Technology: What Does It Mean to You?

Flick, Lawrence B

Readers will have noticed that we welcomed back the Technology Reviews column in the last issue. The new column, edited by Randy Bell and Joe Garofalo from the University of Virginia, will provide readers with ideas and reflections on the nature and content of technology, especially as it applies to the teaching and learning science and mathematics.

When you hear or use the word technology, what do you think of? If you are like many educators we have talked to, the word connotes “computer” and associated concepts such as “telecommunication” and “software.” What does the word connote to our students? To them, technology generally means “entertainment,” as they offer reference to the alphabet soup of TV, VCR, MP3, CD, and DVD. As I sit here writing, however, I am aware of the building being constructed on campus just across the street, the contents of cement mixers rotating as they wait in line to pour the footings, the design of the phone key pad on my desk with a variety of options, and the materials in a microwave container holding my lunch. The impact of computers and entertainment are ubiquitous in our society, but students should have a broader concept of what constitutes technology and a deeper sense of how it affects their lives.

Teaching in the disciplines of science and mathematics has shared the spotlight with teaching about technology to the extent that technologies have aided the pursuit of scientific or mathematical understandings. Microscopes and calculators are of interest because they are tools that extend human capabilities and promote investigation and problem solving. Technologies play a much larger role in the lives of people, however, and are often the interface between scientific and mathematical principles and daily activity.

Loucks-Horsely and colleagues (1990) made this provocative observation over a decade ago: “Technology education is every bit as important as science education. Like science, a technological thread weaves through the very fiber of our live” (p. 28). Project 2061 of the Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) echoed this view through organizing Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy around three fundamental concepts: (a) the nature of science, (b) the nature of mathematics, and (c) the nature of technology. These three domains of knowledge are mutually supportive in learning the content of each domain. For example, it is important to science and math teachers that students appreciate the strengths and limitations of using computers and calculators when working on problems. However, the first two domains have received the lion’s share of instructional time, with the nature of technology playing a very restricted role.

Granted, there is a lot to teach. We have been charged by the dictum “less is more.” Teach fewer concepts in more depth. How are we to consider concepts in technology as a part of the curriculum? It is a matter of deciding what is most worth knowing. With the vast majority of our students following academic and career paths that do not involve science and mathematics as the major focus, we are constantly looking for ways to relate valuable science and mathematics concepts to the lives of students. Examining the nature of technology in our lives is one such avenue.

Incorporating technology concepts into science and mathematics classes allows teachers to emphasize the value of science and mathematics concepts to students who may not be considering postsecondary education. However, many of these students find their way to community colleges some years later seeking degrees and certification for which science and mathematical knowledge is critical. Further, this broad group of students encompasses those who are at risk of dropping out of school. Using concepts in technology is one way of linking student learning in science and mathematics to careers with good paying jobs. The National Dropout Prevention Center identifies this kind of linkage between a career and academics as one of the main ways to motivate high school students and help them graduate (Schargel & Smink, 2001). Exposure to instruction that is meaningfully connected with work enhances motivation, achievement, and social competence related to work (American Psychological Association, 1999).

The narrowness of colloquial usage that focuses on computer technologies is understandable. The explosion of digital technologies has created a revolution in science and mathematics education similar to the “hands-on” movement of the 1960s. The flexibility, speed, and storage capacity of computers is causing science and mathematics educators to redefine the meaning of hands-on experience and rethink the traditional processes of teaching (Flick & Bell, 2000).

A comprehensive account of what people should know about technology is described in Science for all Americans (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1991, see Figure 1). The AAAS perspective implies curricula and teaching strategies that lead students to understand technologies as human response to solving problems in their lives. One important set of problems is the scientific investigation of the natural world that takes advantage of the strong relationship between natural events and mathematics. However, many problems have immediate and compelling implications for students and their families. Virtually every significant problem in modern life has a technological component, for example, pollution, effective medical care, transportation, safe food and water, and safe, efficient construction. These types of problems are treated within the science, technology, and society approach, which has gained some prominence in teaching science. This approach is one way of examining the mutually supportive role that each domain plays for the other.

Nearly 10 years ago, the editor of this journal raised the following question in an editorial, “Technology: Are We Really Communicating?” Underbill (1994) explored the meaning of the term technology with the goal of pointing out that “TECHNOLOGY is a word which we think we define similarly when, in fact, this is not the case” (p. 393). His analysis is still relevant and useful for us today. He outlined three ways in which the term technology is used by science, math, and technology educators:

Teaching and Learning. People who use the word in this context appear to generally refer to hardware and software that facilitate and enhance the teaching and learning process.

Design and Production. People who use the word in this context appear to generally have two different directions: (a) some people have a fairly narrow context of teaching and learning, and (b) others have a much more global context, which includes manufacturing and other engineering-type contexts.

