula, but in practice, educators both within and without the field often see technology education as a branch of vocational education. In fact, the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), by far the largest association for vocational educators in the United States, has maintained a Technology Education (or Industrial Arts) Division since the 1940s. Especially in the western United States, practitioners make very little distinction between career-oriented technology education, supported by the ACTE, and the view of technology education as a general subject matter, advocated by the ITEA. As the career and technical education field continues to style itself as appropriate for all students, the distinction may disappear for all but the most doctrinaire technology educators.

Another challenge which may prove central to the field's future is its failure to identify unique ways in which technology education contributes to K—12 education. Much of its nonvocational content would appear to the lay person to overlap significantly with social studies and science education, as technological content is already included in each of these fields' standards documents. Neither is technology education the sole provider of problem-solving and design skills, two of its most frequently cited benefits to children. Further, research has not demonstrated that technology education practice is efficient as a method of teaching other school subjects.

In addition to these identity concerns, the field has two significant demographic obstacles to its continued growth. First, most states in the United States are experiencing severe shortages of technology teachers, and both the number of institutions preparing technology teachers and the number of pre-service technology teachers graduated each year have been declining since the 1970s. The second problem is more systemic and has existed as long as technology education has: the field's inability to shed its image as an antiquated program intended primarily for boys. Research has confirmed that technology teachers are primarily conservative and overwhelmingly male Caucasians, and that boys elect technology classes much more frequently than girls do. There is also concern that technology education offerings are being reduced or eliminated in urban areas much more often than in suburban areas. Thus technology education does not always seem to be "for all Americans" (Scott, p.195).

But the ideals of technology education are more democratic than those of any field with its level of implementation in American schools. Its potential as a means of achieving curricular integration, student-centered learning, and the authentic assessment of critical thinking is considerable, and technology teacher education and curriculum are designed to deliver these very goals.


BONSER, FREDERICK GORDON, and MOSSMAN, LOIS COFFEY. 1923. Industrial Arts for Elementary Schools. New York: Macmillan.

LEWIS, THEODORE. 1998. Toward the 21st Century: Retrospect, Prospect for American Vocationalism. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.

MALEY, DONALD. 1973. The Maryland Plan. New York: Bruce.

MOSSMAN, LOIS COFFEY. 1929. Principles of Teaching and Learning in the Elementary School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

PETRINA, STEPHEN. 2000. "The Politics of Technological Literacy." International Journal of Design and Technology Education 10 (2):181–206.

SCOTT, MICHAEL L. 2000. "Technology for Some Americans?" In Technology Education for the Twenty-First Century: Forty-Ninth Yearbook of the Council on Technology Teacher Education, ed. G. Eugene Martin. New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

TECHNOLOGY FOR ALL AMERICANS. 2000. Standards for Technology Education: Content for the Study of Technology. Reston, VA: International Technology Education Association.

ZUGA, KAREN F. 1994. Implementing Technology Education : A Review and Synthesis of the Research Literature. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.


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