Quality of Life. People who use the word in this context appear to be referring to important social and cultural issues such as global warming, pollution, and depletion of natural resources (Underbill, 1994, p. 393).

These three contexts suggest that using the concept of technology can create productive interdisciplinary connections among the sciences, mathematics, engineering, and the social sciences. Teaching the concept of technology is not just the responsibility of science and mathematics.

More recently the International Technology Education Association (ITEA, 2000) issued Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology. This treatment of concepts of technology builds on and expands Project 2061’s treatment of the nature of technology (AAAS, 1993). The ITEA Standards offers the following answer to the question, What is technology?

Broadly speaking, technology is how people modify the natural world to suit their own purposes. From the Greek word techne, meaning art or artifice or craft, technology literally means the act of making or Grafting, but more generally it refers to the diverse collection of processes and knowledge that people use to extend human abilities and to satisfy human needs and wants. (p. 2)

The ITEA Standards do for technological literacy what AAAS Benchmarks do for scientific literacy. In five chapters, the ITEA authors stated outcomes of K-12 schooling that will make students into citizens with a high level of technological literacy.

Richter (1982) thought about technological literacy in terms of a means-end relationship. Richter defined technology as “tools and practices deliberately employed as natural (rather than supernatural) means for attaining clearly identifiable ends.” Like the ITEA Standards, this view includes processes, such as the practices of science and mathematics, as well as organizational structures like corporations and national constitutions. The focus on means-end analysis offers a way of getting students to evaluate technological innovation and its effects. This definition poses the questions, “What ends are desired, and what means were used to achieve them?” Understanding the nature of technology in the context of a means-end analysis helps emphasize that people attempting to meet human needs are at the heart of technological development. It often takes a lot of people working together to solve complex problems, assess risk, negotiate trade-offs, and determine cost-effectiveness.

Technology viewed as processes and organizations, and not just computers or gadgets, encompasses instructional design. Teachers are engaged in technological design when engaging students in carefully crafted activities designed to improve learning. Teaching students the educational purposes of the design is an important and challenging goal of standards-based teaching. This confers on technological design the same diversity of meanings that accompanies inquiry and problem solving. The science and mathematics education communities understand inquiry and problem solving as connoting both a set of learning outcomes and a whole category of instruction. Technology as set forth by Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology (ITEA, 2000) is a set of learning outcomes about the use and evaluation of technology.

When viewed as processes and knowledge, technology is a descriptor for the knowledge, procedures, and materials that go into designs for learning. Thinking of instructional design in this way promotes understanding of how people work together (in classrooms) to solve problems, assess risk, negotiate trade-offs, and determine cost-effectivenes of instructional designs. Central to achieving the higher level learning goals of science, mathematics, and technology standards is guiding students to an understanding of these ends and the relationship of particular means for attaining them. Under Richter’s (1982) analysis teachers are engaged in technological design when their educational means are crafted to meet clearly identifiable educational ends. Students tend to overemphasize the goal of task completion and underemphasize learning as the desired end. Reflection on the means-end relationship of instructional design takes students and teachers into personal evaluation of particular solutions to learning problems. This is a worthy activity and quite consistent with learning about the nature of technology.

When we ask our students what they think “technology” means, what would we like to them to say? Perhaps one form of the response might be “What I do when I use the processes, tools, and conventions of my culture to solve problems.”

To expand your thinking further about the potential of technology in science and mathematics instruction, read the Technology Reviews column on page 351.


American Psychological Association (1999). How psychology can contribute to the school-to-work opportunities movement: Report of the School-to-Work Task Force [Online]. Available:

Flick, L., & Bell, R. (2000). Preparing tomorrow’s teachers to use technology: Technology Guidelines for Science Educators. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Science Education [Online serial], 1(1). Available: http:// vol1/iss1/currentissues/science/articlel.html. Also partially reprinted in School Science and Mathematics, 100, 346-348.

International Technology Education Association. (2000). Standards for technological literacy: Content for the study of technology, Reston, VA: Author [Online]. Available:

Loucks-Horsely, S., Kapitan, R., Carlson, M D., Kuerbis, P. J., Clark, C. C., Meile, G. M., Sachse, T. P., & Walton, E. (1990). Elementary school science for the ’90s. Andover, MA: The NETWORK, Inc.

Richter, Maurice N. (1982). Technology and social complexity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Rutherford, F. J., & Ahlgren, A. (1991). Science for All Americans: Project 2061. New York,: Cambridge University Press [Online]. Available:

Schargel, F.P., & Smink, J. (2001). Strategies to help solve our school dropout problem. New York: Larchmont.

Lawrence B. Flick

Norman G. Lederman

Copyright School Science and Mathematics Association, Incorporated Nov 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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